Archive for the ‘Beberman’ Category

The dormant season

January wanes, yet we are only a third of the way through winter. The coldest and snowiest periods of the season still lie ahead. The ten-hours-of-daylight milestone that farmers Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch have found to be the minimum length needed for plants to shake off dormancy and begin to grow won't be reached until February 5th.

A perfect time to think about gardening! I'm bringing the Garden Plot back early this year for several reasons. The day-to-day chores of market gardening drop off dramatically once the snow is on the ground and I have time now to write a few paragraphs that can be posted later. Starting earlier will also give me a chance to bring up topics at a time when changes in the garden involve an eraser, not a shovel.  And I'm betting that there may be some other slightly cracked folks like me out there who enjoy discussing gardening any week of the year.

Narcissus root developmentSo, what is going on in the garden at this time of year? Not much, really, but until the temperatures dropped below the mid-30s F (or 3 degrees C) spring flowering bulbs were busily sending out roots, preparing for top-growth when the soil warms up. In fact, the cool weather of late fall is the most productive period of root growth for daffodils, tulips and other flowers that bloom early, before their leaves have had much time to pump energizing nutrients throughout the plant.

Garlic is another bulb that benefits from fall planting. A forest of roots spreads out beneath each individual clove, providing the resources for a full bulb to form during the next season. You can watch the roots proliferate over a week in this time lapse video.

In his book The Uses of Enchantment (1976), psychologist Bruno Bettleheim theorized that long periods of inaction in fairy tales (think 'Sleeping Beauty') were metaphors for internal growth:

In major life changes such as adolescence, for successful growth opportunities both active and quiescent periods are needed. The turning inward, which in outer appearance looks like passivity (or sleeping one's life away) happens when mental processes of such importance go on within the person that he has no energy for outwardly directed action.

This idea has always comforted me during stretches when I have had little to show for my efforts, and seems to reflect how the garden marshals its reserves in the cold months, ready to burst into new growth when the time is right.

Sharing the harvest

So your 10 foot row of green beans has produced 20 pounds of beans – all at once! And more are on the way. How you can share the bounty?

Most food pantries are happy to accept donations of fresh produce, but may have little space to store or display vegetables. Community lunch programs often put their menus together weeks in advance, so spur of the moment additions of fresh vegetables are not easy to accommodate. Here are some tips to smooth the process.

  • Contact your local food pantry (resources listed below) before showing up with a donation. Aviva Gold, associate director of Gardenshare, suggests calling a few days ahead to offer, for instance, a basket of tomatoes to give away.  Talk to a pantry volunteer to arrange a drop-off time that doesn't require produce to be refrigerated over night.
  • Plan to bring your surplus to the distribution site yourself – don't expect the food program to send someone to pick the vegetables. Food pantries are staffed by volunteers, most of whom do not have the time or experience to harvest from your garden.
  • Wash and sort the veggies at home, culling produce that is bruised or beginning to wilt. Again, the volunteers will not have the time and facilities to sort through the "seconds." If you have a large amount of one item, packing it in bags or containers sized for one family – a pound of beans, 2 or 3 zucchinis – is helpful.
  • Describe how to cook and eat the produce that you've brought to food pantry staffers and clients. Members of the First Presbyterian Church in Saranac Lake who cultivate a plot in the Common Ground garden set up a card table  next to the ecumenical food pantry on distribution days to provide information along with the vegetables they donate.

Resources for finding your local food pantry:

  • Gardenshare maintains a list of contacts for St Lawrence county food pantries on its website, here.
  • The Adirondack Daily Enterprise lists Tri-lakes food programs in its Community Resource Directory and on its website, here.
  • The Food bank of Central New York covers Jefferson, Lewis and Herkimer counties, as well as some further south. Find the link, here.

They hop, walk and fly

And now, for the latest episode of pest-of-the-week we bring you…grasshoppers!
Bug's Life grasshopper
Wandering through my garden recently I noticed that not only had many of the recent plantings of chard and cabbage been obliterated by insects, but entire leaves of full-sized spinach, beets and kale were heavily chewed. No insects remained on the plants when I examined them, but it became clear that the culprits were the innocuously small but numerous grasshoppers that scattered at my feet as I walked through the field.

Grasshoppers eat almost anything green and they feed throughout their life cycle, which takes the form of several similar-looking stages over the summer months. (The insects I saw in my garden were in one of the nymph stages.) Although not a widespread problem in this area, they are  characterized by population explosions or outbreaks which do major damage to western crops. Early predictions call for this year to be the worst in 30 years in the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest.

