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An Incredible Tale of Squash Strength

My Lakota squash

My Lakota squash

Turkey, squash and pumpkin pie are the Thanksgiving triumvirate. And we will give thanks for all three, as well as the oyster stuffing, creamed onions and all the rest. A groaning board indeed to stand in for all the blessings the year has brought us.

Thanksgiving has been a tradition from our founding, but the harvest has been marked with festivities probably since the invention of agriculture. Squash was probably a part of our first thanksgiving meal because we know the Narragansett natives called this vegetable ‘askutasquash’ which means raw or uncooked. The Pilgrims shortened the name and before long were cooking and sweetening squash with maple syrup.

But what else do we know about squash?

We know squash and pumpkin belong to the same Cucurbita family.

We also know Cucurbita pepo is the family of what we call summer squash and it is probably the oldest squash family going back to 6000 BC. These squash originated in northern Mexico and in the warmer sections of North America. Cucurbita moschata developed later, around 3000 BC in Central and northern South America. These winter squash varieties spread throughout South America before Columbus landed. Their great benefit was that they could be stored for several months without rotting or losing flavor.

Cucurbita maxima includes pumpkins and originated in the valleys of the Andes mountains of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. They remained very local and did not travel much beyond that area until the Spaniards arrived.

We know that New World plants including squash made their way to the Old World, where farmers and breeders multiplied the few varieties into many. Squash obviously did better in the warmer climates of Spain and Italy. We even know that squash was being eaten in Japan by 1600.

We know that Hubbard squash, butternut squash and pumpkins are among the very few varieties of squash to be found in the supermarket. If we go to the farmer’s market we may find a few other varieties that are less familiar. If you join the Seed Savers Exchange you can help preserve the many heirloom varieties of these common vegetables. I took a look into my Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds to get an idea of how many heirloom squash varieties there are. Listed are 30 varieties of summer squash and 96 varieties of winter squash and pumpkins.

We know squash are easy to grow. Some of these heirlooms would be fun to grow just because they are so beautiful or so weird looking. Iran (C. maxima) is billed as one of the most beautiful squash “with a unique foam green rind that is mottled in soft peachy orange.” The name Red Warty Thing gives you a good idea of the squash’s appearance.  For myself I harvested Lakota squash this year, a variety grown by the Lakota Sioux.

One old variety, the Boston Marrow, has a local history. In 1831 (or thereabouts) Mr J. M. Ives of Salem got seeds from a friend in Northampton who got them from a friend in Buffalo “after a tribe of Native Americans traveled through the area distributing seed.” These big orange-red squashes were the most popular commercially grown squash in our region for 150 years. Currently, the Boston Marrow has a place in the Slow Foods ‘Ark of Taste’ for its superior flavor.

The big Hubbard squash originated in Chile or Argentina and came to North America via the West Indies. It is thought that Captain Knott Martin, a North American seaman who traveled those routes to South America and the Caribbean, brought seeds to Marblehead, Massachusetts. We know that James J.H. Gregory, farmer and seedsman, was selling those seeds in 1844. We have been eating squash in Massachusettss for a long time.

So we know a fair amount about squash, but do we know how strong it is?

1875 Squash in Cage at the University of Massachusetts

1875 Squash in Cage at the University of Massachusetts

In 1875 William Smith Clark, President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and a few of the faculty members wondered about this. They knew that tree roots could disrupt stone walkways. They also knew that even a bean seed had to “lift comparatively heavy masses of soil as it germinated.” But they did not know if anyone had ever tried to measure the expansive force of a growing plant. They determined to design their own experiment and President Clark wrote it up in the Annual Report for 1875.

They got seeds of the mammoth yellow Chili squash from J.H. Gregory in Marblehead and planted them in a specially prepared bed in Durfee Conservatory. The bed, 50 feet long, and four feet wide was filled to a depth of six inches with good soil and rich compost. The squash germinated and grew vigorously.

The Report states, “Never before has the development of a squash been observed more critically or by a greater number of people. Many thousands of men, women, and children from all classes of society, of various nationalities and from all quarters of the earth visited it.”

In addition to measuring the strength of the squash they measured the roots. The description of that process is long but they determined that after they counted every fine root there were about 15 miles of roots. They also estimated that they were growing at the rate of 1000 feet a day.

Then they devised a kind of metal basket or cage to hold the squash to which they arranged a fulcrum and lever that was changed regularly to hold increasing weights. The squash was planted on July 1 and on August 21 it lifted 60 pounds. On the 24th it lifted 162 pounds. By September 11 it lifted 1100 pounds and at the end of September it lifted 2015 pounds. The final measurement on October 31 was 5000 pounds!  All supported by a squash that weighed 47 pounds.

I hope that this year you will all enjoy your Thanksgiving squash with a new appreciation for its vitality and strength.

