Nourish – March ’14 Real Dirt


Feed Me…Feed Me
Food of the Month: Kale

fertilizer book cover

Feed Me…Feed Me

by Nancy Denison
During my final ten years of teaching first grade and kindergarten, I had a fish tank in my classroom.  It had a calming effect, was science related and it was a lot of work.  Once a month I had to clean it but usually I stretched it to a quarterly cleaning.  By then it was pretty gunky but that gunk was like liquid gold.  Into a bucket went the sucked up gunk off the bottom. I added about a third of the old water, mixed it all together and voila, an organic plant fertilizer, which fed my school and home indoor plants!

I don’t have the fish tank anymore, but I still have lots of indoor plants, so now is the time to investigate what’s available for my (and your) collection.  Indoor plants need the same food as outdoor/garden plants; Nitrogen (healthy foliage), Phosphorus (root growth) and Potassium (big, healthy blooms).   Some fertilizers are synthetic, some are sold in granular/crystal form, liquid, stick or tablet form, and some are organic, made from seaweed, fish emulsion or earthworm castings.As a general rule, use indoor fertilizers every two weeks from February/March to August/ September.  During the darkest days of winter fertilizers are not beneficial due to the reduced light and temperatures and in fact could be detrimental to most plants.  Advantages to fertilizing are increased growth, greener leaf color, and flowering and more disease/insect resistance.  Disadvantages can take the form of leggy or overgrown plants and the loss of lower leaves.  When applying fertilizer, always follow label instructions and try to make sure the solution runs out of the bottom of the pot to reduce the chance of root burn.

Most garden centers carry several varieties of indoor fertilizers.  At Garden Goods in TC, I found the granular-time release Osmocote, liquid Miracle Grow and water soluble, seaweed based Maxsea among several other brands/forms of fertilizers.  I’m attempting a little experiment with all three and some spider plant cuttings, so I hope to be able to report my fertilizer findings in a future Real Dirt.  In the meantime, here are a few fertilizer recipes from me and “America’s Gaster gardener”, Jerry Baker…

For lush foliage:

½ TBSP Bourbon (or other whiskey)

¼ tsp instant tea granules

1 multi-vitamin with iron tablet

Mix all together with one gallon warm water

For flowering houseplants:

½ TBSP each Vodka, ammonia, and hydrogen peroxide

¼ tsp instant tea granules

1 multi-vitamin with iron tablet

Mix with one gallon warm water.  When fertilizing, add one cup mixture with one gallon warm water.

kale by srqpix on flickr

Food of the Month: Kale

by Michele Worden
Introduction:  Do you eat kale?  Kale is a hot commodity, a trendy food right now.  Kale chips compete with tortilla chips in convenience stores, and for the first time baby kale leaves are available in clamshell containers in major grocery stores.  Read on if you want to know more about Kale, the ‘Superfood’, and why everyone needs more kale.  As a bonus, try the immune system boosting Kale Smoothie recipe at the end.

Latin Name:  Brassica Oleracea

Family:  Brassica or Cole (cabbage) family, includes cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and radishes

Description:  Leaf plant (non-heading, unlike it’s cousin the cabbage), which can have curly leaves or flat leaves.  Color can be purple, greenish blue, dark green, brown or green with red veins.

Origin:  Believed to be Asia Minor or Europe; it has been in cultivation for 2000 years, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.  It was a favorite food of the Romans and Greeks.  In the Middle Ages it was a common green vegetable in Europe.  English settlers brought kale to the Americas in the 1700’s.  Today it is eaten all over the world.

Cultivation: (how and where grown):  Kale is a biennial, which means it produces yellow flowers in its second year and then dies.  It is a cold weather crop and overwinters in the garden.  It tastes sweeter after a frost because the carbohydrates in the leaves are converted to sugar in cold weather.  In hot weather kale becomes bitter.  Like all brassicas, kale seeds germinate in 3-5 days with close to 100% germination rates, making it a great plant for school gardens or science experiments because kids see quick results.  It is also easy to harvest the seeds and save them.

Fun Fact:  Students love to eat kale grown in school gardens.  It is a favorite activity to go in to the garden after a frost and taste the kale to see if it has gotten sweeter.  I always plant it so students have a snack in the garden during outside activities.