Because these voracious insects are mobile and numerous, backyard controls focus on protecting vulnerable plants.  Here are some recommended methods:

  • Row covers. Fairly effective, although one or two hoppers trapped underneath can still cause damage.
  • Homemade spray of cayenne pepper and water, with a drop of dish soap to help adhere to the leaves. Must reapply after every rain.
  • Garlic Barrier, a commercial product of 100% garlic juice. From the Fedco website: "One warning: this stuff stinks and is best mixed outdoors."
  • Nosema locustae, Grasshopper pathogen. Sold as NoLo bait, this is a disease that affects only grasshoppers. If spread early in the season, it causes the nymphs to slowly sicken and die. It is a bit tricky to time the application properly, but it is thought that the pathogen can carry over to subsequent years.
  • Bug Juice. Not for the fainthearted, this concoction is made by selecting dead and dying grasshoppers, pureeing them in a blender with water, and letting the mixture sit at room temperature for a day or two before applying it to the plants. I have not been able to bring myself to try this, but if you have had any luck with this method, let me know!

Woodchuck Remedies Sought

WoodchuckI received this message a few days ago from Janet Stein, site manager of the Common Ground Garden in  Saranac Lake. Her  plight is familiar to an unnumbered contingent, many of whom have failed to outmatch a determined woodchuck. If you have won this battle, please let us know your strategy. The gardeners in Saranac Lake need all the help they can get!

Our woodchuck is back in action at Old Lake Colby Road Garden.  I hadn't see any sign of it before now and was hopeful that it had passed peacefully this winter. But, no, he is back!  I'll call it a "he" because I sure hope it is not a "she! " He lives under the house.  He has an obvious entrance outside of the fence to the right of the front gate. He, however, has a taste for garden goodies and digs holes from under the house into the garden. Unfortunately, as evidenced by me, this guy has already done a lot of damage especially in the  plot closest to the garage. I have filled in two of his new holes into the garden, already.

This guy really needs to go and unfortunately, I don't know how.




"How do you grow your crops?" When customers at the farmers' market ask this question they often want to know: (a) if the item on my table is something that I have grown, and (b) whether it is "organic." Answering the first question is easy – I grow almost everything that I sell, and label those items that come from other farms – but the second question delves into more complex territory.

Organic SealThe produce from my postage-stamp sized farm is not certified organic, mainly because of cost and record keeping requirements.  To comply with the USDA standards, a farm draws up a production plan including crop rotation, cover crops where applicable, and practices that enhance soil structure and biodiversity. In addition, they agree to use only approved substances. (Scrupulously detailed lists of allowed and prohibited substances can be found here, at the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.) Farms are inspected yearly, and are required to show that no prohibited substances were used for 3 years prior to certification.

Technically, I could say that my veggies are organic, because I do follow the organic standards and I make less than $5,000 a year from my farm (unfortunately.) In fact, I am in the process of having my farm re-certified through a grassroots peer-to-peer network, Certified Naturally Grown, which sends farmers, consumers and extension agents into the fields to document that growers are adhering to organic production methods.

Yet I harbor  misgivings about the sharp delineation made between "organic" and "conventional" growing practices on today's farms. By completely separating certain substances and ways of growing, we give the impression that one way is "good" and the other is "bad." As in most of life, things aren't that simple. I'll try to dig into the more subtle questions in future posts.

Old Friends

The backbone of my flower garden, perennials pop up year after year like neighbors returning to camp in the summer months. Reassuring in their predictability, they nonetheless impart an element of surprise by laying dormant for

Barb Heller's perennial island

Barb Heller's perennial island

months and then suddenly shooting up up flower stalks when they are ready to bloom. Perennials are the lazy gardener's friend, persevering in less rich soils, without additional watering. There is an art, and science, to planting a perennial flower bed that will  provide color and contrast all season; however, I am largely ignorant on this topic. My enjoyment comes from the fact that these flowers add beauty to the world with so little effort on my part.

Here are a few photos of perennials taken over the past few days. If you'll send me some pictures of your garden, we can have  a blooming bouquet for Friday's post!

Verbascum "Southern Charm"

Verbascum "Southern Charm," my current favorite

Oriental Poppies

Oriental Poppies

Iris and Lupines

Iris and Lupines

Coreopsis, self sown

Barb's Coreopsis, self sown

Rosa Rugosa

Good old Rosa Rugosa -watch out for the thorns!

Crows, and the Nose

On Fridays we find out what's been happening in gardens around the region. Send your updates and photos by clicking on the email link at right.

Laments and curses were uttered this week by several of my gardening friends upon seeing the mess that crows had made of their corn and potato plantings.  It reminded me of Jill Breit's recent suggestion to add a scarecrow to the garden mix. For inspiration, here are two more scarecrows of years past sent in by Bob Washo.



