Food Waste and Our Soil: Why everyone should compost for a healthier future

It’s called “black gold” – no, it’s not oil, it’s compost and it is valuable. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize just how precious this commodity really is for our earth.  I’ve written about how-to compost in the past. It’s not a very glamorous topic, talking about how people should throw away their trash but it’s a very important one. Compost can help revitalize infertile soils which is major problem not only in the U.S but throughout the world.

Soil Erosion is a Global Issue

The U.S. and most of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, and other farming practices that have left the soil depleted. Topsoil is the most fertile arable land on earth and some experts fear, we could even run out of it to grow food in within the next 60 years[1]! Soil erosion is 2nd to population growth as the environments biggest problem[2]. But soil isn’t sexy.

How Does Compost Help the soil?

The majority of people who compost are gardeners who know all the benefits composting can produce for their gardens, lawns and lives. Compost helps build soil structure which enables soil to retain nutrients, water and air – all key ingredients to growing healthy plants. It also helps protect land against drought and plants from disease. Compost is filled with life – microorganisms, earthworms and insects – a synergistic force of nature. It acts as a PH buffer, neutralizing various soil toxins and metals (lead and cadmium) by bonding with them so plants will not. Now think about places like California that have had a tremendous amount of soil erosion and degradation due to wildfires and mudslides and how they could benefit a build up compost.

It’s Not just for Country Folk – Urban Dwellers benefit too

However, composting is a practice of sustainable living which should be practiced by everyone.  There is little in this world that we have control over, and composting is one of the things that can do that is within our control to make our planet a healthier place.  It doesn’t require government intervention or corporate governance; it simply takes a little effort by individuals.  A new habit of how we throw away our trash needs to be formed.

Today, there are more and more compost services which take the hassle out of what traditionally was something only avid gardeners and farmers practiced. We have friends who live in Portland, Maine who use a compost pick-up service which provides them with beautiful compost. A quick search on the internet was able to provide me with a number of businesses throughout the United States that provide either curbside or drop-off composting. That’s great for citizens to be able to have those options available to them and I believe that more people would compost if they knew more about how it would help our environment.

Urban dwellers who would like to be environmentally conscientious in the past have not been able to compost or have had to struggle with composting. Composting can be messy and smelly; it can bring about rats, and other unwanted and hazardous pests if not done properly. Fortunately, more and more businesses have turned their energy and efforts towards this problem and are making it easy for communities including city-dwellers to compost. But why should they want to compost? They don’t have gardens or lawns they could use the compost on.

How Does Composting Help the Environment?

When food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane gas, the greenhouse gas which traps heat within our atmosphere which is 23x more potent than carbon dioxide.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is responsible for 34% of all the methane emissions in the U.S.[3] Landfills are so densely packed that much of the degradation happens during a slow, anaerobic process. Anaerobic processes create a tremendous amount of methane gas. One way to ease the amount of food waste that ends up in the landfills is for the food waste to be converted into compost.  We need to be more consciences about how we throw away food.  Americans throw away food more than any other single material, more than paper, even more than plastic![4]

Set up a system

We moved to New Hampshire a few years ago and live in a very rural area that does not have curb-side or community drop-off yet in our area, although it does exist in the state. Our town however, has very strict recycling rules and our garbage has to be well sorted before going to the dump.  Our kitchen has seven (7) 13-gallon trash containers which take up three of my under cabinets. We primarily sort out: burnables, cardboard, metal, aluminum foil, plastic, glass, magazines. You may think seven sounds like a lot but we actually could use a few more for a few other categories like batteries and light bulbs. There are at least two trash containers at my desk, as well as two in every bedroom and bathroom. So, you can imagine with all the different trash we deal with being able to sort out our food waste from the other “burnables” would be desirable. The dump isn’t far away but sometimes the weather can make things difficult to get down the mountain on the days the dump is open – which is only Friday-Sunday; Mondays included during the summer months. However, composting up here on the mountain the traditional way would require an electric fence to keep bears, coyotes and the rest of the surrounding wildlife away.  It was hard enough running out to the side yard in Connecticut sometimes, so the thought of having to breach an electric fence made the idea impossible. That all changed when I found the FoodCycler™ FC-30, a in-home composting unit which has been a complete game-changer in our household. Check out our Product Review on this wonderful little unit.

As individuals, we can make a difference in the health of our planet by making smart choices of how we discard our household food waste in the future. We must learn to strike a balance between our lifestyles and our impact on nature.

