On May 1 our guest speaker was Rebecca Krans, the Consumer Horticulturist from our MSU Extension office in the Upper Peninsula. She offered a long list of procedures and ideas for Smart Vegetable Gardening. Smart Gardening is MSU Extension’s campaign to equip gardeners with science based, earth friendly and best practices for good soil and good crop yields.
Rebecca shared ideas of why people don’t plant vegetable gardens and then some steps in setting up a garden including planning your site, size, lighting, location and what types of things you’d like to grow. Also helpful is knowing which crops are cool-weather growers and which do best during the mid or warm season. This makes it possible to plan successive plantings for maximum yield. Rebecca also gave suggestions for making your own compost, types of fertilizer, and various types of gardens. We appreciate your veggie garden knowledge, Rebecca, and thank you for sharing it with us!
Castle Farms, Photo by Bradley Macdonald, mlive
It’s Summer…Get Out in the Garden!
by Kellie Parks, EMG
Some botanic gardens in Michigan are well known, such as Matthaei Botanic Garden at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, and Michigan State University Horticulture Gardens in East Lansing. But our state is home to some fantastic lesser-known gardens as well. Here are just a few you might consider adding to your summer travel plans.
With a 2002 renovation, Castle Farms in Charlevoix (www.castlefarms.com) now boasts a number of gardens to explore. Using native plants when possible, guests can stroll through the formal Butterfly Garden, East Garden with croquet and a small fountain, Alphabet Garden (a favorite with kids), Serenity Garden, and the King’s Grand Courtyard, a Renaissance garden based on the landscape at Chateau de Vaux-le-Comte in France. Both self-guided and guided tours are available-with a tram for transportation on a schedule. Hours and admission fees vary throughout the season.
The seed (well, tuber actually) was planted for Dahlia Hill (www.dahliahill.org) of Midland in 1966 with a Mother’s Day gift. Now home to 3000 plants of over 300 varieties of dahlias maintained solely by volunteers, this garden is open dawn to dusk and admission is free. Comprised of eight stone terraces, each variety is labeled along gravel pathways. Four aluminum sculptures can be found; the work of local Midland artist Charles Breed, who planted those first tubers. His working studio and museum is located on the grounds as well. There are two raised planters at the top of the terraces, one a donor garden and the other a memorial garden, where loved ones’ ashes can contribute to the growth of a beautiful dahlia plant. Each of the 20 dahlia petal forms are represented. Mark your calendar for the last two Saturdays in May next year – their extra tubers are offered for sale then. The garden has been the recipient of the Keep Michigan Beautiful President’s Plaque and a President’s Award from The American Dahlia Society.
Photo by Howard Meyerson, mlive
Not far from White Cloud, within the Huron-Manistee National Forest lies the Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary (www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hmnf/recarea/?recid=18706). This is the only Wildflower Sanctuary located within a National Forest and has been funded financially and materially by the Federated Garden Clubs of Michigan for over 70 years. A variety of ecological systems are supported here, including wetlands, marsh, creek, spring-fed lake, pine plantation, oak forest, and an old farmstead site. Amenities available are a self-guided 1.2-mile wildflower trail, cultural trail, birder’s checklist, picnic area, small boat launch, and a pollinator garden. Docent-led walks and environmental curriculum for groups are available via the National Forest Service Baldwin District Office.
Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve (http://www.fernwoodbotanical.org/) began in 1941 when the first 12.5 acres were purchased by Kay and Walter Boydston as their country home. Kay’s passion for horticulture, crafts, and nature were attractive, drawing others to the property. There is a story told of Kay often planting into the darkness of the evening using her car headlights to illuminate her work. Local Niles area philanthropists facilitated the land becoming public and additional land purchases grew the property to 105 acres. Today, one can find a nature preserve, nature center, arboretum, conservatory, prairie, and gardens – which include a Railway and Nature Adventure Garden, Japanese Garden, Herb and Sensory Garden, and more. Ten trails of varying length and simplicity invite investigation and reveal an abundance of native wildlife. There is a garden shop and cafe, and numerous educational programs are available, including activity backpacks for the young and not-so-young to check out during a visit. There is a nominal admission fee, and groups are welcomed and offered a discount with advance purchase.
