Archive | April, 2012

Peppermint + Spearmint + Chocolate = Love

29 Apr

I attended the Isabella County Master Gardener conference and met up with a friend, Peppermint Jim. Peppermint Jim shared his story of how his family almost lost their mint farm located in St. Johns, Michigan, one of the few mint farm distilleries in the U.S. operating since 1912. His talk was followed by his friend Chef Nick who made a few salads using mint, my favorite being the fresh sliced cucumbers drenched in a sour cream, yogurt and mint dressing. Delicious! I was, however, somewhat disappointed since it was after lunch and I was really looking forward to some dessert. So, I made my way to talk to both of them after their presentation and buy some more mint oil. It was really nice catching up and meeting Chef Nick for the first time and suggesting the dessert idea for next time.

After I bought a bottle of peppermint oil and a bottle of spearmint oil, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things. It was meant to be. Up on the shelf in the isle with all of the baking supplies was Dr. Oetker’s Chocolate Cake Mix. On sale! So I grabbed it and headed home to make some cupcakes. On my drive I decided to make the chocolate cake, and then for the frosting, a simple buttercream frosting with a drop of peppermint. I didn’t even know if I could use the peppermint oil in my food but why not? It’s in gum right? Knowing a little goes a long way, I flavored the frosting with 1 drop of peppermint. Wanting a little more flavor, I decided to use 1 drop of spearmint. Perfect!

After frosting the cupcakes, I thought they looked a little boring, so I grabbed my scissors and went out to the garden and clipped about 3 inches off the tip of both a spearmint and peppermint plants. Back in the kitchen I used a toothpick to make a hole in the center of the cupcake, removed the lover leaves of the peppermint and stuck it in the hole I made with the toothpick. I am in LOVE!

For more information about using mint oils, to purchase mint oils or other mint products, or just to learn more about Peppermint Jim, visit his website at www.peppermintjim.com

Tomato, Tomat, Tomaat, Tomate, or Pomodoro

22 Apr

No matter what common name you call it by, botanically the tomato is called Lycopersicon esculentum and is a member of the Solanaceae Family, AKA, the Nightshade Family. Probably the most favored garden vegetable grown, it was first discovered in the Andes before finding its way to Europe, then to the U.S. Worldwide production in 2005 was led by China, followed by the U.S. then Turkey. In the U.S. tomatoes are the second most consumed vegetable following the potato. California grows the most, Indiana, then Ohio. Florida may be on the rise if not already ahead of Indiana and Ohio. On average, an acre of tomatoes yielded 37.20 tons of fruit!

tomato seedling showing first true leaves

Tomatoes are an annual and need to be transplanted into the garden on or about a week after the last frost date, so now is the perfect time to start seeds indoors if you like. I use a heat mat for best germination. Soil temperatures can range from 70 to 95, and seeds will germinate within about 5-8 days. Make sure you keep evenly moist, and remember to turn on the grow lights once they have germinated. Transplant into small containers once the first true leaves appear.

There are basically two types of tomatoes. Determinate types, which don’t have to be staked, or Indeterminate types, which need to be staked. Most of the greenhouse grown tomatoes sold “on the vine” are indeterminate types grown in a greenhouse. These types are also great for Urban Farmscapes since they take up less space horizontally, and can be trained to grow up as high as you allow them. When you transplant into the garden, make sure you cage or stake your tomato right away. Pruning is also recommended, but I will show you that later in June. For now, starting your seeds is the most important thing to do. Don’t want to start seeds, no problem! Tomatoes plants are plentiful in the garden centers. Even several heirloom favorites such as a pink variety called Brandywine.

 

Heirloom Tomatoes. Photo courtesy of The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company

 

When you transplant your tomato into a container or plant a mature plant into the garden, you can plant it deep, covering much of the stem. You are breaking all the rules of transplanting when doing this. But the tomato will form roots on the stem planted below the soil line, thus creating a stronger root zone, and stronger plant in the long run. So don’t worry if your seedlings get a little “leggy” a term used when they stretch and may fall over due to low light conditions.