Facts to consider

The average US citizen creates 4 lbs of trash per day [EPA]

The average US citizen throws away about 1200 lbs of organic garbage annually that could be repurposed as compost. Americans as a whole throw away 43,000 tons of food every day. [EPA]

The EPA estimates that 75% of American waste is recyclable yet only 30% is actually recycled. [EPA]

Americans generate 21.5 million tons of food waste annually – composting it would reduce greenhouse emissions equivalent to removing 2 million cars from the road [Carnegie Mellon CEE Green Team . -April 15, 2015]

Footnotes:

[1]What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?” Time, 14 Dec 12

[2] D. Pimentel, “Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat,” Environ. Devel. Sustain. 8, 119 (2006)

[3] Waste Land: Does the Large Amount of Food Discarded in the U.S. Take a Toll on the Environment? Scientific America March 10, 2010

[4] Upper Valley Business Finding ‘Pay Dirt’ in Food Scraps nhpr.org February 13, 2018

Further Recommended Reading:

CompostNow.org

SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction – fao.org

11 Facts About Recycling – dosomething.org

Soil Erosion and Degradation – World Wildlife Federation

Product Review: FoodCycler™ FC-30

[Note: We do not make any money from our Product Reviews. We purchase the products we review, unless otherwise noted.]

I’m always on the lookout to make a difficult job easier and late last year I discovered a wonderful home composting system called the FoodCycler™ which can be done inside, doesn’t smell and isn’t messy!  Since moving up here 2-1/2 years ago we did a complete garden overhaul but haven’t been able to compost. Bears and coyotes make that difficult for us without an electric fence up here where we live in rural New Hampshire. But that has all changed thanks to us finding out about the FoodCycler™ FC-30. Food Cycle Science, the company which distributes the machines, is a Canadian company that focuses on bringing green technology to homes and businesses across North America to combat the increasing problem of methane emissions caused by the influx of food waste in landfills.

This in-home composting system is so incredibly easy to use– I just feel the need to tell everyone about it!  A quick look at some our Instagram posts will show you how much we love this composter. First off, let me say that for the most part it is just the two of us here, but we do get the occasional visit from our kids or friends who contribute to our trash on occasion.

How Does it Work?

FoodCycler™ FC-30

The FoodCycler™ FC-30 is a multiphase organic food waste recycling machine that dehydrates and converts food waste into compost. It’s very stylish and fits in nicely with other kitchen items like your coffee maker. I don’t have a lot of counter space up here, so our composter is sitting on the floor in a space that’s out of the way and easy to access.  The interior of the unit holds a removable cast iron bucket which holds a 2-3lbs of food scraps. I fill it up right away, other days it takes us a few days to fill it up.  During the process which takes somewhere between 3-6 hours, the food waste is agitated and heated up to 179.6ºF (82ºC); thus helping to reduce the food waste in volume.  The system is able to sustain the proper heat levels needed to kill harmful bacteria, so you can also throw in food scraps you wouldn’t normally throw in your old compost pile such as meats, fish and chicken bones – even cheese!  Last night was the first time we used it with chicken scraps from a whole chicken and some leftover veggies. We had been to the dump earlier but picked up the chicken at the grocery store right afterwards. The thought of the leftover carcass and scraps sitting in the garage over the next week was very unappealing, so I finally decided to give it a try and compost the chicken and so glad I did! We were extremely pleased with the resulting compost and I feel a whole new world of composting has opened up to us. Another great thing about this system is since it is so well made, the cast-iron bucket cleans up quickly. Most of the time all I have had to do is rinse and wipe with a paper towel, but it easily slips into the dishwasher as well.

Our compost made with
the FoodCycler™FC-30

We have been using the FoodCycler™ for the last 6 weeks and are really quite happy with quality of the compost it produces.  I keep a small trug next to the unit and dump the finished compost into it. It doesn’t smell at all and right now my garden is under 3 feet of snow, so it’s just as easy to leave it inside next to the unit until it fills up.  When it’s on it’s quiet and doesn’t use any more energy than a small microwave oven. The FoodCycler™ reduces methane gas emission since the aerobic digestion process doesn’t create any methane and any CO2 emissions created in the process are captured by the carbon filters built into the unit. All in all, we are cutting down on our carbon footprint in so many ways, making less trips to the dump and not contributing as much food waste into landfills.