With all these blooms and plants waiting your arrival, plan your trip and get out into the garden.
BEGIN seed starting the first week! In northern Michigan, delicate vegetable plants should be ready for the garden by Memorial Day. Get a jump on the season with seed starting NOW.
Some vegetables are best started by seed and like the cool spring temperatures. Seed peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach and such outdoors before warm-weather sensitive plants.
Later in the month, purchase your bedding vegetable plants that are easily added to the garden as started plants. Tomatoes, eggplants and the like do best when the season is extended, and they are planted with a head start.
Photo by N. Walton, MSUE
Insects of Early Spring: They’re For the Birds!
by Nate Walton, MSU Extension Master Gardener Coordinator
Robins may be the official first sign of spring, but let’s not forget that they and other songbirds are busy stuffing themselves with bugs! Insects and other invertebrates provide these birds with the protein and fat they need to complete their migratory flights and lay eggs so that they can produce more songbirds. The first insects to become active in the spring are those that spent the winter as adults. Some of these you can even see in late winter, like this winter crane fly walking on the snow on a warm day.
Photo by N. Walton, MSUE
Many flies (Order: Diptera) are among this group that appear in the spring as soon as the temperature is high enough for their wing muscles to function.
Photo by N. Walton, MSUE
Lawn and garden pests that are a nuisance early in the spring are usually those that are not adults, but larvae still living in the soilstill. European chafer grubs are one of the earliest scarab beetle larvae that migrate from the lower layers of soil to feed on the roots of your lawn turf in the spring. Cutworms, too, can be a problem for early spring gardening as they will snip off your starts just an inch above the soil’s surface. Flocks of songbirds feeding on these scrumptious snacks may be your first sign of a lawn or garden infestation.
One of the biggest problems for early spring gardeners to watch out for are the bud chewing insects. Many of these are small members of the group of insects that includes butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). The adults of these species lay eggs on twigs in early spring and the larvae feed on buds and leaves as they begin to emerge from dormancy. Some will even bore into the terminal end of a shoot, leaving a hollowed–out twig at the end of a branch. These insects often leave signs of their presence such as strands of silk and frass (insect feces).
Photo by N. Walton, MSUE
As they grow, some of these tiny Lepidoptera larvae will grow larger and tie the plant’s earliest leaves together into a bundle or roll, which is why they are known by the common name: leafrollers. Keep an eye on your favorite trees and shrubs this spring for these bud chewers so that you can decide if you need to take action to protect them. Of course, it’s always a good option to just leave them for the birds!
Handmade seed containers, from Advanced Master Gardener Lillian Mahaney’s JRMG class (photo by AEMG Lillian Mahaney)
by Kellie Parks, Extension Master Gardener
Seed catalogs start appearing in the mailbox before the Christmas tree comes down at my house. I set them aside until the last of the needles are swept and the house is put back in order, at which time you will frequently find me nestled in a corner of the sofa with the dog curled up beside me, the catalogs stacked on the coffee table ready for dog-eared pages.
Seed starting is a bit more work than purchasing seedlings and larger plants, but what a reward to be reaped in seeing green growth in the bleakness of late winter and the satisfaction of planting out that unusual variety that would never be found in a local nursery.
-It is essential to begin with fresh media and clean containers, whatever form they may take. Damping off is a common disease that can wipe out your entire crop of tiny seedlings and is often found in reused supplies.
-To prevent leggy plants, supplemental light in the form of a fluorescent fixture is essential. Optimally, this fixture should be able to be raised and lowered to keep pace with the height of the plants, always just a couple of inches above them. I have great success with inexpensive “shop light” type fixtures.
-Growing media ought to be pre-moistened and, once seeds are sown, watered carefully to prevent their displacement. I prefer to bottom water both to keep the seeds in place and to keep the plants themselves dry to help prevent fungal problems.
-Cover the seeds with a dome, plastic wrap or plastic bag to create a miniature greenhouse and retain moisture. For faster results, place a heat mat underneath the containers, especially for heat lovers like tomatoes and peppers. Once your seeds have sprouted, remove the covers and keep an eye on them to prevent the media from drying out.
What joy is found in the moist aroma of warm earth at a time when the scents of the outdoors have been absent for months.