...and hers.

...and hers.

Anneke Larrance has been reveling in a different garden aesthetic. She writes:

Ever notice the smells in your garden?
Earlier in the week my front yard was so strong smelling that I almost couldn’t stand it. I have Miss Kim lilacs (Korean lilacs) in the front yard which bloom a bit after the regular lilacs. Wow! I first noticed it on a muggy, warm day and I straightened from my wedding job and just stood there, inhaling the odor—and almost got light headed.

As I moved around the beds, weeding, I found myself breathing in my favorite flower scent: the smell of iris. Oh, I love that distinctive scent and I wish I could describe it for those of you who don’t grow iris. I can’t seem to find the words—lavenderish-sandlewood with a very faint hint of musk—is the closest I can come. Some of the hybrid iris don’t have the distinctive smell of the older “common” ones, and I’ve also found that blue iris seem to smell the best.

These two scents got me thinking about other distinctive smells in the garden right now. I’ve been pulling volunteer dill (Good heavens, no! I don’t discard it. It ends up in a salad or in my famous dill dip) since there’s so much of it– and its clean crisp smell is always a welcome one. I also recently thinned the garlic and whew–it can take my breath away. My garlic is a distant relative from my grandmother’s garden in Michigan some 40 years ago and I think of her when I pull it. I also have garlic chives and regular chives which are pretty smelly, but I cut them only when I need as a special garnish.

Oh, an update on Sophia’s radishes. Some of them are ready now and she’s not due here for 10 days yet. I hope we continue to have some cool weather so that there are still radishes to pull when she’s here. Another confession: I didn’t completely trust the “days to harvest” note on the seed package, and I also planted a few seeds between the celery plants—just in case the first ones were gone by.

Kitchen Garden

On a sunny morning a few weeks ago, Chef Kevin McCarthy of Paul Smith's College shepherded culinary students from his summer session into Gould's Garden, an area adjacent to the soccer field given over to garden plots for the Paul Smith's community. The students were there to plant vegetables that would later be harvested and served in the on-campus St. Regis Restaurant. Joe Orefice, forestry professor and instructor in sustainability studies at Paul Smith's, directed the group to hoe, smooth and plant seeds – carrots, Swiss chard, beets – in double rows, watering them in with pond water hand-carried up a steep bank at the back of the garden.

Future chefs sowing seeds

Future chefs sowing seeds

McCarthy is one of a growing number of chefs who promote locally sourced  foods in their restaurants,  some going so far as to start their own farms to insure fresh produce. In other cases, chefs work closely with farmers to craft menus highlighting local specialties. Diners appreciate eating the seasonal bounty of a region, and farmers are more free to experiment with a wide variety of crops.

"We'll tend this garden through the season, then harvest and serve the vegetables along with locally raised chickens and ducks. The students will take part in all stages of food production, including processing, plucking and preparing the poultry," McCarthy says. "This will give them the full experience of how food gets from the producer to the table."

This modest garden will give the future chefs a sense of what it takes to grow a beet or carrot. Meanwhile,  rows of little seedlings have appeared, interspersed with less welcome plants. I'm guessing the next gardening lesson might be titled "How to Weed."

Baby beets

Baby beets

The Beast

On Fridays we find out what's been happening in gardens around the region. Send your updates and photos by clicking on the email link at the right.

A couple of  years ago I bought an old Ariens Rocket rototiller from a friend for $200. I believe it dates from the 60's, with a 7 hp Tecumseh cast iron engine that uses dual shafts to go in forward and reverse. It weighs a ton, and could break into fresh sod without jumping around the way lighter rototillers do. When it worked.

Alas, it tills no longer.  My spouse applied his ingenuity to keeping it going for two years by, for example, replacing the head, welding the counterweight, fixing the starter motor, re-gluing the flywheel weights and rebuilding and reattaching the carburetor.

Despite his attentions, the Beast had been in declining health all spring. Yesterday, I steered it confidently into the lower part of the garden where it putted uneventfully for about 10 minutes before abruptly choking up and going silent, leaving wisps of steam or smoke curling from the air baffle. The engine had seized.

While it sits motionless in the field, I ponder whether it is now time to commit unflinchingly to the Ruth-Stout-No-Work-Garden route, or whether I need to find another rototiller. Let's just say that I'm in the market, if anyone wants to pass along some leads.

Tiller at Rest

Tiller at Rest

Surprising Facts About Farmers Markets

The outdoor farmers market season has begun, reconnecting smiling vendors behind tables of mixed greens, bakery goods and coolers filled with pasture-raised meat with shoppers looking for good local food.  Underpinning the economics of farmers markets are some surprising statistics.