Tomatoes also like a lot of fertilizer. Don’t over fertilize with nitrogen fertilizers as this will cause the leaves to grow really big and lush, but little fruit will form. Higher amounts of phosphorus are needed (remember N-P-K from previous post). Johnny’s Selected Seeds recommends using a liquid fertilizer when transplanting such as Neptunes Harvest Fish Fertilizer 2-4-1 which is certified organic and OMRI listed. Garden centers should sell this, but if not, check with your local hydroponic stores. They will most likely have it, or something equivalent. While you’re at it, look at the hydroponic supplies. Tomatoes are a great plant to grow hydroponically. Look at this one at Disney’s greenhouse in Epcot’s “Living with the Land”. Amazing! I want one!

Tomatoes are pretty tolerant of chlorine and very tolerant of fluoride so makes a good plant to grow with city water. As far as diseases go, Late blights or Early blights have been a problem for farmers. The best thing to do is to grow varieties that are resistant. If you start to see signs such as brown spots on leaves or a white powdery substance under the leaves, remove, destroy (do NOT compost), and apply an organic fungicide per directions. If the plant looks too bad, pull it out and remove it totally. This disease will spread rapidly under wet conditions (like rain). Eliminating overhead watering will help to deter also. And what about bugs? Don’t worry, you won’t have too many problems. But if you see the leaves being munched on, or black droppings on the leaves, you probably have a tomato hornworm. You’ll know it when you see it. If eggs are left to winter in the soil, they will turn into moths next spring. If you have ever seen a hummingbird moth, you may not want to kill your tomato hornworm. But then again, if it is eating all of your tomato plant, then pick it off and destroy as you wish or not.

Tomatoes are so good for you and are wonderful eaten fresh, canned, sauced, whole, sliced, or fried. This is my favorite and one that you will be reading more about as the growing season progresses. Here’s a little secret. Grow them on the dry side. Research has shown that the more you water, the less flavor the tomato will have. I’ve never tasted a bad tomato, but have had some tastless ones. What’s your favorite type or variety of tomato?

How to Create a Vertical Garden

18 Apr

After watching this video, I can’t wait to get started on making this for My Urban Farmscape. I’ll share my steps as I go in a later post, but Home Depot has done an awesome job with this video on “How To Create a Vertical Garden”. I would love to see pictures or how to’s of your vertical gardens. The only comment I have right now is to make sure you use potting soil created for containers.

Happy Constructing!

Vertical Garden Build.

Talkin Dirty

15 Apr

I thought you would like to hear my dirty talk. You know what I mean. This was the perfect weekend for gettin dirty in the garden. Using a shovel, I prepped My Urban Farmscape easily by lifting and turning the soil. For a slightly larger garden, I use a broadfork. I got mine at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Once you get the hang of it, you can get a pretty large space aerated and turned ready to plant in no time. A small tiller, like this Mantis 7225-00-02 2-Cycle Gas-Powered Tiller/Cultivator (CARB Compliant) works really well too. But then you have to make sure you have gas, and at about four bucks per gallon I’ll use my shovel. I still use my Mantis initially when starting a garden, but then proceed to follow no til methods. Iwill also use it for minor weed control or edging. Double digging is another method where you start on one side of your garden, dig a trench, then start another trench next to the first one, filling the first trench with the soil from the second trench, then soil from third trench fills the second and so on. The soil you dug from the first trench fills the last trench. Got it?

Using a broadfork to loosen and prepare soil in a VERY small garden.

I believe that the soil is the most important part of my garden. It serves as the place where nutrients and microorganisms hang out waiting to be used up by the plant. So, as far as fertilizing goes, I start first with feeding the soil, which then feeds the plant. I add most of my soil amendments in the autumn, such as greensand, rock phosphate, or bone meal. These are slow release type fertilizers approved for organic growing which provide the primary nutrients plants need to grow, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. You will recognize the numbers on fertilizer like 10-10-10, which means the amount of Nitrogen-N, Phosphorus-P, and Potassium-P in that order. NPK. This year I am adding Azomite Azomite Fertilizer – 12oz to my garden which is an organic approved fertilizer providing some of the trace minerals needed for healthy plant growth. And always use compost. I will also make a compost tea using worm castings. This has been my garden secret after brewing this up at my organic farm ten years ago. I’ll talk more about this in a future post.