The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems Michigan Organic Farming Exchange has a terrific list of seed starting resources to be found here:
On the subject of seeds, I am fascinated by and grateful for the efforts of Bioversity International and the Crop Trust for the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located on a remote island between Norway and the North Pole, the vault is built deep inside a mountain and ensures long-term seed storage to preserve crop diversity. Currently housing 890,000 samples from nearly every country in the world and with a capacity to house 4.5 million varieties of crops, the vault protects the world’s food supply from natural or man-made disaster. Read more about this project at: https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/
Sprout soaking by AEMG Cheryl Gross
Sprouts and Sprouting
by Cheryl A. Gross, Advanced Extension Master Gardener
As winter hangs on in northwest lower Michigan, our bodies and minds yearn for sun and green, fresh food. Before desperation hits, grab a 1-quart mason jar and some sprouting seeds and get growing (sprouting) in your kitchen.
The benefits of eating sprouted seeds are well known. There is a chemical change in the seed and additional nutrients become accessible to our bodies. Follow this link for specific nutritional information on several seed sprouts: http://www.isga-sprouts.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SproutNutritionFacts.pdf. In general, organicfacts.net suggests that overall sprouts “contain a significant amount of protein and dietary fiber, as well as vitamin K, folate, pantothenic acid, niacin, thiamin, vitamin C, vitamin A and riboflavin. In terms of minerals, they contain manganese, copper, zinc, magnesium, iron and calcium.” Further, eating sprouts can improve digestion, increase metabolism, help in weight loss, lower cholesterol, boost skin health and more! Check out the information here: www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/seed-and-nut/sprouts.html.
Sprouts can sometimes be found in grocery stores. However, their availability can be limited. Worries of salmonella and E. coli are possible with sprouts. Sprouting at home can alleviate these concerns if you follow some simple steps. Purchase only seed intended for sprouting. These seeds should be “clean” from the field and exposure to unwanted organisms. Use sterilized jars, fresh water, and clean hands when working with seeds and sprouts.
Mid week sprouting, photo by AEMG Cheryl Gross
A quart mason jar is ideal for sprouting. Sterilize it first. Various screened lids are available in kitchen stores and online. A cheese cloth or other mesh, fine enough to keep the seeds in the jar when draining, is needed as well. An online search will find seed sprouting trays and other equipment. However, a jar and screened lids are enough.
Purchase seeds for sprouting. Alfalfa is delicious on sandwiches and salads. It is a fine seed, so a fine mesh lid is needed. Mung beans are often used in Asian dishes. They are a medium-sized seed. Radish sprouts give a bit of a spicy flavor. Broccoli sprouts are a powerhouse. Which would taste best to you?
Add clean cool water to seeds in the jar. Begin with 2-3 teaspoons of small seeds while larger seeds may take a quarter cup per batch. Allow ample space for the seeds to sprout in the jar. Soak the seeds for 6-8 hours to “wake” them up.
Drain the water and allow the jars to lie propped up, open side down in a dark space. This eliminates any puddle worries and allows for air circulation.
Daily, rinse the seeds 2 – 3 times. This keeps the seeds evenly moist which is needed for growth. Each time use cool, clean water and replace in the angled position. Sprouting will begin in 2-3 days.
A quart of mung sprouts in 7 days by AEMG Cheryl Gross
Within a week, sprouts will be ready to eat. To create more volume and to keep them fresh, continue rinsing 2 times per day. Keep sprouts in a dark area in a cupboard or a dark corner of your kitchen. To green them up, expose them to light a day or two before eating. Should you put them in a sunny window, be aware that they might dry out more quickly and therefore, rinse them more often.
Well rinsed sprouts may be kept in the refrigerator up to a week. However, it is best to eat them fresh!
With a few simple tools, in a week you may be eating fresh, living food grown in your kitchen and feeding your body a cure for late winter blues.
TC Community Garden: New Year, New Leadership, New Benefits
by Bethany Thies, Master Gardener
If you have any interest in growing your own food, you should look into renting a plot from TC Community Garden (TCCG). Located in the Historic Barns Park at the southwest corner of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, TCCG is a non-profit organization with a mission to provide a place for people in the area to gather and share a common interest in organic gardening in an urban setting.