  • Contrary to assumptions, a recent survey of Vermont farmers markets found that prices for produce were comparable with or cheaper than supermarket prices for most conventionally raised vegetables. For organic items, the farmers market prices were almost 40 percent lower.
  • The number of farmers markets has skyrocketed over the past ten years, growing from 2,863 in the year 2000 to 6,132 in 2010. That's an increase of 114 percent!

Transaction at the Tupper Lake farmers market

  • Vendors often travel many miles to sell at certain markets. The average distance traveled for vendors at the Portland,OR farmers market is 50 miles one way.
  • Between 85 and 95 percent of farm income comes from off-farm sources such as income from other jobs and businesses, according to the findings of a 2004 USDA survey. Unsurprisingly, this leads to fewer young people  going into farming; current statistics show that forty percent of farmers are age 55 or over.

There Must Be 50 Ways

–to grow tomatoes. You can cage them, trellis them, prune them, hang them in 5 gallon buckets and grow them upside down! Professional growers use grafted plants pruned to a single stem and fastened to a trellis inside a hoophouse.


EarthTainers with built in trellis

If you haven't planted your tomatoes yet, or have simply run out of room to fit any more in your garden, consider constructing a few of these self-watering EarthTainers designed by Ray Newstead. Made from two 30 gallon totes, an aquatic plant basket, and a short length of PVC pipe, these containers incorporate a substantial reservoir to water the plants from the bottom through capillary action. Trellises can be anchored into the pots before filling with soil.

EarthTainer cutaway

EarthTainer cutaway

Newstead, a Silicon Valley executive,  was inspired to create growing containers that minimize water use after the Californian drought of 2008. He hopes that these low-cost, easy to build containers can be used in places around the world where access to water and arable land is limited. Full instructions, including an optional water level indicator can be found here. The plans are free; a voluntary donation to Feed the Children is  encouraged.

For the record, my current tomato growing scheme leans toward closely spaced hoophouse grown plants, pruned  and tied to a stiff trellis. (Photo below.) How do YOU grow tomatoes? Give us the details here or at facebook and post some pictures.

Tomatoes in the Hoophouse

Tomatoes in the Hoophouse

The No-Work Garden

The rototiller roared, wheelbarrows trundled and gardeners groaned this weekend as the Common Ground Garden in Saranac Lake held its spring workday.  Looking around at the plots filled with thriving crops of weeds, and the energy being expended to rip them out, move them off, and smooth the soil, I thought of Ruth Stout and her "no-work garden."

Taking up gardening at the age of 45, Stout turned her unconventional mind to watching natural processes and incorporating them into her garden. Plants grow very well, she reasoned, without digging up the ground every spring. Instead of plowing the soil she layered her gardens with 8 inches of mulch, pushing it aside to plant her seeds. In this delightful video, filmed when she was about 90 years old, she explains her philosophy and plants a few potatoes for the camera.

The second half of the video covers more stories from her colorful life – including smashing saloons with Carrie Nation and gardening in the nude. Watching Ruth Stout handle a hoe in her slippers inspires me to take her advice and "pay attention to my inner voice."

Food Security

Frugality, and a sense of self-sufficiency were part of my motivation in starting a garden about 15 years ago. Yet, even in midsummer, many of the foods that make up my family's diet do not come from the backyard – I have stores in the basement of flour, rice, oats, beans and sugar. These dry goods provide the basis for many of our meals, at a cost that is negligible compared with our yearly income. But how does someone cope if the cost of food accounts for half of their income, and the price of those staples suddenly skyrockets?

FP cover Lester R. Brown, director of Earth Policy Institute and an authority on world agricultural issues, tells us that people around the world  confronted this reality as the price of wheat rose by 75% during the past year. There are reasons to believe that this and future price hikes will not dissipate quickly. The New Geopolitics of Food in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine outlines the pressures on the global food system and predicts how those pressures may lead to crisis within a few years.

The squeeze is coming from both sides of the equation -the amount of food we need and the amount we can grow. Rising populations, increasing wealth (which correlates with more people eating meat, ultimately requiring more grain) and diversion of food stocks to fuel production is pushing demand. On the supply side, we are bumping up against the limits of technological advances, crop reductions due to climate change, and falling water tables in dry countries. Brown writes:

In arid Saudi Arabia, irrigation had surprisingly enabled the country to be self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years; now, wheat production is collapsing because the non-replenishable aquifer the country uses for irrigation is largely depleted. The Saudis soon will be importing all their grain.