Nutrition:  Kale is famous as a “Super Food” because it is rich in anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, micronutrients and cancer-preventing agents.  It is one of the most nutrient dense vegetables anywhere.  Kale is extremely rich in vitamins K, A, C and minerals such as manganese, copper, calcium, and B6.  It is high in fiber, which aids in digestion and lowers cholesterol.  A serving size is 1-1/2 cup and should be eaten 2-3 times per week to achieve the health benefits.  Kale is also one of the few vegetables that have a small amount of protein.  See this link for a more detailed nutrition profile:

Note:  Kale does contain oxalates, so persons with kidney problems many have trouble with oxalate crystals (kidney stones) if they eat too much kale.  This is not usually a problem with healthy kidneys.

Culinary Uses:  Most nutritious when steamed but can be eaten raw in salads, boiled in soup and added to stir fry’s.  In the Netherlands it is served in a traditional boiled dish called “boerenkool”.  In Ireland, it is served with mashed potatoes in “Colcannon”.  (A milk, potato and kale meal was nutritious enough to keep an Irish peasant healthy and strong even though his diet lacked much meat.)  In China, Taiwan and Vietnam is added to beef in stir-fry.  In Portugal, it is part of a traditional soup called “Caldo Verde” made with a spicy sausage.    Kale is served with Christmas Ham in northern European countries.  My favorite way to eat kale is in the kale smoothie recipe at the end of this article!  A cure for the common cold?  It packs a vitamin C punch to the cold virus.

Medicinal Uses:  There has been a lot of research on kale’s cancer preventative as well as cancer treatment benefits.  Kale’s nutrient richness stands out in three particular areas: (1) antioxidant nutrients, (2) anti-inflammatory nutrients, and (3) anti-cancer nutrients in the form of glucosinolates.  Kale’s cancer preventive benefits have been linked to its unusual concentration of two types of antioxidants, namely, carotenoids and flavonoids.  To read more see:

Chopped kale is sold in cans for older people or babies as nutritionally dense and easy to digest food.  The high fiber in kale helps lower cholesterol.

Variety grown or eaten in schools:    Scotch Blue Curled and Red Russian, because they are pretty!

Impact on Culture:  A winter staple that sustained many villages over the winter when food was scarce in Europe – thus saved lives throughout history.  Believed to have sustained slaves in the old south.  Slave diets were poor except for the kale and collard greens they were allowed to grow that may have prevented malnutrition. In Germany, they have kale tours and festivals in the winter.  In Scottish literature, writers tell stories about kale variety rivalries between villages.

Farm-Fresh Mean-Green Smoothie

Springtime gives us an abundance of greens and warm days gardening in the sun, making it a perfect time for a fresh take on smoothies to cool you off! By blending in kale, this all fruit smoothie packs an extra punch of protein (2g in one cup of kale) and nutrients (206% daily need for vitamin A and 10% Daily need for Calcium), but besides the fun green color you will hardly be able to tell that it is in the mix. To try it for yourself, blend:

3/4 Cup Juice (Orange, Apple, or Grape)

1/2 Apple or Pear

1 Banana (Fresh or Frozen)

1 Cup Kale (Stems removed)

1/2 Cup Water

4 Cups Ice

For the best success blending, add ingredients to your blender in the order listed. If you find it necessary, blend the orange juice, apple and banana before adding the kale, water and ice. If you want to make a lot for later or to serve at a party, blend everything except for the ice to make a smoothie mix that can be refrigerated for 4-6 hours. Then simply fill you blender half full, add ice, and blend, adding more ice as needed to reach your desired smoothie texture (freezing your banana adds extra creaminess).

Recipe adapted from vitamix, Kale and Pear Green Smoothie

Beautify – March ’14 Real Dirt

Sue S-P's empty yard2

Creating a Masterpiece

by Sue Sensenbaugh-Padgett

A blank canvas waits for the artist to add color and texture; a newly built house is a gardener’s canvas waiting for the colors and textures created by lawns, shrubs, flowers, and gardens.  But an artist also works on older, worn canvas removing dust and dirt along with repairing flakes and chips.  In the same way, a gardener reworks the home property by removing the dead or dying, adding, rearranging, or replacing plants.  But before starting either project, there are steps that will improve the chances of successfully creating a masterpiece.