Between the Rows    November 22, 2014

 

 

Dear Friend and Gardener – July 17, 2014

New bean rows

New bean rows

Dear Friend and Gardener: Where do I begin? With these new bean rows that I put in early this morning? Contender bush beans that promise to be ready for harvest in 50 days, on August 31?  We’ll see.  But, they should be bearing well before frost. The rest of this bed separated by a pile of mulch, and two hills of Lakota squash which are coming along very slowly. We have had fairly good rainfall, but we have not yet had many hot days.

Milkweed and peas

Milkweed and peas

Or I  could begin today’s story with this milkweed row – er – I mean sugar snap pea row – er – I don’t know what row. Here is the question. Do I  give up the pea harvest in the hopes of welcoming hungry monarchs?  We used to have clouds of monarchs in August feeding on a mint field. They do like mint a lot. But of course, they need the milk weed for their caterpillar babies.  We rarely see monarchs any more, but there seem to be lots of other butterflies that like milkweed so it stays. I may get a few peas. What would you do?

Summer squash

Summer squash

This squash hill is doing better than Lakota. I can’t actually remember if this is the zucchini or crookneck yellow squash. The other hill is not doing well either. I really do think we need more heat.  This squash is planted at the end of a bed of cippolini onions. They are doing fine.

Garlic and lettuce

Garlic and lettuce

The garlic has done well and should be ready for harvest soon. I did cut off all the scapes, cut them into tiny pieces, put them on a cookie sheet and froze them for an hour before putting them into freezer bags. I can use these in cooking in lieu of a chopped up garlic clove. Using the scapes this way doubles the garlic harvest.  On the other side of the row is lettuce and self seeded cilantro. I pulled out the last of a patch of spinach this morning.

tomato plant

tomato plant

On May 20 I planted four substantial tomato plants that I bought at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. I think this one is Mortgage Lifter, an heirloom. All of them are looking good.

Grafted Jung tomato

Grafted Jung tomato

This is a grafted tomato sent to me by Jung seeds. It looked nearly dead when it arrived. It has perked up substantially, but it doesn’t look very enthusiastic. It is growing in the same bed as two of the other tomatoes so there is no difference in the soil and the garden is in  the sun from 10:30 am on.

Grafted pepper from Jung

Grafted pepper from Jung

Jung also sent a grafted pepper to test. It looks much happier than the tomato and they are growing side by side.

Red raspberries

Red raspberries

Of course, there is more to the edible garden than veggies.  Red raspberries are just starting to ripen. I got these from Nourse Farms, an excellent local nursery.

Blueberry bushes

Blueberry bushes

The blueberries will be ready to start harvesting by the first of August.  Blueberries and raspberries are the easiest and most delicious crops to grow.

We have been eating our own lettuce for the past month, and spinach, too. It turned out I really didn’t know how to handle rapini, so most of that early crop went into the compost bin. I do get to use our own fresh herbs – chives, sage, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, tarragon, oregano and thyme, all of which can be harvested now and into the fall. If you are a cook, you really can save a lot of money by planting an herb garden for using fresh, or drying yourself. Many herbs are perennial, but even if you buy a six pack of basil you’ll have enough for the summer and to freeze for little more than the price of one bunch at the store. One gardener told me she chooses which crops to plant depending on how expensive it is to buy. Berries are expensive, so are bunches of herbs, or garlic. Something to keep in mind.

Except for the herbs and lettuce, I haven’t been harvesting much so far, but broccoli, cauliflower, pole beans and those squash plants are slowly coming along.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

Do you think I allowed enough space between my Brussels sprouts? They are growing in a specially fertilized bed – lots of compost – after last year’s failure.

How is your vegetable garden coming?

I want to thank Dee Nash for hosting Dear Friend and Gardener, a wonderful virtual garden club where we can share our tips, triumphs, and those less than triumphant moments.

Earth Day – April 22, 2014

 

Sarah Hollister's potatoes

Sarah Hollister’s potatoes

How can we celebrate Earth Day every day? We can grow a garden. Forget the lawn; grow veggies and herbs and berries, trees and flowers. Gardens, ornamental and edible can feed lots of pollinators and other bugs that need different kinds of foliage to nibble on, so that they can be eaten by birds and other wild creatures. Plants are pretty low on the food chain so that makes them especially important.

Edible plants feed us healthy veggies that didn’t put migrant workers at risk, and don’t cost gallons of gas to make their way to us.

You don’t even need a yard to grow plants. Container gardening is all the rage. Lots of vegetable varieties are now made especially for containers. Renee’s Garden is just one company that offers a long list of veggies and herbs that will thrive in containers.