Recognizing this necessity the Saudi government, along with South Korea and China, has bought and leased land in Africa to grow grain for their people. It is too early to tell whether this is a winning strategy for those countries, but it is unlikely to alleviate hunger in the areas where the grain is grown. Grain-importing countries without the means to buy land on other continents will need to find their own solutions, making control of food resources a political priority for coming decades.

This is an important issue and an important article. For further details, here is an interview with Brown by Leonard Lopate.

The New Geopolitics of Food


Calling all gardeners! For this season, Friday will be the day to hear from gardeners  all over the region. Send me an email (link is on the right-hand side of the page) any time during the week and I will include it in the Friday roundup. Did you build a new funky trellis? Figure out a way to stop flea beetles from eating the arugula? Grow a new variety of squash? Send me the details and photos, and don't be afraid to brag!

While I wait for your news, I leave you with these words of wisdom from Chance the Gardener in the 1979 movie Being There.

Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener

Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener

President "Bobby": Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?[Long pause]

Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

President "Bobby": In the garden.

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

President "Bobby": Spring and summer.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

President "Bobby": Then fall and winter.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but were upset by the seasons of our economy.

Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

Benjamin Rand: Hmm!

Chance the Gardener: Hmm!

President "Bobby": Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements Ive heard in a very, very long time. [Benjamin Rand applauds]

President "Bobby": I admire your good, solid sense. Thats precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.

Pod Person

'I like monotonous work!" So said a friend as we bent over our rakes, working  on a landscaping crew. His choice of words still makes me smile -doesn't monotony imply unpleasantness?- but the meaning comes across: all that digging, weeding, raking frees up the mind.

On the other hand, my mental journeys sometimes end up in muddy ruts, especially when it's 45 degrees and rainy. In recent years, I have come to rely on a garden essential: listening to podcasts on my MP3 player.

The Pod

The Pod

Notice the cracked face and the dirty brown cord. The complete setup includes a small plastic bag to protect the electronics from soil-covered fingers.

My listening tastes range from brain-stretchers to topical humor, but here are some of my favorite garden-related podcasts. Sadly, this is a fairly short list. Quite a few promising podcasts have ceased after a few episodes and others ramble too far into the weeds to keep my interest.

  • Gardening Conversations with Martha Foley and Amy Ivy is obviously first on the list – timely info on seasonal chores. I don't usually download these weekly chats because I hear them when they are broadcast on NCPR.
  • Greendays on Weekday comes out on Tuesdays from KUOW in Seattle. A panel of expert gardeners hosts a call-in show on Northwest gardening. The questions often focus on a more urban style of gardening,  an interesting  contrast with our rural methods.
  • On The Alternative Kitchen Emma Cooper, a freelance English writer with a soothing voice, narrates her own creative experiments with kitchen gardening, interspersed with useful information gleaned from experts. The photos she posts on her blog make it worth a visit.
  • Last Chance Foods from WNYC is a 5 minute exploration by Amy Eddings on what is growing when, where to find it in New York, and how to prepare it. Often includes fantastic cooking tips from farmers growing some of the more unusual vegetables.


They are lovely, aren't they? From the Department of Environmental Conservation's website:

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is New York's most popular game animal and is found throughout the state. Residents and visitors to the state derive countless hours of enjoyment from the white-tailed deer resource. Each year, more than 500,000 deer hunters contribute nearly $690 million to New York State's economy through hunting related expenses, and through license purchases and federal excise taxes hunters generate over $35 million to support management activities of NYSDEC. Hunters take some 220,000 deer annually, filling freezers with roughly 10.8 million pounds of high quality local venison[.]

And here is how they appear to a gardener, gazing out the window in the early morning as deer advance on rows of newly sprouted carrots:

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

Mild winters, fragmented landscapes and fewer hunters in recent years have kept herd populations high.  According to a 2002 survey of New York farmers, crop damage from deer accounted for the loss of $58.8 million, or about 1.7% of total agricultural production. The DEC is currently developing a deer management plan, due sometime this spring, which will focus on ways to recruit new hunters and to increase use of antlerless (doe) permits.

For gardeners, the best management plan is a barrier that is either too high or wide for the deer to jump, or too unpleasant for them to breech. Lightweight polypropylene fencing comes in 8 foot rolls, is easy to install and blends visually into the background. Two rows of shorter fencing placed 3 feet apart, or fencing slanted outward, make it difficult for deer to negotiate a clear jump. Other options include laying a haphazard pattern of monofilament fishing line around the outside an existing fence. Deer presumably stay away from the fence to avoid entangling their hooves.