This process is dear to my heart because we just built a new home on the site where we have been living for the last two years.  Whether you are looking at reworking your grounds or starting fresh, I hope you will travel through the steps with me starting with soil testing, moving on to the study of micro climate, on to creating a master plan, and finally to implementing your plan.

The first step is a Soil Test.  Testing kits are widely sold, but the test from MSU Extension is one of the best.  It is a simple process.  Last fall, I performed this test on my soil.  I went to the Extension’s web site and then to the on-line bookstore where I purchased the test kit.  The test kit came in the mail with simple directions on collecting the samples and returning them to MSU.  After several weeks, I received an email containing the report.  It included pH, soil content, and advice for amending the soil.  The amendment advice came in both regular and organic forms.  Now, I know one of the first things learned in the Master Gardening classes is that it is “soil” never dirt, but after reading my report the word dirt is a better descriptor.  My pH is 5.1 and organic material is less than 1%.  The combined amendment advice for my soil totaled approximately 200lb/100sq ft.  This will not be something I can accomplish at one time, so amending my soil will be an ongoing process.  Soil is never static; requiring continued amending and analysis.

The next step is to study your grounds for microclimates.  Look for areas where water pools or drains quickly.  Where and when does the sun shine?  Are there differing elevations that form wind buffers?  Are there places that frost early or late? How and where does the snow build?  These questions, and more, must be addressed to create a masterpiece. Studying microclimates takes time.  Every season differs, so it is advisable not to rush into changing and planting.  For me, the advantage is already living on the grounds.  I began the study last year.  One of the interesting aspects of my land is the sunshine.   I live in a small hollow created when the upper layers of the soil were used as backfill for M-131, so the morning sun falls only on the west side while the east side gets the afternoon and evening sun.  There is also one area the where previous owner dug a pit to bury trash.  While the worst of the trash was removed before filling in the pit, I don’t plan to use that area for my kitchen garden.

This leads to the step of creating a master plan and implementing that plan.  If you would like to read more about the process of planning and how I’m going to use my two acres, look for the next edition of the Real Dirt.

In the meantime, start a list of all the plants you love and then we’ll see where that list takes us.

Serve – March ’14 Real Dirt

Planting Seeds for our Future

by Lillian Mahaney

“All of the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today”

an Indian proverb

When you garden with children you are definitely planting the seeds for our future gardeners.  The Jr. Master Gardener program is designed to educate children in a manner that makes learning fun.  Jr. Master Gardener instructors can allow their creative side to flourish.  Last year there were two new Jr. Master Gardener classes and the creativity of activities was amazing.  Please read on for some of the highlights of these classes.

Karen McClatchey held classes at the Peninsula Community Library, in conjunction with Old Mission Peninsula School.  Karen began her classes in late January to run through mid April with 10 students.  A few of the comments from the children are:  “I LOVED Jr. Master Gardening.  I want to do it again this year.”  “I learned a lot and it was fun at the same time.”  “We did a lot.  I had to miss one day and I was sad because it was so much fun.”  “I helped my mother with the garden during the summer with all that I learned.”

Karen’s classes were one hour long and there was a hands-on project in each class.  Some of the projects were miniature landscapes, terrariums, potpourri, etc.  Karen’s children made the sweetest little ivy topiary for me for Valentine’s Day and I smile every time I go by it under my gro-lights.  Karen started her new classes this year on February 13th.  The wonderful quote at the beginning of the article was suggested by Karen.

Dorothy Batzer (assisted by Cyndi and Deb) held classes at Kaleva/Norman/Dickson Schools in Brethren.  The classes were part of the “Healthy Self” program sponsored by MSU and West Shore Medical Center.  Prior to the JRMG offering there were classes on nutrition education and physical activity.  After the JRMG progrem there were classes on hands-on cooking.

Dorothy also incorporated many projects including making paper hats and flowers, taste-testing sprouts, insects and flower designs on muslin for Mother’s Day, growing and planting seeds, etc.

When I have held classes some of my activities have been making lavender sachets, growing bean seeds, creating miniature landscapes, etc.  One of my favorite activities is to ask the children to pretend they are a fly and just narrowly escaped from a Venus Fly Trap.  I still smile when I recall one of the terrific stories and expect to see that little girl’s name on the cover of a best selling novel in years to come.