It also offers educational opportunities to the community and provides fresh produce for numerous charities. In fact, the TCCG Teaching and Donation Garden collected over 1300 pounds of food this past growing season, which is donated on the day it is picked to Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and distributed to area food pantries.
These three pillars of its mission – gathering, education and growing – have been the focus of the organization since it first went into operation in 2012. Explosive growth in the organization over the past few years, though, has TCCG looking at new ways of implementing this mission.
“We really took a look at the mission statement and operational model and made some adjustments to make sure we are giving members a high-quality experience at TC Community Garden,” said TCCG Board of Directors President Zach Millican.
Gathering and Growing
One such adjustment has to do with the organization’s garden plots. In years past, a member had to also manage a plot. This year, managing a plot is an add-on to membership. Any persons who support the mission may now join the garden. “We wanted membership to be more inclusive,” Millican said.
Membership fees for 2018 are $35 for an individual, $60 for a duo, $100 for a family and $175 for a business/sponsor. Membership includes free admission to most of its 2018 programming, currently about 30 events focused on promoting the TCCG’s strong fellowship. Plot rental will be extra — $65 for a 12’ by 30’ plot or $130 for a 24’ by 30’ plot — plus an active gardener fee. Plot renters will enjoy on-demand water, on-site composting, free soil amendments and cover crops, discounted starter plants and seeds, access to community tools and new this year, personal gardening assistance.
Plot renters must agree to organic growing practices, actively manage the plot through weeding, watering and pest control, and be an ambassador for the garden and park. In the past, gardeners were required to commit 12 hours to help manage the garden. However, the organization believes this detracted from members having a good gardeing experience, so it has been eliminated for 2018.
Changes have come to other areas of the organization as well. In December, TCCG members voted to hire an executive director to help run what had been a solely volunteer-run group. Kimberly Conaghan, who had been president and treasurer for two years, is stepping into the new position. Acting as the liaison between the Board of Directors and the membership, she said she is extremely honored to be TCCG’s first Executive Director. She will also be at the TCCG managing some of the new day-to-day operations.
“A big focus in 2018 is on educational programming, and more specifically, our children’s education and programming,” Conaghan said. “There will be a weekly story time in the garden followed by a garden-themed arts and craft activity, and a monthly kids’ workshop, each with a different theme, and many family-friendly events at the September 30 Harvest Festival.”
In addition, each Friday beginning in June, TCCG will also have a Garden Market Stand offering organically grown produce to the public. Members of TCCG will receive coupons and steep discounts. All excess produce will continue to be donated to local charitable causes.
Also new for 2018 will be a Farm-to-Table Dinner series. “We are still ironing out some dates and details, but they will incredible,” Conaghan said. “We are hoping to also make them zero waste and locally sourced.”
The organization’s complete programming lineup will be released in February.
With all of the growth and changes coming to TCCG in 2018, you might be asking yourself, “where do I sign up?” Membership for 2018 is happening now, and new plot renters may request a plot beginning January 1 by emailing email@example.com.
Remember, you must be a member to rent a plot. You can also reach the TCCG anytime by calling 231-715-1544.
Recipe courtesy of Diana Rattray at The Spruce submitted by Kellie Parkes, Extension Master Gardener Trainee
6 to 8 medium green tomatoes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon butter
Pastry for a 9-inch 2-crust pie
Mash the green tomatoes well; peel and slice.
In a saucepan, combine tomatoes with lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, and cinnamon. Cook the spiced tomato mixture over low heat, stirring frequently.
Combine sugar and cornstarch; stir into tomato mixture. Cook mixture until clear, stirring constantly. Add butter, remove from heat, and let stand until slightly cooled.
Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry; pour in tomato mixture. Cover with top pastry, seal edges, crimp, and cut several small slits in crust to allow steam to escape.
Bake at 425 F for 35 to 45 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve warm or cooled
Green Tomato Soup
From the September 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, submitted by Kellie Parks, Extension Master Gardener Trainee
Yield: Makes 4-6 servings
Active time: 25 min
Total Time: 45 min
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 oz thinly sliced Black Forest ham, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced scallions (from 1 bunch)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (2 cloves)
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
2 lb green unripe tomatoes, chopped
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Garnish: sour cream (optional)
Heat oil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Cook ham in oil, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Add scallions, garlic, and bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are tender and lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes.
