Archive | May, 2012

Honoring with Poppies and Flags

27 May

Memorial Day Weekend has always been a tradition of planting the garden in my family. This is about a week after our frost free date, so naturally, everyone is talking about planting the garden on Memorial Day. I do recall while growing up going to parades, or my mother visiting the cemetery to plant something on someone’s grave that I never knew. I think it would have been a cousin of hers, or my great grandfather. We would cook hot dogs on the grill and eat potato salad, raise the American flag on the flag pole, and if I was lucky, get to go to the beach. I never knew anyone that died in a war, although my dad and step dad both served state side in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. I just found my grandpa’s draft card for World War II. My son is serving in the U.S. Marine Reserves. I am proud and thankful for them all; including the men and women I don’t know who have and are serving in the military. I don’t agree that war is always the answer, but is has, and will probably always be, the way of our world.


Photo of my son courtesy of Toni Elliott-Lee

I think that my generation fell short from many of the traditions of my parents. I hadn’t experienced a war in my lifetime, or at least one that I could remember, so I never felt close to it. After 9-11, I thought differently. And when my son chose the military, well, it really opened my eyes and I could never imagine what families experience when they lose someone due to war. I wanted to know and understand more about Memorial Day and what it meant, not just plant my garden this weekend. So by doing very little research,I learned a little history from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs website. This holiday was started to honor the people who have lost their lives while serving our country. Planting flowers on the graves of the people that died during their service on “Decoration Day” has been a tradition since its declaration by Major General John A. Logan three years after the Civil War ended in 1868. It was celebrated throughout the country on May 30th honoring those lost in the Civil War by the end of the 19th century. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and was meant to honor all service men and women who have died in American wars.

Soon after the first distribution in 1922, the VFW adopted the poppy as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. You may be familiar with the paper poppies mounted on a green wire with a white paper tag being sold for a dollar at the intersections in your town by members if the VFW. These are assembled by disabled veterans or those veterans in need of financial assistance. This morning when I went out to my garden, this poppy had just bloomed overnight and now holds a whole new meaning. My garden will always have red poppies from here on out.

In 1971 Memorial Day was changed to the last Monday in May by Congress and in 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which encourages Americans to pause in a moment of silence at 3:00 p.m. to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. The change of date has caused some controversy, and there is an attempt to change back to the original date of May 30th.

So whether you are gardening or attending a parade, planting in a cemetery or cooking on the grill, whatever day, the last Monday in May, or May 30th, take a moment to honor those who have died in service. Now I will grow red poppies in my garden, maybe reciting the poem by John McCrae In Flander’s Field when they bloom, and as always, I will plant my garden and raise the flag while remembering those who served and lost their lives to make sure I have the freedom to do what I chose.

Planting the Summer Garden

20 May

When the nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees here in Michigan, I know it’s finally a safe time to plant the warmer summer season crops such as beans, squash, cucumbers, corn and tomatoes. This next week the temperatures are going to be very warm, so with a little water, seeds should germinate quickly and transplants should root in nicely.

planting bean seeds

When planting seeds, make sure you follow the directions on the package. As a general rule, you will plant a seed as deep as up to twice its diameter. For instance, you plant beans about 1″ deep. Some seeds you may just sow directly on top of the soil and barely cover. The most important part when planting seeds is that you keep the soil moist until it has germinated and is growing. If the root begins to emerge from the seed, and it dries up before it is able to become established in the soil, it’s a gonner.

loosing the rootball on this tomato plant

When transplanting vegetables or flowers to your garden, make sure you loosen the rootball of the plant and bury it in the soil at the same level it was growing in the container.

This rule can be broken for tomatoes, which when planted deeper in the soil, burying a leggy stem, will develop more roots on the soil covered stem, which is better for the tomato plant overall.

planting tomatoes to encourage additional root development

Even though we have reached our frost free date, and the nighttime temperatures are consistently over 50, I will wait another week or two to plant basil, eggplant, and some of my favorite peppers. I don’t want to take any chances and these plants really like to grow in warmer temperatures.

So when planting, keep in mind the following five tips:

  1. Make sure you know how deep to plant the seed or transplant
  2. Check the seed packet to see how far apart to place each seed  (or plant).
  3. Lightly pat the soil around the plant.  Don’t smash or compact the soil. 
  4. Water thoroughly and continue to check daily for watering.  Keep moist, but not soggy. 
  5. Label each planting with the name and date planted.  Then you can estimate the time of harvest.  Yum!

Happy Planting!