Another of my children’s favorite activities is singing and dancing to “The Water Cycle Boogie” and “F.B.I. (fungus, bacteria, invertebrates)” by the Banana Slug String Band.  I  turn on the CD player during the last 5-10 minutes of class while I cleaning up.  The moms have reported to me that the children also sing the songs in the car on the way home.  The Slugs are 4 fellows in California and they have a number of CDs on various themes.  You can listen to the songs either on Amazon or the Slugs website at

The next Jr. Master Gardener training class will be held on Monday, March 24th from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. at the Grand Traverse Government Center, 400 Boardman Avenue.  The center is just north of 8th Street on Boardman Avenue.  Please enter by the front doors and go downstairs to the cafeteria.  Please make reservations by March 17th either by emailing me at or calling 256-8844.  Email is usually the easiest way to reach me and I will send you a confirmation.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about the Jr. Master Gardener program.   The program is sponsored by MSUE and 4-H in the various counties.  I can pretty much guarantee that you will have fun and rediscover your “inner child gardener”.

Botanical Garden Update

Our new Botanical Garden is going to have an amazing visitors center!

Our new Botanical Garden is going to have an amazing visitors center!

If you have not yet heard, the area around The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is getting a Botanical Garden! The Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan (MGANM) is an official part/partner of the Traverse City Botanical Garden Society, and we are excited to share some news about this amazing and one-of-a-kind project. Read below for their first big update of the year. Links to their site and Facebook are also provided. Happy gardening!

Botanic Garden at the Historic Barns Park Update 2014

By now most everyone knows that our Visitor Center is up and running and ready for rental.  If you have been following us on Facebook you already know what the upstairs venue looks like.  It is bright and airy with amazing vistas out the windows.  The upstairs will accommodate 74  people for an event with tables and comfortable chairs.  There is a small kitchenette equipped with a coffee maker and small refrigerator and dishwasher.  This space has been used for several meetings and is also equipped with a large-screen TV monitor and the hook ups for power point presentations.  Keep us in mind if you have need of a venue for rent.

The downstairs will encompass a small gift shop, which is being planned as I write.  It is due to open this spring.  You will want to check this out as well.  Some plantings have taken place around the Visitor Center with the help of several Master Gardeners volunteering their time.  Of course there will be more plantings to take place later when our snow disappears.

So, you might ask….what is in store for 2014 at The Garden?  Be on the lookout for the water feature to be constructed using one of the old silos.  There will be numerous plantings around this area and when finished, will be a beautiful, calming space to enjoy.  In addition to the water feature, work will begin on the walled garden with paint removal and repointing of the stone foundation.  All of that will have to be done before the cement “floor” is removed making the inside area ready for planting.

Do check us out, especially when spring comes to see all the daffodils in bloom.  And…don’t forget to like us on Facebook!

Steward – Jan ’14 Real Dirt

Much About Mulch

by Cheryl Gross

There is much to consider about mulch.  Curious about mulch?  Maybe not.  Perhaps you think of it as the icing on the cake or window dressing.  A freshly mulched landscape can have that ‘finished look‘.  But, is that all there is?  Is mulch only about appearance?  Mulch decisions can be made based upon a design element in landscaping, such as stone mulch in a rock garden, or as a tool in weed suppression.  Can it do more?  Can the material used as mulch harm the plants?  What about mulch throughout the season?  Is there a good mulch for spring that might harm the same bed in summer?  Oh, my.  Too many questions.

According to Brian Zimmerman, of Four Season Nursery, prior to the 1970’s, it was common to cultivate garden beds to remove weeds and mulch foundation plantings with black plastic and stone.  That was it.  Spreading mulch was not yet in vogue.  By the mid-70’s cedar bark was given away in our region by mills as it was viewed as a waste product.  While the cedar bark was far more reasonable than stone, it did require ‘freshening’ annually.  Finally, the movement toward wood chips as mulch appeared on the scene in the late 70’s.  Any wood scraps from the mills could be turned into a product and sold.  Municipalities began giving away wood chips and shredded wood from tree trimming to residents.  Zimmerman clearly distinguishes between bark and wood chips, recommending bark but never using wood chips.