Confused about what you can use for organic gardening? Visit the website for the Organic Material Review Institute, https://www.omri.org/ for details. This is the organization that has worked to develop the list of what can and cannot be used for organic production of both plants and animals. Beware. A label on a package that says “OMRI Approved” does not mean all the ingredients are approved. If it is a single ingredient product, such as sphagnum peat for example, it is OMRI approved, so odds are, the company that packaged the sphagnum peat did not pay for the USDA Organic labeling for some reason. Look for the “USDA Organic” label and you will know for sure. Also pay attention to marketing claims, like “safe around pets and children” or the words “natural”. This may be somewhat complicated, but the more you read and learn, the more familiar you will become, thus, being able to make more informed decisions when it comes to purchasing organic products.

Before I add anything to my soil, I will send a sample to the Michigan State University Extension to be analyzed and to learn about the existing soil type and nutrient levels that are already in the soil. After receiving the results, I amend the soil with whatever it may be lacking. It makes no sense to add something if there is already enough or excess in the soil. So, with all that said, here are ten things you need to do to your soil prior to planting anything.

  1. Remove sod if it exists
  2. Shake off all excess dirt. You need all you can get. Don’t buy dirt if you don’t have too!
  3. Loosen and aerate the remaining dirt using a shovel, broadfork or tiller.
  4. Using your hands, break up clumps of dirt, and pick out any remaining leaves. I love to feel the dirt crumbling between my fingers. This is fun for kids too.
  5. Collect soil as directed by your local extension to be tested for fertility. If there is an option for organic recommendations, then by all means, get those! It takes some work translating and changing chemical recommendations to organic. But it’s possible.
  6. You can use solarization to help weeds “grow to death”. Black plastic works best, but any plastic will be fine. I used the painter’s plastic that I took off of a low tunnel cold frame. Lay it over the soil for a minimum of a week, two is better, remove, pull baked weeds, and then prep as mentioned above.
  7. You can add compost AFTER you take your soil sample. I have never received the results from any soil test from any of my gardens that didn’t tell you to add compost. So go ahead and do that.
  8. Continue to pull weeds that may appear.
  9. Once you receive results from soil sample, amend as directed.
  10. Plant your garden after danger of frost has passed. See previous posts on what to plant when.

It takes three years of organic practices and the improvement of the soil fertility before an organic farm can be certified USDA Organic. It is a honorable commitment by those that follow the organic rules and only use OMRI listed and approved materials. Support your organic farmers, and as far as your Urban Farmscape, get busy working to make your soil sustainable!

Living with the Land

8 Apr

Taking a break from My Urban Farmscape to explore the future of our food and hydroponics. To see more visit the following website:

http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot/attractions/living-with-the-land/

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When do I plant (insert veggie or flower here)?

4 Apr

This has been the question of the week. Yikes! My weekly posts are not enough. So here is a little extra. Don’t forget, you can click on the GrowVeg.com banner for a 30 day trial to help plan your garden. They offer e-mail reminders too! Something I’m not ready to do yet, unless you sign up to receive an e-mail each time I post on this blog. There’s an idea! Also, while I’m at it, please share My Urban Farmscape with your garden friends via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, or any of the sharing links below. Keep in mind my Garden Revolution Resolution!

For Michigan, our frost-free date is typically May 20. You can plant cool loving vegetables and flowers prior to this date, starting the first week of April for spinach and peas, but save the majority of your planting until after the frost free date. Remember to “harden off” your plants that have been growing indoors. This just means to acclimate them to the outdoors by setting them out during the day, bringing them inside (or protect in a garage or shed) at night for a few days before planting them. First frost dates are determined by historical records. This year, spring has sprung a lot earlier, but we are back to freezing temperatures and frost can still occur after our first frost date. If that happens, you should protect your plants using lightweight fabric or newspapers. Don’t use plastic if it will touch the plants.

This may not be everything that you want to grow, but it’s a start. Refer to earlier posts and make your calendar!

Start indoors 8-10 weeks before frost date. Transplant in the garden AFTER first frost date.

  • Peppers (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date)
  • Eggplant (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date)
  • Snapdragon
  • Forget me nots
  • Coleus

Start indoors 6-8 weeks before frost date. Transplant in the garden AFTER first frost date.

  • Tomatoes
  • Basil (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date when nighttime temperatures are consistantly above 50 F. Can also be directly sown in the garden at that time)
  • Calendula
  • Gomphrena (Globe Amaranth)
  • Marigold
  • Strawflower
  • Zinnia

Directly sow outside in the garden 4-6 weeks BEFORE frost date. Provide protection if freezing temperatures occur at night.