Sarah Hollister's cucumber trellis

Sarah Hollister’s cucumber trellis

Greenfield has its new Sustainable Master Plan and one of its goals is to encourage more home gardening. If you haven’t gardened before start small. What do you like to eat? Fresh mixed green salads, with vine ripened tomatoes? Plant a little salad garden.

Are you always buying bunches of parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme? Plant a small herb bed and save lots of money over the summer and fall.  Add a few shallots and save even more money.

The library has a wide assortment of books for the novice garden for some armchair how-to instruction. Rodale has a great list of practical gardening books from Lasagna Gardening: A new layering system for bountiful gardens, no digging, no tilling, no weeding by Patricia Lanza; Michelle Owen’s Grow the Good Life: Why a vegetable garden will make you healthy, wealthy and wise; and Rodale’ Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening which will be useful as long as you live.

Get out and play in the dirt. The whole family can have a good time.

Sarah Hollister's blueberries

Sarah Hollister’s blueberries

These photos and many more were taken at the Hollister place last summer. My garden is not so neat, but it is still a lot of fun. I am  going to have to make sure to get some photos of container gardens before next Earth Day.

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture is for You

Winterfare Market February, 2012

For some people the initials CSA are just another of those annoying acronyms that can make our conversations sound like an unintelligible inter-office memo. For some CSA means Community Supported Agriculture which encompasses delicious local food, help for the farmer, and a community of like-minded folk who enjoy fresh food, and enjoy knowing they are supporting farmers and farms, and the very land and environment that surrounds us.

Small farmers never think they are going to get rich doing what they love. They only hope they won’t go broke after a bad season. In the 1980s a new idea came on the scene when the first community supported agriculture farms were first organized. The idea is that people would buy shares in the farm and its harvest at the beginning of the growing year, essentially sharing the risks the farmer would face over the course of the season. Would there be flooding rains? Drought? Would blight kill all the tomatoes? Mother Nature can throw all kinds of disasters at a farmer. CSA members are essentially buying the harvest as crops are planted and becoming a part of a community – a “we’re all in this together” community sharing the risk, the worry and the joys of the farm.

When I first became aware of Community Supported Agriculture some years ago, there were not many CSA farms or people buying shares. The organizational elements were fairly standard. An individual or family would buy a share in the spring, and then as the May and June harvest started coming in they would pick up their weekly boxed or bagged share of greens, beans, radishes and vegetables of every type in season. Because man does not live by carrot alone, many CSAs also included a bouquet of summer flowers.

Now there are many more CSAs in our area. I spoke with Phil Korman, Executive Director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) who said that in the three counties, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden, in 2009 there were about 4550 farm shares sold, but in 2012 that number had increased to about 7300 farm shares sold. Some of those shares were to people outside the three counties. The expectation is that the number has continued to increase but statistics are only collected every five years. Korman pointed out that those farm shares did not include winter shares which are now available.

In fact, there are now many more kinds of CSA shares that people can buy. In addition to the regular vegetable garden shares, there are shares for meat, fish, eggs, flowers, and grain.

The last few years have seen other changes in CSA distributions. Originally, a shareholder paid up, and then picked up that share weekly at the farm. Nowadays CSA shares can be delivered to various sites including schools, retirement communities, and work sites.CooleyDickinsonHospitalallows staff to pay for their share with a payroll deduction, and the share is delivered to the hospital.  Some people share a share with a neighbor

Hager’s Farm Market and Upinngill Farm sell vouchers. The Hager vouchers are dated for use throughout the season, but they can be used at the Market on Route 2 in Shelburne with the shareholder making his own choices, for produce or pies, eggs or yogurt. Upinngill’s vouchers are not dated. Several can be used at one time. In both cases, at the Hager Farm Market and the Upinngill farmstand, the vouchers provide for a discount, so you are saving money, as well as getting wonderful produce.

There are 15 CSA farms inFranklinCounty, inGreenfield, Montague, Gill, Leyden, Colrain,Sunderland, Ashfield, Whately, and Berndarston. Each CSA farm delivers its share one day a week. All of them are now signing up shareholders for the 2014 season.

Western Massachusettshas been “an incredibly receptive community” to desiring and buying local farm products Korman said. The first local, and now longest running CSA farm is Brookfield Farm inAmherst. The first Winterfare was created inGreenfieldby volunteers just a few years ago. Now farmers plant winter storage crops for the 30 winter farmers markets that are ongoing across the state. CISA was the first non-profit organization in the state and created the Local Hero marketing project.

Currently there are 55 Local Hero restaurants using local produce for a total of about $2 million a year. There are also 240 Local Hero farms. They sold between 2002 and 2007 $4.5 million worth of farm products, but that amount has now doubled to $9 million. Food coops account for $16 million in sales. Right now in the three counties between 10%-15% of our food is fresh local food, but CISA’s goal is to have 25% of our food grown and enjoyed locally.