It is a widely held tenant that the primary purpose of mulch is to retain moisture around the plant during dry spells and to shade roots from hot summer sun.  Secondarily, mulch will suppress weeds.  Pile it on deeply enough and banked seeds will not see the light of day, so to speak.  Another important virtue of mulch is moderating soil temperature.  A good mulch layer will keep soils cooler in the summer and reduce the freeze/thaw cycle in winter.  However, that same mulch can slow the soil warming process in spring.

Some mulch products will ‘knit’ together over time and form a solid barrier.  This barrier, according to Zimmerman, is to be avoided.  It prevents water and oxygen from reaching the soil and creating habitat for the billions of soil microbes in healthy soil.  Watch your mulch for this tendency and break it up if needed.  Mulches with knitting tendencies are hardwood chips and cedar.  Non-knitting mulches that allow for free air and oxygen transfer include pine bark mulch, compost, straw, and pine needles.

While there is a host of mulch materials from which to choose, there is no ‘perfect’ mulch.   To begin, mulches can be either organic or inorganic.  Organic mulch will decompose, inorganic mulch will not.  Organic mulch may enhance the quality of the soil or may absorb nutrients from the soil underneath.  Inorganic mulches stay in place and may not decompose, but some stone can leach alkaline minerals into the soil and, if spread too heavily, can compact and damage roots. Review the information below and consider your past mulching practices/experiences.

 Mulches to consider:

       Organic materials

Straw:  Good for winter coverage to moderate soil temperatures.  Good to use in vegetable beds year round.  Need to watch for seeds in the product (do not mistake hay for straw).  May house rodents.  Needs to be removed in spring in landscaped beds.  Rarely compacts.

Wood Chips: Hardwood chips spread in the spring can last for a couple of seasons.  However, the color will change to a gray or silver color.  Piling more fresh mulch over dull old mulch may create air and moisture barriers to the soil.  Chips require nitrogen from the soil to decompose therefore, a nitrogen fertilizer is recommended under wood chip mulch.  The old layer should be cultivated and broken up before a fresh layer is laid.  Caution:  wood mulch can host shotgun or artillery fungus (Sphaerobolus).  This fungus shoots spores into the air that land on plants, house siding and cars.  The tiny black dots can be very hard to remove.

Shredded leaves or leaf mold:  Fall leaves can be advantageous in the garden.  It is recommended that they be shredded first, or even allowed to begin decomposition before being used.  Full-sized leaves limit water and air circulation to the soil.  Shredded leaves can form a nice barrier, if not shredded too finely.  Leaves that have begun to compost can be used to amend the soil, however, watch that a crust does not form.

 Bark:  Bark is generally viewed as a suitable mulch.  It can come in largish chunks or shredded.  It may float away in a heavy water situation and may attract wood-eating insects, such as termites.

Pine needles:  If you can collect them, pine needles work nicely around acid loving plants.  Generally not sold in bulk or bags.

Compost:  a well processed black compost will feed the roots below as well as warm the soil in the spring and retain moisture.  Beware of weeds seeding in the compost;  a weed-preventer might be helpful to create the weed barrier.

      Inorganic materials

Gravel, pebbles and stone:  Best used in permanent landscaped beds.  Do not use around acid loving plants.  Use about a one inch layer to prevent soil compaction.

Black plastic:  Good a weed prevention.  Good for moisture retention.  If soil is wet, it will not dry well when covered in plastic which can add to root diseases.  Hot in summer, plastic breaks down quickly if not protected from sunlight.  Not attractive.

Landscape cloth (various):  Allows air and water movement to and from the soil.  Controls weeds well, but grasses may survive.  Not attractive.

Recycled rubber:  Recycled rubber is the newest mulching material and can most often be seen on playgrounds.  Will not decompose.  Effectiveness it not yet known.

While there may be no perfect mulch, there may be a suitable one for your yard and your plants.

-Mulching around trees to create a barrier between the lawn mower and the trunk is a very good idea.  Be sure to allow space between the mulch and the trunk.

– Use black plastic to warm the vegetable garden soil in the spring and, when removed, the warmed soil can jump start your plants.

-Adding pine needles around acid loving plants can add a kick to the ph.

-Shredding and bagging fall leaves can be a real budget saver come spring.

There is much to know about mulch.  You can read more about it from the following websites.


Savvy Gardener.Com.  “All About Mulch,”

Cornell University, Department of Horticulture.  “Home Gardening, Mulches for Landscaping,”


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