Add tomatoes, broth, water, salt, and pepper and simmer, partially covered, until tomatoes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Discard bay leaf and season soup with salt and pepper.
Alice Waters on stage with local chefs Jen & Eric
Alice Waters — A Revolutionary in Chef’s Clothing
Michele Worden, Advanced Master Gardener, MGANM President
I was very excited when I learned that Alice Waters, one of my heroes, was coming to town. She had a memoir out Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook and was going to be interviewed at the National Writer Series at the Opera House on September 24th.
Alice Waters has influenced us all, even if we might be unaware of it. Alice Waters’ work is closely tied with what Master Gardeners do and the mission of MSU Extension – educating the public about food, horticulture and sustainable agriculture. Alice is also personally tied to our region, even though she lives in California, because her sister lives in Leelanau county. Alice started a restaurant called Chef Panisse in Berkeley, CA in 1971. That was just the beginning….
When I heard she was coming I also thought ‘what a great way to spread the word about MGANM and the Master Gardener program’ by connecting with this event. Judy Reich, Nate Walton and myself manned an information table in the lobby of the Alice Waters event. (A big thanks to Ann Stanton who made this possible!) We were a small sponsor alongside larger sponsors Groundworks and Cherry Capital Foods. Pictures of the event can be found on our Facebook page.
I was lucky to have some time to chat with Alice. Waters has received numerous accolades, including Harvard Medical School’s Global Environmental Citizen Award. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and inductee of the French Legion of Honor. In 2015, President Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal. Michelle Obama created a garden at the White House influenced by her. And the Dalai Lama eats at her restaurant…
My favorite quote of the evening was “Eating is a political act”. What we choose to eat means we are buying into the values that created that food. Food for thought.
MGANM secretary (2016-2017) Judy Reich at the Alice Waters event
I first became aware of Alice Waters when I agreed to take over my children’s Montessori elementary school garden and greenhouse. They handed me a set of books called “Edible Schoolyard”, and said they were trying to implement that program. I was fascinated.
It turns out Alice had first trained as a Montessori guide, which is a philosophy and worldview that seems pervasive in all her work. The Edible Schoolyard connects the cycle of food (growing, preparing food) with ethnobotany (cultural origin and uses of plants), and academic subjects such as math and science. It has become a national movement. Alice started a garden and a cooking program at a nearby underserved middle school in Berkley California over 20 years ago. She created something new and wonderful. This work continues through the Chef Panisse foundation and the EdibleSchoolyard.org.
A direct off-shoot of Edible Schoolyard is the Farm to School movement http://www.farmtoschool.org/and FoodCorps. Many, many children today have been positively impacted by her work. Alice was the keynote speaker at the American Horticultural Society Children and Youth Gardening Symposium in California a few years ago.
Nate Walton of MSUExtension and Judy Reich of MGANM
Slow Food Movement and Seasonal Eating
Alice is also very famous for her world renowned restaurant, Chef Panisse. Alice and Chef Panisse started so many trends with huge economic and health implications that I will mention just a few. Alice never trained as a chef but after living in France, she wanted to bring to her small restaurant what she remembered from France. In France, only the freshest ingredients were used. There was a wondrous variety of greens for salads, and produce fresh from the farmer, each season. Chez Panisse is famous for cooking local food seasonally. The menu changes daily based upon what is available. The cooking is simple, letting the quality of the ingredients speak. The Cooks House in Traverse City is modeled on Chez Panisse. This is why the owners of The Cooks House, Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson, were Waters’ interviewees at the Opera house.
Alice started her restaurant in the era of iceberg lettuce. She made salad greens sexy. She made the variety of greens for salads we see today possible. Unhappy with iceberg lettuce, Alice ordered greens seeds from France and asked her local farmers to grow things like arugula and other unheard of greens for her restaurant. Soon other restaurants in the San Francisco bay area copied her. Gourmet greens became a huge food fashion trend and thus the organic greens industry was born. Local Farmer Nic Welty says he makes more money selling gourmet greens than his heirloom tomatoes. They are a high value crop.