5 Green Thumbs Up Rating
5 Green Thumps Up

It’s for all these reasons we give the FoodCycler™ a 5 green thumbs up. In fact, I liked the machine so much I reached out to the company to see if there was a way we could work together. Homegrown Harvest is a small company and we work with suppliers who directly ship to our customers since we don’t take on inventory. We don’t have the space or means to deal with that, so Food Cycle Science was kind enough to extended to us a $30 off coupon code: HomegrownHarvest2019 that we can share on social media.

[Please note – we don’t make any money off of the sale the FoodCyclers™; we are just happy to be able to offer our followers a discount on a product that we think is a well-made and will make a difference in helping us all live a more sustainable lifestyle.]

Citizen Science

Have you ever heard of the term citizen science? How about community science? No? Volunteer monitoring? Crowd-sourced science?  If you are like I was, you may be unfamiliar with these terms. In essence, citizen science is when scientific researchers use non-scientist, a.k.a. ordinary, everyday people, to help with their studies collecting data in quantities they could not do on their own.

It was in the most recent issue of Horticulture Magazine which introduced me and probably many others to the term ‘citizen scientist’ as part of their cover article, The Great Sunflower Project. This project focuses on pollinators by asking interested people to grow the same variety, specifically Lemon Queen. Once the flower has bloomed, scientist ask their citizen volunteers to simply sit for 5 minutes on three separate occasions and count the number of visiting pollinators to that one flower. 5 minutes, 3 separate times – a total of 15 minutes of your undivided attention towards a flower can tell researchers so much. The volunteer data comes from all over the country, helping scientists understand the number of pollinators that visits per hour, per flower, the same flower, all across the country.  Scientists and researchers would not have the money, time, or ability, let alone the manpower to record this type of data without the help of citizen scientists.

A Little History
Citizen science has been around actually for centuries. Before the late 19th century most scientists made a living some other way than science. Collaborations between researchers and scientists across the world has always been the norm way before the age of technology, as early as 17th century. It just took a lot longer for the things to happen.  Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who standardized the naming of organisms (binomial nomenclature) wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t collaborated with other amateur researchers helping him collect specimens.  Wine makers for centuries have kept records on grape harvests. Hunters and fisherman have equally recorded specific, valuable data about animals for generations.  All very important data to modern day scientists and researchers.  

How Can I Get Involved?
Today, anyone still can be a citizen scientist. If you’re interested in gardening and nature, there are projects similar to the Great Sunflower Project, like the Hummingbirds At Home Project where people track, report and follow the spring hummingbird migration to better understand how climate change may be impacting hummingbirds.

What I’ve discovered about citizen science projects so far, is that whether it’s a project being organized by the Appalachian Mountain Club, Smithsonian, SciStarter.com, Scientific America, Zooniverse, Crowd & Cloud or National Geographic, there is an opportunity to get involved in a project that directly relates to your world.  Projects vary in disciplines including the arts, biology, climate, history, language, literature, medicine, nature, physics, and more…

While checking out the Scientific America’s citizen science website, I stumbled across a project called Small World of Words. The goal of the project is to help researchers discover how the meaning of words is stored in memory. All I had to do was take a 5 minute quiz where they give you a word and all you have to do is type the first two or three words that word makes you think of. No need to even leave the house to become a citizen scientist. Another project that caught my eye is the Folger Shakespeare Library, Zooniverse.org, Oxford English Dictionary collaborating on the project called Shakespeare’s World which asks participants to “transcribe handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to help researchers understand his life and times”. A fascinating study, you can pick from either transcribing letters or recipes depending on your own interests.  

Lemon Queen

However, the projects which most interest me are the ones that require you to go outside and simply watch what’s going on in the world around you.  In today’s world, disconnecting from technology can be impossible, so I welcome the chance to take a few moments to tune out the technology and focus on nature.  Sure, I’ll be reporting back my finding using technology but a pad and pen will do fine for counting the amount of bees that visit my Lemon Queen sunflower or how many hummingbirds visit my feeder.  I wish I had known about citizen science programs when my kids were little. What a great way to encourage children to be observant and perhaps gain a better understanding, interest and love of science.

There are projects for people of all ages, so anyone can be a citizen scientist, if they are interested. Technology and the internet have bridged the gap between university researchers and scientists stuck in labs – linking them with ordinary people who have similar interests in their research.