I was shocked that we are eating so little local food, but Korman gently pointed out that the whole population ofFranklinCountyis only half the population of the city ofSpringfield. I can see that it will be a great day when everyone inSpringfieldgets 25% of their dinners from local farms. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone lives in our beautiful and fertile valley or near a hilltown farm where fresh food is available for a good part of the year.

It’s finally getting warmer. It’s time to think about fresh salads, grilled vegetables and corn on the cob. It’s time to think about the possibility of joining a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

You can find a full listing and information about local CSA farms on the CISA website. http://www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/find-local/csa-farm-listing/

Between the Rows  April 5, 2014

Companion Planting – Folk Wisdom or Science?

Companion Planting Chart

When I first learned about companion planting I thought it was a bit of simple folk wisdom. Plant your peas and carrots together, but keep them away from dill. Plant marigolds near the tomatoes, and soybeans with anything. This information, which is available in lists in books and on the Internet, has been my guide every spring when I rotate the vegetables around in my garden. Of course, in my small rotating vegetable garden I am also practicing the most basic element of companion planting which is polycropping, not having so many of one type of plant close together, making it easy for pests to find them, or for disease to spread.

However, over the years I have come to understand that companion plants help each other in a number of ways, starting with providing nitrogen or other chemicals to the soil that one way or another benefit another plant. For example, the carrot growing underground exudes nutrients into the soil, as do other roots, but the carrot’s exudations particularly benefit the growth of peas. This was something I generally understood to be the basis of companion planting.

I knew the ancient three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash was another example of companion planting, but I didn’t take in that the three sister system expresses three kinds of companionate activity. We all know that the beans help supply nitrogen to the corn and squash. In addition, the corn is providing support for the beans in a companionable way, and the squash is keeping down weed growth while helping conserve water.

Clearly there are a variety of ways that plants help each other. Some companions help by making it difficult for pests to locate the target, like your cabbage. Pests locate their target by chemical/fragrance cues, or visually. Polycropping makes it difficult to locate a target visually. Planting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums, and herbs or aromatic plants like those in the onion family repel pests by filling the air with odors unpleasant to the pest. This aspect of companion planting makes a good case for keeping a number of herbs like borage, basil, and hyssop in the vegetable garden, in addition to in a pretty herb garden close to the house where they are handy to the kitchen.

Trap or catch cropping is another aspect of companion planting. Flea beetles can be a problem for tomatoes and eggplant, as well as for the cabbage family. As much as flea beetles like these crops they like mustard even more. Once you get the flea beetles munching away on the mustard which is planted a distance away from the targets, the trick is to then destroy the mustard and the beetles together. The books haven’t explained to me exactly how to do this without sending the flea beetles fleeing, but I am continuing my researches.

You can also plant flowers in the vegetable garden that will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and beneficial wasps. Some of the best annuals are bachelor buttons, sweet alyssum, lobelia, scabiosa, and dahlias.

Yet another way of using companion plants is by using accumulator plants like comfrey, coltsfoot, yarrow (achillea), and even dandelions as part of your fertilization scheme. Accumulator plants are those whose roots collect various nutrients in the soil and carry those nutrients into the plant’s foliage. Achillea or yarrow is a common, easy care flower in the perennial garden. It also accumulates notable amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in its foliage. Yarrow is a little living sack of NPK fertilizer, with the three major nutrients required for plant growth. It is not as strong as 5-10-5 fertilizer, but still. Make sure you put these plants in your compost pile at the end of the season, or dry them, crush the foliage and then mix that material into the soil.

Dandelions also have that NPK accumulation as well as amounts of trace elements like calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and silicon. Comfrey accumulates nitrogen and potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and boron. Although fertile soil contains minute amounts of trace elements they are all vital to healthy plant development.

While I have been concentrating on those plants that benefit each other, one way or another, the companion planting system also notes that certain plants have enemies. Onions are good companions for beets, strawberries, tomatoes, members of the cabbage family and lettuce, but should be kept away from peas and beans.

According to Louise Riotte, author of the classic Carrots Love Tomatoes, fennel should not be planted near almost anything. On the other hand, if it is planted near cilantro, the fennel will not set seed.

There are many mysteries in the garden. Some of those mysteries are becoming understood as research continues. Experiments are difficult in the field because there are so many variables including what effect the wind is having on the garden on any given day.

I do rotate my crops and I do pay attention to plant companions and enemies, but I also know that one of the surest ways to have healthy strong plants is to have healthy soil rich in organic matter. Feeding the soil with compost and organic fertilizers like greensand, and rock phosphate if it is needed is the most dependable way of insuring a healthy garden.###

Between the Rows   March 22, 2014

Cabbage – Here and There – Beijing

 

Chinese cabbage in Beijing

Cabbage. Such an ordinary vegetable. We don’t give it much thought. We shred it into a salad, dress it into coleslaw, or boil it up with corned beef, but there are many types of cabbage in the world, and many ways of serving it up. Think of corned beef and cabbage!