Gardening with Mom

13 May

For the nursery and floral industries, Mother’s Day is their biggest day of the year. Predicted annual sales are based on this weekend. A long time tradition for many families would be to take their mother shopping at a nursery on Mother’s Day, maybe selecting an annual hanging basket or perennial plant for her garden. For others it may be selecting or sending plants or flowers from the florist. Having worked in both fields, I was never able to have a day off during this time of year. My family would visit me at work and bring me lunch.

Mom planting annuals

No longer in the retail trade, I get to spend the day with my family, including my mom of course. My mother and I have different gardening tastes and styles. She loves to plant her annuals and weed. I prefer vegetable gardening and the more “natural” look. For mom this year, I have grown some violas and purple hyacinth beans. These have been her favorites for the past few years so I made sure I started them in time. We will plant them together per her instructions of course.


So what is it that makes planting such a great Mother’s Day activity? Not the casual conversation or the reminiscing, but touching the dirt. Yep, that’s what I said. Touching the dirt. Research conducted in the U.K. at the University of Bristol has shown that there is a bacteria in the dirt that can increase serotonin levels, working like an anti-depressant. Also, being outdoors and observing nature have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. While playing in the dirt, you are sure to have a wonderful day with mom. I am grateful for my mother who allowed me to play outside and get dirty. Now that I think about it, I am touching dirt everyday, so maybe that’s why I’m such a cheerful person. Thanks Mom!

Me as a kid at the beach

Maybe your mom has passed on. If that is so, then go outside and plant something in her honor in your garden or in a memory garden. This too may bring an uplifting moment to your day while reflecting on your mothers positive and loving spirit. Whatever you do, enjoy the day and also remember to celebrate and thank Mother Nature for the gifts she brings to us.



10 May

Radishes, Raphanus sativus L. are a very fast growing cool season crop belonging to the Brassicaceae family. Originating from Asia, their flavors can range from mild to hot. The most familiar radish to Americans may be a round red radish with white flesh and a mild flavor. I don’t like them. When I was growing up, my mother would ruin a perfectly fine potato salad by smothering the top with layers of sliced radishes. I learned how to pick them off and out of things fast. I will grow them, but I really don’t like harvesting them either. Their leaves are covered with fine hairs that feel a lot like thorns poking my flesh. They are there for a reason, and just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean I won’t grow these in my garden. I just won’t eat them. They are a great veggie to grow and share.

Radishes before thinning

There are mainly two types of radishes. Like I mentioned above, the round fast growing radish that is best grown in the spring, and the Daikon radish which should be grown in the fall and is best for winter storage. There are many colors and shapes but all germinate best when soil temperatures are between 45-90 degrees Fahrenheit, with the optimum temperature being 60-65. The soil temperature in my garden right now is 55, so I will be sowing radishes without cover (cold frame) this weekend. Ideally, you want to direct sow about 1/4 to 1/2 inch below the surface in rows spaced about 8” to 18” apart. Sow the seeds in a line. After they have germinated, you will notice that they are too close together, so you need to “thin” them. You will know how much just by picturing the size of the radish when you will be harvesting it. That is how much space it will need to grow, with a little extra in between. If you continue to plant every 2-3 weeks, you will have a continuous harvest for most of the year. Radishes don’t grow very well during hot summers, but if you interplant them between other plants that may shade them to keep them cool, you might surprise yourself with how long you can grow them. For winter radishes, start them at the beginning of September and you will be harvesting through late fall. Daikon radishes are good to grow through the winter in a cold frame and also grow well in raised beds. Traditionally, radishes are the first crop harvested and the last crop sown.

Radishes after thinning

Harvest when they are about the size of a large marble except for Daikon radishes which are so large you need to loosen the soil with a garden fork. If you wait too long, they get too large and mealy. You may wonder how I know this without eating them. Well, I do have radish testers living in my house. So I get my information from them. And if you slice them, they should be nice and crisp. Remove the leaves and wash. Some people like to eat those hairy greens. Do as you choose. Store washed radishes without drying too much in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator to keep the humidity high and temperatures cool.

Radish “Easter Egg”

Radishes are susceptible to flea beetles and cabbage root maggots. You can avoid this by rotating crops, not planting anything from this plant family in the same place for three years. Using a floating row cover can also help by deterring cabbage moths from laying their eggs on the plants.

Interesting is that the U.S. standards for radish grades hasn’t changed since 1968. It reads “Tenderness, cleanness, smoothness, shape, size, and freedom from pithiness and other defects; tops of bunched radishes fresh and free from damage.” So, if you are growing radishes for someone, these are the standards you should be following.

Want something weird. Grow the radish from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds called “Rats Tail”. It is an edible-podded radish that produces large seed pods that are good for stir fry and pickling. Maybe I would like this radish? If you grow it, let me know how you like it. For now, I’ll stick with fewer plants from this family in my garden, and learn from all of you brassica lovers.