For gardeners, there are plenty of projects to get involved with from the Great Sunflower Project to the Citizen Science Soil Collection Project , aimed to help scientists at the University of Oklahoma study microscopic life in soil samples in search of new drug compounds. Or the Lost Ladybug project aimed to help entomologists better understand ladybug distribution across North America. Another project involving sunflowers is Turing’s Sunflower project where volunteers are asked to grow sunflowers and put mathematical theories of Alan Turing and other researchers to the test. As a gardener, I always include sunflowers in our garden since I love the majestic beauty sunflowers bring to the garden and can’t think of a better way to help contribute in some small way than helping researchers compile some data from something I was doing anyway.

Technology has allowed us the ability to easily record our observations with the use of our cell phone cameras and apps. Whether it’s Project Noah or Nature’s Notebook, there are more and more platforms like these that allow ordinary people to join the citizen scientist movement and get involved. In a few weeks on April 18th we celebrate Citizen Science Day #citsciday, hopefully making more and more people aware of how they can get involved with citizen science and perhaps attend a scheduled event near them.  Check out this PSA



I believe in order for us to live a sustainable life, we need to make these seemingly small contributions of data to the scientific world. The more data collected will help researchers further their understanding of the world we live in and help us to take batter care of it and ourselves for generations to come.


A Bountiful Summer leads to Several Seeds to Save

I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered and near a good market for the production of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects someone always coming to perfection. The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one throughout the year. Under a total want of demand except for our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
~Thomas Jefferson to Charles William peel Poplar Forest, August 20, 1811.         
It’s hard to believe that we ushered in the fall of 2015 this week. Our business celebrated its third growing season and the busy season of that!
Mark working at a client’s garden we revamped this season
One of the best things that I love about gardening is that each season brings something new and different. We began seeding early in March as the snow ebbed and as soon as we were able to work the top few inches of soil. The peas are always the first things we get into the raised beds. Temperatures remained cool throughout spring and into early summer. It took a while for things to finally heat up which is why I still have plenty of tomatoes, beans and peppers ripening in the garden right now.
I reviewed the data on AccuWeather the actual temperatures that we experience this growing season I wasn’t too surprised to confirm what I thought was a cooler than normal season here in zone 6. This may seem contrary to report this being the “warmest summer on record” or the “summer of 2015 was earth hottest on record “. But explains why we still have plenty of green tomatoes and peppers growing in our garden right now couple that with less than average rainfall and you have a recipe for a slower than average season.
Highs and lows
temperatures
March
0
57
April
23
75
May
37
84
June
41
84
July
51
91
August
51
90
September *
49
94
 
Number of days about 90 degrees
July
3
August
1
September*
2
  
Number of days temperature was above 80 degrees in New Canaan, CT
May
13
June
10
July
24
August
26
September *
14
Number of days temperature was 75 degrees or below
March
31
April
29
May
12
June
13
July
2
August
0
September *
4
 *up until the 24th
The slower season doesn’t necessarily mean less productive however. We have had a tremendously productive season bringing pounds of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and beans. 
  
The cucumbers keep coming in, we have had such a good season I was able to put a platter full to share with our neighbors. 


The Barnside sweet runner beans and Blauhilde beans, a beautiful purple being that turns green when cooked coming in so fast I have to freeze them since we can eat them fast enough.
 
September 23rd harvest
As the growing season winds down it’s the time of year to start collecting seeds for next year. Ultimately one of the best seeds to use in our garden are the seeds harvested from your own plants.  It’s an age-old tradition that’s extremely rewarding on many levels.  Preserving your heirloom, open-pollinated varieties, you help plants adapt to your local conditions thus increasing yields
Heirloom tomatoes
Understanding the difference between Heirloom and F1 Hybrid seeds 
“ Heirlooms have naturally evolved over the years and have been passed down over the generations from gardener to gardener.
F1 hybrid plants are not genetically modified but have been developed by gardeners and farmers for centuries. By cross pollinating two related varieties, breeders strive to take the best of both worlds from most plants characteristics such as disease and pest resistance, high-yielding and greater taste.
For the seed collector, the drawback to F1 seeds is that they don’t reproduce a true second generation. What this means is that the second-generation may not have the same characteristics as the first generation. 
It is for that reason that we do not collect seeds from F1 hybrid plants. F1 seeds have their place in the garden but when it comes to collecting seeds turn to your heirlooms. 
By collecting and preserving heirloom varieties, we help pass along to future generations delicious varieties that gardeners of shared with one another for over 50 years. Heirloom vegetables are open pollinated and remain stable in their characteristics from year-to-year.
 