Alice’s desire to have the freshest ingredients led her to buy directly from farmers and list them in her restaurant. Does this sound familiar? Alice has written several books, one being “Slow Food” and “Simple Foods”. She is the architect of the Slow Food Movement, eating seasonally, and knowing where your food comes from – knowing your farmers. She is a big advocate for Sustainable Agriculture and the inspiration for the Foodie movement which is so much a part of Traverse Area. Think of her next time you eat a farm to table meal in an area restaurant. She is one of the sparks that ignited the Farm Markets trends.
Children in Benzie, Leelanau and Grand Traverse have had FoodCorp service members and Master Gardeners teaching students gardening and nutrition off and on since 2009. Currently they are working in Traverse Heights and Boyne Falls. Staff from Boyne Falls were trained at Edible Schoolyard in California this past summer. TBAISD has a Farm to School curriculum developed by FoodCorps and Master Gardeners on their website as a resource for teachers. http://farmtoschool.tbaisd.org/
Groundworks started Taste the Local Difference http://www.localdifference.org/ to promote access to local farmers produce at the farmers market, in schools and institutions, restaurants and grocery stores. Look for their signs in groceries stores to indicate local produce for sale. It’s hard to remember that not that long ago, local food was not in our grocery stores. The only apples we could get came from Washington State. All local food was sold to large industrial distributors.
Alice Waters encouraged and mentored her brother-in-law to make only organic bread from the best quality ingredients. Artisan bread. She told him people would buy it if he put in the quality. It was a new concept at the time. Thus was born Stone House bread in Traverse City. http://www.stonehousebread.com/
This is just a short list of some of Alice’s influence. The ripple of effect of her work continues to still expand and grow. Alice is not attention-seeking, but the next time you enjoy Butternut Squash soup and a spring greens salad, think about where it came from. Alice will be proud.
Hydroponics, photo by Michael O’Brien
Michael O’Brien, Extension Master Gardener Trainee
Ever put a plant cutting in a glass of water to root? Congratulations! That’s the first step towards creating a hydroponic garden. Hudōr ponos, in its Greek origin, means water-labor or working with water. Here in the U.S., Hudōr ponos was translated in 1937 to hydroponics. Although somewhat new to our country, the practice has been around for centuries.
In fact, legend has it hydroponics started as a labor of love. According to legend, in 600 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his wife Queen Amytis because he knew how much she missed the valleys and green hills of her homeland in Media.
Throughout history, there have been many attempts to grow plants year round in an environment that protects them from the elements. For example, it is believed that the ancient Romans grew off-season cucumbers under transparent stones. Around the first century A.D. the Romans were building their form of a greenhouse to grow fresh vegetables and salads year round for the emperors. In the 1600s, urban farmers built fruit walls as one technique to grow Mediterranean fruits and vegetables as far north as England and the Netherlands. These massive walls would collect heat from the sun during the day and radiate the heat at night. In Europe during the 17th century, John Woodward was working with spearmint. The focus of his experiment was to grow the plant without soil. He discovered that the plants grew bigger and stronger without soil than conventionally. By the 1700’s the first “glass house” was built. These early greenhouses only had glass on one side of a sloping roof. Later in that same century glass was used on both sides. The glass house was used for fruit crops such as melons, grapes, peaches, strawberries; rarely for vegetable production.
In the United States, it was the government that became one of the early proponents of hydroponics. During WWII, the Pentagon was faced with the challenge of supplying food to the servicemen stationed in the Pacific. It was difficult to send food and many of the Islands were too rocky to grow food. They solved this problem by using hydroponic systems to produce the food needed to feed these soldiers and sailors.
The first time polyethylene was used to cover a greenhouse was in 1948 by Professor Emery Myers Emmert at the University of Kentucky. This was a big leap for hydroponics because plastic is less expensive than glass. The next hurdle that needed to be accomplished was creating a good growing medium and a quality nutrient solution for growing plants in water.
In many respects growing plants in a hydroponic system is similar to putting a plant cutting in a glass of water, and it can be that simple. It’s exciting to see seedlings growing into large robust plants. I enjoy hydroponics because I can make a system simple or as complicated as I want. An example of a simple system would be using a disposable aluminum roasting pan, plastic containers for the plants to sit in or net pots and a growing medium. An air-stone and an aquarium air pump can be used, though it’s optional. That would cost about fifteen dollars and last for a year or more.