            I began thinking about cabbage this week when, while sorting through some old photographs, my husband and I found a few shots of the ai guo bai cai harvest in Beijing in the fall of 1989. I had been working at Women of China Magazine since April, but every day still brought new understandings of daily life. That was a time before ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ took hold. At that time the government controlled the farms, the stores, workplaces and housing. In 1989 there was a huge cabbage crop. What is grown must be eaten – or at least sold. Therefore the government decreed that every household must buy 40 kilograms (more than 80 pounds) of bai cai, Chinese cabbage to us.

            Trucks brought the cabbage into the city from outlying farms. Then blue-suited white capped workers, often women, unloaded the cabbage on street corners, and in front of the state stores. Every night the TV news talked about the sale of ai guo bai cai, literally ‘love country’ cabbage, or patriotic cabbage.

Chinese cabbage Courtesy National Garden Bureau

            Chinese cabbage, as most of us know, is not like the hard green heads that keep well, and are so familiar in sauerkraut and coleslaw. Chinese cabbage has looser, more elongated heads. It is not a cabbage that Chinese workers enjoyed stacking up in the hallways of their cold Beijing apartments. Nor did they enjoy eating their way through all that cabbage. I should note at this point that Beijing is a desert city. It is very dry. Also, Chinese apartments at the time were very cold in the winter. Even though these cabbages are not the storage cabbages that we are familiar with, they kept fairly well. The outer leaves would dry out and protect the inner leaves. They would be removed when it was time to prepare the fresh inner leaves for cooking.

            On the rare occasions when I worked a full day in the office with my colleagues I got to see the lunches that were provided by the work unit canteen. Workers brought their own metal bowls which they carried downstairs to be filled with a big helping of rice topped with some vegetable. That fall the rice was topped watery cabbage. This sort of meal was not considered suitable for a foreigner, so I was sent down the street to eat at the newly opened McDonalds.

            Barrel headed Chinese cabbage and other asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi have become more popular and more common in the U.S. since we were in Beijing so long ago. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and the Kitazawa Seed Company offer a range of Chinese cabbage and other asian greens.

Cabbage courtesy National Garden Bureau

            All cabbages, Chinese and American, are cool weather crops. You can plant early in the spring for summer eating, and a mid-summer crop for fall storage. They are all heavy feeders and need a fertile, humusy soil with a pH of pH 6.5 to 7. Regular even waterings are essential for good cabbage development. Cabbages are susceptible to club root and bacterial soft root disease, soil borne diseases. This means you should rotate your cabbage beds with non-brassicas, in a five or six year rotation. Also look for disease resistant seeds. Bilko, a 12 inch tall, dark green Chinese cabbage from Johnny’s is resistant to both club root and fusarium yellows.

            You are more likely to find cabbage starts of the more familiar greed and red cabbages at garden centers in the spring, but seeds are available for many asian greens that can be ready to harvest in as little as three weeks.

            The Kitizawa catalog lists 21 varieties of pak choi. Some have the typical dark green leaves with crisp white stems., other have reddish, or yellow-green leaves. They have a slight mustardy flavor and are used in many Chinese dishes from soup to noodle dishes to stir-fries. The Chinese also pickle the coarser leaves. Pickling is an important and traditional method of food preservation in China.

            We are very aware of the changes in China since we were there, but at the time it was unheard of for vegetables to be eaten raw. We assume this was a cultural habit because the Chinese traditionally used ‘night soil’ or cleanings from outhouses and such as fertilizer on farms. Even in 1989 we occasionally saw a man on a bicycle hauling his ‘honey pots’ filled with night soil from the city out to the nearby farms.

            Locally, we can buy asian greens like mizuna, tatsoi, and komatsuna which are often used in salad mixes, but can also be grown for another couple of weeks for cooking. Pak choi seeds are including in the Botanical Interests Seeds Savory Mix of microgreens that I have growing in our guest room. More on that another day.

            Cabbage is a nutritious vegetable that provides a big helping of vitamins, minerals and fiber. I cannot speak to the value of the cabbage boiled up the way I saw it served from the Women of China canteen, but I can say that growing cabbage, Chinese or American, and gently cooking it will give us all a big nutritional boost.