  • Peas
  • Spinach (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Mustard Greens (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Mache (corn salad) (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Kohlrabi (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Kale
  • Radish
  • Carrot
  • Flowering Sweet Peas

Start indoors 4 – 6 weeks before frost date. Transplant to the garden two to three weeks BEFORE first frost date.

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lettuce
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro

Directly sow in the garden (you can start 2-4 weeks before frost date if you wish, but not necessary) AFTER first frost date.

  • Beans
  • Cucumber
  • Corn
  • Squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Melons
  • Cosmos
  • Morning Glory
  • Nasturtium
  • Sunflower

Peppers

1 Apr

Pepper, Capsicum annuum, belongs to the Solanaceae family, also known as the Nightshade family. Peppers originate from the warmer regions of the Americas and are used in kitchens all over the world. You may prefer the fresh cool crisp of a sweet bell pepper, or the spicy flavor of a hot pepper. Whichever it is, peppers are easy to grow in the garden, in containers and make a great addition to your Urban Farmscape. There are even some varieties used primarily for ornamental purposes.

If you like to start seeds indoors, now is the time. Plant seeds about 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep in a shallow container of a sterile seed starting media. Once the seeds are planted and watered it is important to keep moist at all times during germination. This can be achieved by using a plastic dome or with plastic wrap. I keep a spray bottle of water handy so I can mist the seeds as they germinate, almost daily. Peppers germinate best if you use a heat mat with temperatures ranging from 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with the ideal temperature being about 86. Pepper seeds germinate in darkness, so light isn’t necessary until after you start to see them growing, and then light becomes crucial to growing great peppers. Once you see the first set of true leaves you can remove them from heat mat and transplant to a small container or a 4-cell pack type container. A 4-cell pack is the plastic container that most annuals are planted in. If you are using recycled containers, make sure you have cleaned and sanitized it with something like a bleach water solution to kill possible diseases that may be transferred from the recycled container. Don’t be in a hurry to transplant into a larger pot. Best to plant in a small container, and then save the larger container for the final planting outdoors. Transplant outside in well-drained soil after all danger of frost. This is one of the plants I put outside in the garden last. Peppers like to grow in warmer weather in full sun. They also have a higher need for phosphorus and calcium so if your soil test shows a deficiency in either of these, make sure you add something like bone meal to your soil when planting. To find out more about how to get your soil tested, contact your local extension office. Refer to the earlier post from February 19, 2012 titled Starting Seeds Indoors for more tips.

Ornamental Peppers

I haven’t experienced any diseases or insects with peppers, but they may be susceptible to a few. Watch for signs of irregular growth or discoloration on the leaves for early signs of viruses. The best thing to do is plant varieties that are resistant. Keep an eye out for any insect problems, but don’t worry about any unless they are actually damaging your plants. There are a lot of good bugs in the garden too.

Jalapeno

You can expect to harvest your peppers about two to three months after planting. Sweet peppers will ripen first followed by hot peppers. In general, harvest your fruit first thing in the morning. For sweet peppers, wash and store in the refrigerator whatever you don’t eat right away. I freeze excess by cutting in half, removing the seeds, and placing in a freezer baggy. They will be soft when thawed, but work great for sauces and stews. My dad cans jalapeno peppers every year and gives them away to anyone that will take them. I love to dry cayenne chili peppers. I haven’t made a ristra yet, I just dry them and store them in a paper bag to later grind and use when I am cooking. It’s like my secret ingredient. Dried peppers whole or ground in a jar would also make a great gift. I also make Jalapeno pepper jelly. This sweet hot jelly is great spread over the top of cream cheese and served with crackers as snack. Maybe my dad and I should start a pepper gift basket. Hmmmm, I could be onto something.

In the U.S., California grows the most sweet peppers that you see in our stores, followed by Florida then New Jersey. As for chili peppers, California is first, followed by New Mexico then Texas. China is first in world production, followed by Mexico then Turkey. Pay attention when you shop during the winter months and see where the sweet bell pepper you have in your hand is grown. Check the label or the box. You may be surprised.

Lightning Bolt Peppers-Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has such a great variety of peppers with a wide range of colors of both sweet and hot. It’s still not too late to order from them. You may be able to find their seeds at some retailers. Starting your peppers a week or so later only means your harvest will be later, so if you want to grow something unique, check out their heirloom peppers at www.rareseeds.com Or if you would like to buy their book, click on the picture below.

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