Raft style system. Photo by Michael O’Brien
One-month old Bok Choy Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis. Photo by Michael O’Brien
Hydroponics at home
The three types of hydroponic systems that I am familiar with are the raft, ebb & flow, and aeroponic systems. The raft system, shown above, allows the plants to float in a container with just enough nutrient solution to wet the roots. This allows a nice balance between air and liquid.
In the ebb & flow system the plants are placed in a tube and the tube is on a slight angle. This allows the nutrients to flow past the roots and drain out of the lower end of the tube. Generally this cycling is set on a timer which creates the balance between the air and the solution. A similar system called flood & drain works on the same principles but is designed so an entire tank, rather than just a tube, fills with nutrient solution to a set level, and once the level has been achieved the entire tank empties.
What’s interesting about this system is that the drain tube is triggered by using physics. There is an automatic air bubble that is created in the drain tube when the tank is filling. That air bubble will continue to rise in the drain tube until it reaches what is called the “breaking point.” When the breaking point is reached gravity takes over and the drain tube creates a siphon which will drain all the water out of the tank. The solution is continuously drained out of the tank and by doing so it insures that the roots don’t drown.
It is important to keep in mind that even though the plants are in water, the water must have air added to it in some way to keep the water fresh and alive. Using a splashing effect when the solution returns to the reservoir will add air into the solution. An air bubbler is another way.
Another method that can be used would be the aeroponic system. This is an amazing system that I really enjoy working with. It is also used at the Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida. This technique uses the principle of spraying nutrient solution on the roots for a short period of time. The roots of the plants dangle in the air which creates the balance of air and solution water.
Through the advancement of technology there are many options available to use as a growing medium. There are special clay balls, peat moss cubes, coconut coir cubes, and all them will work quite well. People have even worked with old towels. It really boils down to a person’s preference and what works best. For more information on growing mediums click here.
A tomato seedling growing in a peat moss cube. Photo by Michael O’Brien
The food or nutrient that is added to your water is much more specific. Yes, plant food that is used for plants planted in soil will work for a very short time, but it is inappropriate and the plants will die off quickly. The nutrients used in hydroponics must mimic the qualities found in perfect soil. It includes micro-organisms and macro-organisms which are needed to keep the organic matter balanced.
The nutrient solution can also affect the pH of the water, so it is important to have a pH meter. For a good inexpensive pH meter, click here. The most common pH range is 5.8 to 6.8. This will allow the roots to absorb all of the nutrients needed to keep the plants healthy and strong. For more information on the relationship between pH and nutrients, click here.
When there’s a good balance between air and nutrient solution, plants will have lots of white roots, which means they’re healthy and strong. Plants grown in water have a different type of root than plants grown in soil. Plants grown in soil have very fine roots like hairs, whereas plants grown in water have thicker, more brittle roots. Also plants grown in a nutrient solution generally grow faster and bigger.
An example of healthy white roots from a plant growing in an aeroponic system. Photo by Michael O’Brien
Most hydroponic systems are indoors so it is also important to understand lighting and the effects it has on plants. There are many different types of lights available. Again, simple lighting will work or more specific requirements may be needed. The spectrum of light is a key factor to understand. Each spectrum triggers different responses from the plants—blue light induces vegetative growth, red light induces flowering.
In addition, light intensity – measured in degrees Kelvin — must also be considered. An example of this is the light intensity outdoors in June. The light is much different than in November. Growing plants in lighting that mimics June’s sunlight would create a lot of plant growth. The opposite is also true. If I wanted to get Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, to bloom for December I would greatly reduce the time the plants receive light and the spectrum would be in the red range. I would choose a light spectrum in the range of 2500k to 3500k (k=kelvin), and I would lower the temperature in the room.
With improvements in fluorescent lighting, these systems can be economical and effective. Another positive point for fluorescent lighting is that they only give off a small amount of heat, so the lights can be placed closer to the plants. I use fluorescent lights, one blue and one red spectrum bulb, with good results.
In this article I am only touching on some of the important elements when working with hydroponics. If this sounds interesting to you, one book I would recommend is How-To Hydroponics by Keith Roberto. The internet is also a good source for information.