Between the Rows           February 15, 2014

Cellars and Cave Tour with the Heath Agricultural Society

Sheila Litchfield in the Dell

The Heath Agricultural Society gave us all a chance to  go exploring the cellars and caves of our neighbors  this past Saturday. Root cellars, cider cellars and a cheese cave. Who could resist this opportunity? Over 50 people signed up for this tour, many of them from towns beyond Heath. Even Springfield! I took one group around beginning with Sheila Litchfield who first explained the basics of cheesemaking. Chemistry. Bacteria. Sheila is a nurse so she knows all about bacteria. When Sheila isn’t milking her three goats to make cheese, serving as Rowe’s town nurse, and serving as a member of Heath’s selectboard, she spends ‘her spare’ time canning the produce from the large Litchfield garden. Oh, and she also gives cheesemaking workshops!

Cheese Cave

Sheila built her cheese cave in the cellar. Here, with carefully monitored temperature and humidity, she stores cheese that needs aging.  She explained that she can only have one kind of cheese in this small cave, because the different cheese bacterias will infect each other, to the benefit of neither.

Litchfield Root storage

Our group got a bonus! Sheila showed us how she stores root vegetables, in crocks, on the bulkhead stairs. Not too much left at this time of year.

Andrew at Benson Place Blueberry Farm

Then it was off to the Benson Place Blueberry Farm, where noted artist Robert Strong Woodward  often painted, and where  I often took young grandsons to pick their own low bush blueberries. Andrew and his family have been farming here for three years. When the basement was given a cement floor in the 1960’s a corner space was left unpaved, in expectation of a root cellar. Andrew finally finished the root cellar which now has two cement foundation walls, and two walls built of rigid silvery insulation panels, extra fiberglass insulation and heavy weight black plastic. His root cellar has a window which makes it possible, with the help of flexible ductwork, to bring extra air circulation. At this point Andrew says they buy bulk vegetables from farms like Atlas Farm to store. They also use the root cellar for other foods like yogurt and meat when the refrigerator is too full.

 

Draxler root cellar

Andy and Sue Draxler could not put their root cellar in the cellar because their furnace made that space too warm. They poured a cement floor in their large garage/workshop, but left one corner unpaved to provide the necessary moisture for their root cellar. While Andrew’s root cellar is a little room with a window, the Draxlers built what is essentially a large closet. It is divided in two, with the intention of providing dry cold storage on one side, and moist cold storage on the other.  That has not worked out as they expected, and both sides are quite moist. Sue Draxler explained are working on a fix  for that. They do have their potatoes on one side and apples on the other. These two should never be stored together because the apples produce ethylene gas as they ripen, and this will cause the potatoes to sprout more quickly. Like, Andrew, the Draxlers have very little left in their root cellar at this time of the year.  Sheila, Andrew and Sue all acknowledged that they had some produce loss because of the extremely cold temperatures for an extended period this year, made it impossible to keep root cellar temperatures above 32 degrees. Generally speaking root cellars should be keep between 40 and 55 degrees.

Bob Bourke and his cider press

After root cellars, we went off to explore cider cellars.  Hard cider, that is. Bob Bourke took everyone down to  his cellar to show his equipment  and fermenting carboys of cider. Then we all went up to the porch to see his cider press. Bob  bought his house and property about five or six years ago and was happy that it came with a cider orchard. He has 45 trees of various apple cultivars like Golden Russets, Baldwins, Northern Spy, Gravensteins, Jonathans and others. Good, complex ciders depend on a flavorful mix of apples.  Making cider also depends on controlling the yeasts, which means cleanliness and isolation in air-locked barrels and carboys. Bob explained that it is not really difficult to make cider, but cleanliness is vital. It is also very  timeconsuming when it is time to sterilize the bottles, fill and cap them.  He gave out samples to our thirsty crew.

Doug Mason in his cider cellar

Doug Mason gets most of his apples from Bob. They  do a lot of work – and tasting – together. He has some additional equipment that we hadn’t seen at Bob’s. To cut down on the time required for washing and sterilizing bottles, he has bought several stainless steel kegs, like those that beer  comes in. Much easier to clean a keg than  bottles for an equal amount of beer. He also has a bottling and capping gadget that, with a two man crew, makes this operation fairly quick. He also gave out samples. Warming!  And very nice. This cider cellar is about 50 degrees. Chilly. Doug ferments his cider in the barrel for  about a year or so, then bottles it, and keeps it for another year. Bob’s cellar is warmer, and it takes the cider longer to mature in Doug’s colder cellar. So much to learn.

Lunch!

Back at the Community Hall we could warm up. Hours spent talking about food and drink prepared us for a fabulous lunch, chilis, soups, breads, pies and cider! All prepared for tour participants by members of the Heath Agricultural Society. That is Justin Lively, Society President, in the center rear of the photo. Lots of enthusiastic conversations! The big question? What other kinds of tours can we have in Heath? What kinds of tours might other towns create?

Indoor Seed Planting Preparation for Microgreens

Microgreen seeds

Indoor seed planting preparaation for microgreens – or for any seeds – begins with seeds. Botanical Interests Seeds  are sold at the Greenfield Farmers Coop – as  well as many other brands of veggies and flower seeds.