Rats Tail Radish. Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

UFO’s: Urban Farmscape Options

6 May

I sometimes think to myself “there is no way I have the space to grow what I want to grow” or “there is no way that I have the time to grow what I want to grow”. I hear this from others too, well maybe a few crazy gardeners I know. Even when I gardened at my organic farm I still didn’t have the time, or maybe I just didn’t like growing certain plants, especially those brassicas. So what other options do Urban Farmscapers have?

The first option is probably one that you are more familiar with, Farmers Markets. A weekly visit to your farmers market will ensure that you are buying fresh seasonal produce. Well, this may not be true. What!? The biggest piece of advice I have for you is when shopping at the farmers market, get to know your farmer. There may be vendors that buy produce wholesale and bring it to the market. This is just like your grocery store produce manager. You can quickly identify who these vendors are because they typically have produce that is out of season, or maybe something like bananas, and as you know, bananas don’t grow in Michigan! There is nothing wrong with these vendors, especially if you are shopping for bananas or tomatoes in May. For seasonal produce, get to know your farmers and support your local economy by making your purchases from them. The best opening question is, “Where is your farm?” Find out if they are certified organic, how many acres they farm etc. A farmer that follows organic methods, and sells less that $5000 per year, can say they are organic. What about the farmers using the words “natural” or “chemical free”. Ask questions about their growing practices, what kind of compost they use, how do they fertilize or handle pests and diseases on their crops. Like I said, get to know your farmer, odds are if they are a local farmer they are working hard to bring you the best produce they can. Some farmers markets will only allow people to sell only what they produce themselves. Rochester and Traverse City Michigan come first to my mind.

Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, is becoming a well-known option for Urban Farmscapers. The idea behind a CSA is that you pay for a “share” of weekly produce. These weeks can range from just a summer, to a full year. You buy your share directly from the farmer, who in return grows and provides your weekly produce. You will learn how to eat seasonally with this option. Your weekly share will consist of what is ready for harvest that week. Cool season veggies in the beginning such as radishes, lettuces, arugula, spinach, onions etc. Then as the summer starts to heat up, beans, squash, maybe some herbs. You still won’t get tomatoes in May, but that’s okay! You’ll have plenty starting late July. I have belonged to a CSA twice in my life. One year I had rotator cuff surgery, and knew that I couldn’t grow as much as I liked, and the next time was when I lived in a studio apartment while transitioning to Mid-Michigan and had no garden at all. I found that I was having withdrawals from getting my hands dirty, and maybe testing the product in the field (secret!). I asked to volunteer at the CSA I belonged to, weeding, harvesting and packing produce. I really got to know these awesome farmers! What a great experience, even if my share for the week occasionally consisted only of veggies in the brassica family, which I mentioned how I despise them earlier, so I gave them with others. While I’m on the subject, I will share how to grow plants in the brassicaceae family, but I won’t share my liking of them, maybe my disliking.

A third option if you don’t have the space to grow vegetables, but want to get your hands dirty, is to join a community garden. Community gardens are popping up all over, becoming one of the hottest local gardening trends. Some organizations are turning city lots into patches of land for people to rent space to grow their own veggies, herbs, and flowers, whatever they choose.

This is the second year for me gardening at My Urban Farmscape. I still wanted more space, so I joined a community garden, Campus Grow, located on the campus of Central Michigan University, in Mt. Pleasant, MI. When I first joined I was excited to have the additional 10 x 10 foot space to grow extra veggies for my family. Then, as I became more involved with other people from the community garden, my plot has started to change from the extra space for myself to the extra space to grow for others. I am really excited to garden this summer while participating with Plant a Row for the Hungry, growing and collecting fresh produce to share with people in need through the Isabella County Commission on Aging. My Urban Farmscape will provide me and my family with the produce we need and in addition I will be making weekly trips to the farmers market. I’m not sure where this year’s UFO’s are heading, I’ll just have to watch and see where they grow. I do know that gardening in a community setting will provide the additional space to feed my dirty addiction to the earth while helping to grow food to feed the mouths of others. This year I won’t be wandering Mid-Michigan looking for a CSA to join or volunteer with. So, whether you like to garden, or just want to participate in the local food movement, get out and about and look for some UFO’s!

Links to Urban Farming Options of course!

Community Supported Agriculture in Michigan

Swier Family Farm

Local Harvest (find a CSA (or other local options) across the U.S.)

Michigan Farmers Market Association

Contact Campus Grow at:

American Community Gardening Association

Plant a Row for the Hungry

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