Below are links to an aeroponic system at the Epcot Center in Florida and one located in New Orleans. The other video is a demonstration on a raft style system.
Fall is harvest time and that is especially true for our cool-weather loving root vegetables. Although many root vegetables can be harvested throughout the growing season, autumn is the peak time for pulling such mealtime staples as carrots, rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, beets and onions. And while it can be very rewarding to harvest basket after basket of potatoes and onions, the question does arise this time of year: What am I going to do with all this produce?
Luckily for us, root vegetables can have a long shelf life if stored properly. In fact, fall’s cooler temperatures actually encourage root vegetables like beets, carrots and parsnips to store more sugars and less water, which in turn not only make them sweeter but also better keepers.
Of course, root vegetables can be preserved through traditional techniques such as canning, pickling, freezing, and dehydrating. The Michigan State University Extension website has numerous articles on the subject as well as a great online Home Food Preservation course (msue.anr.msu.edu/program/info/foodpreservation). This self-paced program covers such topics as “Preservation—The Basics,” “Jams and Jellies,” “Pickling,” “Preserving High-Acid Foods,” “Preserving Low-Acid Foods,” “Blanching and Freezing” and “Dehydrating.” Cost of the course is $10 and you can print a certificate upon completion.
It’s best to dig up root vegetables after two or three days of dry weather. While this might be a little difficult for us in Northern Michigan as of late, waiting until sunny skies has several benefits. First, the root crops will be dry and less likely to develop mold during storage. Also, by leaving them in the sun for a few hours after pulling, you’ll kill the root hairs, making the plant both dormant and allowing the soil on the roots to fall off more easily.
Never wash roots before you store them. Simply shake or brush off what dirt you can and cut any tops to about an inch. Wash the roots just before using them.
Only store the best roots. Those that are damaged by insects or harvesting should be eaten fresh. In addition, don’t ever clip off the bottom end of the root before you put it in storage. Any breaches in the root’s protective outer layer, either from injuries or clipping, will open the plant up to rot.
Certain root vegetables must be cured in order to keep well. For example, garlic and onions should be spread out in a dry, protected area and exposed to the sun for a week. Freshly harvested sweet potatoes should be cured in a warm, damp place—aim for 80–85°F and 90% humidity—to toughen their skins and encourage healing of small scratches. Curing white potatoes isn’t as essential as it is with sweet potatoes, but it’s a good idea to spread the spuds out in a shady, sheltered spot for a two-week skin-toughening period before storing. Remember sunlight will turn potatoes green and toxic.
Root cellar know-how
To stay crisp and fresh, root crops just need cool, moist, dark surroundings. Temperatures slightly above freezing are optimal. Traditionally, this has been accomplished with a root cellar. And as the name implies, the technique focused on storing root crops in an underground storage room or cellar. Many times these rooms were simply holes, with dirt walls and floors, dug under a building.
Today, most gardeners can approximate such conditions in an unheated corner of a basement or garage. The most important element is keeping an even, cold temperature. Variations up or down of even five degrees can cause new growth to sprout or rotting. So a bit of insulation can be key. Ventilation is also important to help keep mold from forming. The goal is cold and moist, not freezing and wet.
For those of us not willing or able to take on a construction project, there are other ways to create root cellar-like storage. For example, cured potatoes and other root vegetables can be placed in a burlap bag and tucked into a plastic storage bin left slightly open and stored in an unheated basement. Other suggestions include using an old dresser with the drawers partially open for ventilation for root veggie storage in a cool room, basement or unheated garage. Similarly, plastic laundry baskets lined with newspapers and the roots arranged in layers between more newspapers and then covered can also be used. Another technique often suggested is the insulated box method, where you start with a large box lined on the bottom, sides and top with several inches of sawdust or peat moss. Pack the roots in the sawdust and store the box in a cold place–your garage, back porch or an unheated spare room. Whenever you need some vegetables, just take them out and repack the sawdust around the rest.
When you do go to get your vegetables from storage be sure to check for any roots that may not be keeping as well others and cull them. Don’t worry if a few start to deteriorate; it happens. As long as you remove them, the rest will be all right.
And finally, if your vegetables freeze in storage, don’t panic, you can still use them. Once they’ve thawed, though, they won’t keep for more than a day or so.
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