Seed starting supplies

The Farmers Coop also sells all the supplies you will need to start your seeds, planting trays, watering trays and seed starting mix which makes it easy for those seeds to get a good start.

Seeds in planting trays

I put some of the soilless seed starting mix in a metal mixing bowl and dampen it. It absorbs quite a lot of water. Then I put sufficient seed mix in each of the planting trays and scatter the seeds over the patted down mix.  I have two trays of Savory mix and one of pea mix. I’ll plant more trays in another week or so.

Seeds covered with soilless mix

I cover the seeds  with dry seed starting mix and pat it down a little. The seed trays all have dainage holes  and are arranged in the watering tray. I then pour enough water in  the watering tray so that it can be absorbed by osmosis into each planting tray. This easy watering method does not disturb the soil planting mix at all. This is the way I water  all my indoor seed planting.

I can’t grow a whole salad of microgreens every day, but I can add a daily handful to my storebought greens for extra nutrition and zip.

 

Microgreens for Nutrition and Fun

Microgreens on my windowsill, Savory Mix and pea shoots

What are microgreens?  You can find microgreen seed mixes in the seed racks. You can find ‘baby’ greens mixed in with salad mixes at the supermarket. Why are these tiny greens becoming more and more popular?

The term microgreen is fairly self-explanatory. Microgreens are lettuces, spinach and other green vegetables that are harvested when they are about two weeks old, and hardly more than an inch or two tall. This makes them ideal for winter growing in the house.

But the appeal goes beyond the pleasure of multiple harvests over the course of the winter season. Recent research shows that microgreens are amazingly nutritious. Qin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR), and graduate student Zhenlei Xiao of the AGNR Department of Nutrition and Food Science participated in a study “which looked at nutrients like Vitamin C, E, K and beta carotene found in 25 different types of microgreens including cilantro, celery, red cabbage, green basil and arugula. . . Their research ultimately discovered that the microgreens contained four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts.”

That is a lot of nutrition for a tiny plant! Microgreens have been used as garnishes in upscale restaurants for some years, but all of us can enjoy them for mere pennies.

It takes very little to set up a microgreens project, and would certainly be fun if you have children in the house. I bought all my equipment at the Greenfield Farmer’s Cooperative Exchange, and aside from seeds, I spent about $10.  I bought two 10×21 inch black plastic trays, and six 5×7 plastic planting boxes with drainage holes, and a bag of soilless seed starting mix. You can lower your cost if you have any plastic salad containers from the supermarket. These will need to have drainage holes punched in the bottom.

Put at least two inches of dampened seed starting mix in your planting box. Tamp it down so the surface is fairly flat. Then sprinkle with seeds. You do not need to plant in rows and since these seedlings will be harvested when they are tiny they can be planted thickly. Someone made the analogy that because these germinating seeds don’t need nutrition from the soil, they are just like day old chicks that are still getting all their nutrition from the egg yolk that is absorbed before they hatch.

Then sprinkle a bit of seed starting mix over the seeds and tamp down lightly again. I prefer not to water from above. I put the planting trays in the larger trays and pour water into the larger tray so that it covers the bottom. The water is then absorbed gently into the planting trays by osmosis. I’ve put my trays on a card table by a big south window in my cold guest room. I used a heat mat below the trays, but this is not necessary, although germination will be slightly slower.

I planted my first three little trays on February 2. Two were planted with a savory mix (beets, swiss chard, radishes, mustard, cress, cabbage, mustard, pak choi and kohlrabi) of microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests, and one was planted only with pea seeds. I took my first harvest of microgreens on February 14, cutting all the microgreens in one box into a Valentines’s Day salad. On February 17 I harvested the single box of pea shoots and added them to another salad. A new harvest every night since then. My only tool was a scissors to cut the seedlings down.

Because the microgreens aren’t getting any nutrition from the soilless mix, you can replant right in the same planting box, by sprinkling more seed and then covering them with a bit more of the seed starting mix. This is the way you can keep the microgreens growing and being harvested until you are ready to start planting vegetables outside.

This is a great way to use up leftover seeds. My collection of leftovers includes lettuces, radishes, beets, cilantro, basil, cabbage and spinach. Even if they are not as viable as they were you have nothing to lose.

You can continue to plant and harvest microgreens outdoors when the weather warms up. You just need to remember to keep them watered.

This is a great gardening project for children. It does not require a lot of skill. Set up mess can be contained on a few sheets of newspaper. Numerous lessons can be found in seed starting. You can begin with vocabulary. As children notice that the seedlings are always trying to lean towards the sun you can teach them about heliotropism, which is the growth of a plant towards the sun. Anyone who has grown plants on the windowsill has noticed that the plant leaves will always come to lean towards the sun, and need to be turned regularly to have an even appearance. This is particularly noticeable and rapid in seedlings which makes them a good example.