My own garden is fenced with a four-strand electric fence powered by a solar charger and baited periodically through the season with peanut butter to condition the deer with a quick shock to the nose. If they learn to stay away, my plants are safe. But if I forget to turn on the fence and they have a chance to get into the garden they will return even when the fence is active, pushing through the strands to get at the tasty treats inside.

Zone Creep

Dana Fast in her garden

Dana Fast in her garden

Dana Fast grows vegetables and fruits at her home in Lake Clear, NY. A trained biochemist, she has tracked low temperatures, first and last frost dates, and other pertinent information in her garden notebooks since 1976. Recently she shared her data and conclusions at a lecture sponsored by the Essex County Master Gardener Volunteers.

Her records reflect the changes seen in temperature data around the world, pointing to a longer growing season with milder winters in the North Country. From 1976 to 1985 the date of "last frost" in spring occurred before the last week in May only 3 years out of 10.  From 2000 to 2009 the ratio had risen to 6 out of 10, although there is still quite a bit of variability from year to year.

Last Spring Frost

The end date of the growing season, the "first frost" of the fall, has shown a more consistent pattern, with frosts before the beginning of September becoming increasingly rare.First Fall Frost

And we can probably say goodbye to winters that feature lows of  -40 degrees. ( A bit of trivia: -40 is the only place where Fahrenheit and Celsius values are equivalent.)

Minimum Winter Temps

These observations are in line with changes seen across the country, in what has been called "zone creep." Hardiness zones, based on minimum winter temperatures, give gardeners a general idea of what can be grown in their location.  An animated map at The Arbor Day Foundation website shows how the zones  moved north between 1990 and 2006.  Dana's garden, which would have been classified as zone 3 when she started gardening in 1976, is now in zone 4.

For Tri-Lakes gardeners, this means the bush full of ripe tomatoes is no longer an elusive goal. On the other hand, the tomato hornworm, that 3 ½ inch green bane of tomato growers in warmer locations, has now made its way to the Adirondacks. What temperature related changes have you seen in your garden?


As far as I know, Nicholson Baker is the only person to write a horror story involving potatoes. Early on in Subsoil, the protagonist has an unsettling encounter with a potato left in a Mr. Potato Head box:

He pulled the lid slowly off the box, feeling the air slip in to fill the increasing volume. And then he had a nasty shock…A real potato, or a former potato, a now dead potato still rested within the box.

You know things are just going to get worse.

Sprouted potatoes

Sprouted potatoes

I had a slightly less ominous surprise when I opened the bag of seed potatoes I had saved from last year and discovered that they had begun to sprout. Note: experts generally recommend against saving your own potatoes for seed, due to buildup of viruses and disease. If you or your neighbors experienced late blight at all during the previous season, you should NOT save any part of plants in the Solonaceae  family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers. My potatoes were from second year plants, and were healthy.

But they had started to grow, and as I had already prepped a bed for them, it seemed like a good time to plant. Potato tubers grow from the portion of stem that is underground, so they are usually "hilled" with dirt during the growing season so that more of the stem will be covered. Rather than hilling, I decided to dig a trench, piling the loose soil alongside so that it could be raked over the plants as they grow.

Seed potatoes in the trench

Seed potatoes in the trench

However, before I planted I spent a few minutes examining the pink-and-white growths that would become the new potato plants. The tentacled sprouts, covered with fine hairs, seemed almost preternatural in the way they sucked the vitality from the withered potato in order to regenerate a new, strong plant. OK, I think it's time to go get some fresh air.

Closeup of a sprouted potato

Closeup of a sprouted potato

Coming Soon, To a Community Near You

I don't want to sound alarmist, but I have observed a certain type of growth in the North Country landscape in the past few years. If  you live near Canton, Keene, Plattsburgh, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid or Saranac Lake you may have noticed it as well. Potsdam and Saratoga Springs could be next. Yes, I'm afraid it's true: community gardens  are taking root everywhere.

First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House garden Todd Moe interviews a community garden organizer

In fact, as coordinator of the Common Ground Garden in Saranac Lake I am thrilled to see how this movement, famously championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, is inspiring people of all ages and with all levels of experience to buy some seeds, pick up a shovel, and spend some time getting dirty. Without getting too sappy, I see these public gardens as a way to come together on neutral soil to learn from and help each other.

Most of the gardens are just stirring back to life after the winter cold, so if you'd like to find out more a web search should bring up contact information, or email me and I'll try to put you in touch. If you are already a community gardener or garden organizer I'd be happy to broadcast your info on this blog.


Lately, I have been poring over a book I bought years ago at the library book sale: The Solar Greenhouse Book by James C. McCullagh. Published by Rodale Press in 1978, it has discussions of various types of glazing, diagrams of solar incidence and reflection, and nostalgia-inducing photos of Rodale Farm and New Alchemy Institute*. Though some of the techniques and materials are outdated, the idea still makes sense – use thermal mass and movable insulation, like curtains, to trap and store enough heat to keep the greenhouse warm. I can attest that these principles of passive solar design work: our house gets about 15% of its heat from the sun using these elements.


Sanjun Gu with cucumbers in solar heated Chinese greenhouse

So, where are the solar heated greenhouses of today? It turns out that they are in China. Limited access to fuel for heating greenhouses and incentive to keep costs low lead to the development of simple structures that derive their heat from thermal storage, in the form of thick, north walls and keep the heat from radiating out with insulating blankets.

This design has been implemented in Manitoba, with remarkable results. On the coldest day of the test period, the outside temperature was -30 degrees C yet the temperature inside did not go below freezing (0 degrees c)

As you may have guessed, my research has a a purpose. I plan to build a scaled down version of a Chinese style greenhouse this summer to allow much more room for seed starting than my shelving-with-lights operation. Here is a schematic of the plan I am considering.

I will post updates of the construction as it move along through the summer. If any of you have experience with greenhouses, and especially with solar heated greenhouses, I'd love to hear your input.Chinese greenhouse design

*I visited New Alchemy in the early 80's and saw their fish-pond-and-manure heated greenhouses. The air of experimentation was inspiring.

And So It Begins, Again…

Shallots 2011

Seedling shallots for the 2011 garden

…the growing season, that is, coinciding with the resurrection of The Garden Plot. The blog, started last year by TAUNY, will have a slightly different format this year with a few regulars, including me, rotating blog posts.* Comments are encouraged; hopefully the facebook page will  become a place for gardeners and others to post thoughts, pictures, and videos.

My interests in the green-and-growing world range from planting tips to food economics to learning about innovators and eccentrics. To me, gardening embodies the slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally." I'll be looking at how we grow things in the North Country and how that ties into issues that face everyone. And, of course, I'll post updates from my market garden throughout the season.

*We are looking for some other voices to join this blog – gardeners, farmers, chefs, eaters – please get in touch if you are interested in writing about gardens in the smaller or larger sense.


Asked recently by a pollster what I thought was the most important issue facing our country today I replied, "Climate change." There was a long pause at the other end as the phone-banker looked far down the list of concerns to register my comment: it was not a common answer. (Just wondering – did everybody else get an onslaught of phone polls before the primaries? They are fun, but time consuming.)

On October 10th people around the world will  work on projects in their communities that address climate change – from installing solar panels, to restoring forests, to workshops on "sustainability skills" – in an effort to show our leaders that we can no longer accept inaction as  policy. This worldwide network of local events is coordinated by, the brainchild of Bill McKibben, a thoughtful and passionate writer on the issue.

Prepping the garden in spring 2009

Common Ground Garden, spring 2009

Which is all prelude to announce that the Common Ground Garden in Saranac Lake will hold a work party on October 10th, starting at 10 am at both of our sites – Old Lake Colby Road, and Willow Way. We'll be planting daffodil bulbs (for Daffest), demonstrating sheet mulching techniques, and putting the garden to bed. There will be a cider pressing in the afternoon, thanks to Greg Popp and Andrea Hill – bring your apples AND a jug – and gardeners are invited to regroup at the Presbyterian church at 5:00 for a potluck and music jam. Do stop by if you're in the area, with or without a wheelbarrow!


My first WWOOFer arrived today, a lovely young woman named Trina-Marie. Okay: Willing Workers on Organic Farms. (Actually, that was the acronym when I was a WWOOFer, but I see that it is now World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.)

Trina-Maire washing Swiss Chard

Trina-Maire washing Swiss Chard

WWOOF links people interested in learning about organic growing with host growers. The  usual agreement is room and board in exchange for 2 weeks' work. Hosts and workers find each other by signing up to the website for a small fee.

In the late 1980s I WWOOFed (it's a versatile word, both noun and verb) in New Zealand during a several week trip. At that time, the WWOOFing catalogue came as a copied pamphlet with phone numbers for contact. I remember a strange feeling of incongruity as I telephoned from our snowy winter cabin to a summery place 7 time zones away.

I spent a couple of weeks at a tree nursery that was also, coincidentally, hosting a permaculture course, and then a week or two more at the homes of people I had met at the first farm. The Kiwis were wonderfully encouraging to someone who had never yet planted a successful garden, advising me among other things to try growing a lemon tree. When I protested that I lived far from citrus country they murmured, "Maybe you could find a sheltered spot to plant it."