Then you can talk about the first part of that word helio or Helios which is the name of the Greek sun god. I hope you have a nice picture book of Greek myths in the house because so many of our words have an origin and history in those ancient stories – narcissus, echo, cereal, crocus, daphne and iris. Children love stories of gods, goddesses and magical creatures. So do I!

Between the Rows     February 22, 2014

 

New Vegetables for 2014

Artisan tomato collection
courtesy Johnnys Selected Seeds

What’s new in vegetables? What a question. While I am not aware of any completely new species of vegetables, there are always new varieties which at least purport to be better, have shorter or longer growing season, more disease resistance, be smaller for container growing, larger for those who enjoy the thrill of giant vegetable growing, more flavorful for demanding cooks or more nutritious for the ever more health conscious.

Every seed catalog begins with a page or two of new varieties being introduced for the first time – at least for that seed company. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is one of my favorite companies. This year they are offering Artisan Tomatoes ™, a new family of tomatoes that have been bred for the specialty market. They are small, pretty tomatoes with good flavor. Artisan Pink Tiger, Green Tiger and Blush Tiger get their name from the tiger stripings on the skin. Because a mix of these pretty tomatoes is part of the appeal, you can also buy a packet of Artisan ™ Tiger Mix. There is also Purple Bumble Bee and Pink Bumble Bee which are round cherry tomatoes. Double pleasure is available in the Artisan ™ Mix which gives you all the Tigers and Bumble Bees. These seeds are also available at Totally Tomatoes.

Burpee Seeds is looking at tomatoes in a different way. They are offering a new Beefsteak Hybrid that promises to produce three pound tomatoes with heirloom flavor. Like the little Artisan ™ tomatoes these are indeterminate, which means the tomato vine will keep growing and growing, up to 12 feet, setting fruit until frost. Determinate tomatoes are more compact and will grow to about four feet, don’t need much staking. Determinate tomatoes will all ripen pretty much at once, within two weeks.

Burpee is also introducing Pick-a-Bushel semi-bush hybrid cucumber that can be grown in containers. Each plant will produce 10-20 small cukes. Pick-a-Bushel is a 2014 AAS Regional winner, and is a disease resistant variety.

Speaking of AAS, or the All-America Seed Selections, which have tested seeds for dependability and desirability over a wide range of conditions, I was attracted by the bush bean Mascotte. It has bushy upright growth, and its compact size makes it suitable for container growing. The fine pods are long and straight, and disease resistant. I love green beans, and wax beans, too. More and more people are determined to grow a few vegetables for their dinners, even if they have to grow them in a pot on the deck.

Pepper Mama Mia Giallo is another AAS national winner. This elongated yellow sweet pepper has compact growth and resistance to tobacco mosaic. I have never grown peppers, but these ripen in a (relatively) short period, 125 days. They can be started indoors and then moved out to the garden in 5-6 weeks. My Front Garden, right in front of the house, faces south and is protected from the wind. I believe in global disruption more than global warming as far as the garden is concerned, but this might be the place and time to try peppers. Watch for the AAS logo on seed packets when you go shopping.

Hakurei turnips are not new at all, but they were new to me last year and now I plan to grow them every year. These little round white turnips look a lot like radishes and they can be used raw in salads like radishes. This is how I have eaten them, but they can also be cooked up quickly with their greens and eaten hot. I like them because they can be planted early in the spring and late in the summer, harvesting them in 30 days when young or in 40-50 days when mature and about 2 inches in diameter. They resist frost and when a floating row cover is used they are also protected from flea beetles and root maggots. These sweet and spicy delights are for eating fresh. They are not suitable for storage.

If you can’t wait to start gardening you can get a jump on the season by planting microgreens indoors. Microgreens are not only ready for harvest in 14 days, recent research shows that these tiny plants are a powerhouse of vitamins. Twenty-five microgreens were tested by the USDA at the University of Maryland. Results showed that almost all had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. I planted a Savory mix from Botanical Interests which includes beets, swiss chard, radishes, mustard, cabbage and kohlrabi seeds. I also planted a flat of pea seeds and plan to harvest the pea shoots for my salads as well. Several companies are offering similar mixes, or you can just use some of the seeds you plan to plant outdoors.

To grow my microgreens I used little planting flats and watering trays, and seed starting mix.  You can also use plastic containers that mushrooms and other vegetables come in, but put drainage holes in the bottom. My microgreens are not ready for their closeup yet, but keep watching.

Whether you are trying a new variety of vegetable that has just come on the market, or a vegetable variety that is new to you, it is time to make some decisions, because it will not be too long before you can start planting those seeds indoors. 

 Between the Rows   February 8, 2014