Trina-Marie will help me conquer the grass that has invaded most of my beds, and prep for next season. My garden space is small, so I would like to offer TM and future WOOFers the opportunity to spend time on other farms in the area. If you are interested in hosting apprentices like this, let me know.

Beyond the Garden Gate

Cosmos and zinnias, zucchini, carrots and beets, tomatoes and green beans flourish in a series of raised beds in the Common Ground Garden, a community garden in Saranac Lake. The plots are maintained by members of the First Presbyterian Church in an effort to bring fresh vegetables and flowers to area residents who do not or can not garden for themselves.

“Tending these garden plots is, I feel, part of our mission to feed the hungry and promote healing,” says Pastor Joann White, as she plucks a bouquet of flowers to bring to a housebound member of her congregation. She spearheads a small group of dedicated volunteers who rotate garden responsibilities on a weekly basis. The produce is offered to patrons of the interfaith food pantry on Saturday mornings; flowers which brighten weekly mass are later distributed to those hospitalized or shut in.

Joann White in the Common Ground Garden

Pastor Joann White gathering flowers

I am standing with White in the garden space on Old Lake Colby Road in Saranac Lake. Common Ground Garden, organized in 2008 in response to increased interest in gardening, got its start last spring on land provided by the Adirondack Medical Center. Community members lease plots on a yearly basis here, and in a newly established site on the other side of town on Saranac Lake village property. Both sites provide water for the gardeners and are enclosed by deer fencing.

The Presbyterians’ project is an embodiment of the goals that we on the Common Ground steering committee have for the garden: to involve more people in growing food and to bring garden-fresh produce to those who lack it. Along with the vegetables, they, and the dozens of others who help with their time and expertise, are adding to the banks of interconnectedness that make our small communities thrive.

Hoop Dreams

It is no secret that we gardeners  are slaves to the whims of our plants -  our job is to anticipate their needs and wants and to make sure they are always satisfied. Most plants thrive with constant warm temperatures, protection from extreme wind and rain, and a steady supply of water.  We counteract the excesses of our climate by creating mini plant oases in the garden.

Rich moving hoophouse with tractor

Rich moving end walls

A few years ago, I added a simple, cheap hoophouse to my garden, a slightly modified version of one designed by Washington State University Extension. The cost of materials was about $300; the construction of the end walls took a morning's worth of work by my husband, son and father-in-law, including extensive discussion and consultation.

This design is intended as a 3-season hoophouse: it will not survive a snowload. The ribs are made from PVC pipe and the plastic covering is held in place by nylon twine. After the initial construction, replacing and removing the plastic in spring and fall takes less than an hour as a two person job.

Hoophouse in spring

Hoophouse in spring

Because the ground is exposed during the winter, pests and disease tend not to develop inside the hoophouse.  Ventilation and access for insect pollinators is easily achieved by rolling up the sides of the plastic. Drip irrigation,although not strictly necessary, is a valuable addition, insuring that the plants do not get splashed by fungus-bearing soil.

I have used the hoophouse for season extension, covering plants with a layer of row cover inside the hoophouse during late and early frosts. A high-low thermometer registered a 12 degree Fahrenheit difference one night between the protected space inside the hoophouse and outside in the grass . But the greatest benefit so far is to let warmth-loving plants grow unchecked:

muskmelons in the hoophouse

An abundant harvest of musk melons!

Covering Up

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.'

The Graduate (1967)

I use 3 kinds of plastic in my organic garden – floating row cover, greenhouse plastic, and plastic mulch.  On one hand, these products are petroleum-based and they do end up at a landfill, generally after 3-4 years of use.  One the other, they allow me to avoid almost all use of pesticides and herbicides, organic or otherwise. And they hold in precious warmth and moisture. (OK, maybe the moisture isn't so precious right now.)

Floating row coverFloating row cover, sometimes known by an early brand name Reemay, is my favorite product.  A porous material light enough to lay on top of plants without hurting them, it keeps out insects while allowing sunlight and rain to penetrate.  I cover lettuce, basil, brassicas -  even young squash and cukes, removing the cover when they begin to flower to allow pollination. Here is a video showing how simple it is to use.

Because row cover allows sunlight in, weeds grow along with the garden plants. Some growers use plastic mulch to eliminate weeds under the row cover, but so far I've only used it under plants without row covers. In addition to weed suppression, plastic mulch warms soil and slows the spread of soil based diseases like early blight.  I'd like to do some more experimenting with plastic mulch: tomatoes and cucumbers seem to do well, but bed preparation in the spring is time consuming.

Next post: hoop houses.