A few do’s and don’t to remember when seed-saving
  • “ Don’t save seeds from f1 hybrid plants.

    • “ These seeds can be infertile or produce different traits from the original parent, which are less favorable

  • “ Don’t save seeds from the squash family and sweet corn

    • “ They can cross pollinate and hybridize, difficult to keep variety pure

  • Tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas are the best seeds to start with

    • They are easiest to harvest and require little attention before storage.

  • Save your seeds from your strongest plants with the most delicious fruit
    • To collect seeds from the vegetables simply look to take the seeds from a beautifully developed plant that is fully mature. Look for plants that have grown vigorously and have shown resistance to pests and diseases. 

  • Store seeds in airtight containers or individual envelopes kept in a dry place

  • Label clearly with name, variety, date collected

I prefer the airtight container since envelopes get wet and dirty in practice ultimately – hard to reseal – seeds fall out end up at the bottom of my purse…
When we save our seeds, it helps to preserve and promote genetic diversity. In turn this helps to strengthen and make more pest-resistant future generations that will thrive.

How-to collect seeds
1.    Slice open your vegetable to carefully remove the seeds with a spoon or a knife.
2.    Then place the seeds on cardboard or a piece of paper towel to dry out
a.    Tomato seeds are covered in the mucous membrane and it can be easier to use a cheesecloth
b.    Rinse the seeds out with water to release the membrane
c.     spread seeds out on a piece of cardboard to dry.
3.    place seeds in dry place
Have fun saving your seeds!

Time to Dream and Plan

heirloom onthe plantIt’s 5 degrees out this morning here in our neck of the woods.  It’s even colder where some of the kids are up at college like Burlington where it’s -18 right now and 4 degrees in Ithaca feeling like minus 4.  In Boston where our other one is at it’s 5 degrees but the winds up there are making it feel more like 10 below. Brrrr…it is cold out there today. It’s around this time of year that we start to jones for one of our homegrown heirloom tomatoes. Thank god weIMG_0007 made sauce at least. The garden is covered with a thick quilt of hard-packed snow about 20 inches deep burying our overwintering vegetables and Charlie the gnome.

The new year has brought us a new Sears Craftsman riding lawn tractor. We decided to get the snow blower attachment so we could us the things year round – mowing and mulching during the summer, snow blowing now.  We’ve already had the pleasure of clearing the driveway 6 times in the last month – quickly making back some money on our investment. Making me think we should have done this a long time ago.

IMG_0080
Right off the truck before the snow

Getting to know the ins and outs of snow blowing our own driveway has had it’s ups and downs but nothing that hasn’t been resolved quickly.  Day one, Mark threw a pin trying to clear a path to the garbage shed – not to self watch the  natural rock wall on the left hand side of the path.  Day two I’m clearing the front of the driveway by the mailbox when Ruby – yes we’ve named her – decides to stop throwing snow and emit a slight burnt rubber smell.  Thankfully, that too was fixable although not sure exactly why it happened – the belt to the auger seemed to have stretched or the cable did…regardless Mark was able to trouble shoot and we were back to throwing more snow in no time. According to the groundhog, we have 6 more weeks of winter so it will be a while before we get to take the snow thrower attachment off and put the lawn mower deck on the bottom.

On frigid cold days like these where Jack Frost is nipping more than just the nose; it’s best to stay inside and grab one of the many seed catalogs that have been pouring into the mailbox last month.  I’ve been really busy preparing for a number of lectures on the schedule for February, just finishing the first one this past Wednesday.

GardenToTableI gave a Garden to Table presentation to the members of the New Canaan Beautification League at the New Canaan Nature Center.  There is a lot of material to cover when you want to paint a picture for an audience of why and how they can grown some of their own delicious food. So much material that the next programs I have coming up is actually a 4 part spring garden series where I can go more in depth to areas like composting, setting up polycultures, and container gardening.  The spring garden series will be hosted by the New Canaan Library which I am really excited to being working with. Our library has recently set up a new Seed Bank – so I am excited at the possibilities going forward that there is an increasing interest in edible gardening locally.

I’ve lived in my town for the last twenty years, raising my kids and working for my brother most of that time, but volunteering in my community is ways like coaching girls lacrosse. My fiance and business partner, Mark has been an EMT at our volunteer ambulance corp – NCVAC for past two years. The members of the Beautification League volunteer to their time to helping keep our pretty little village looking it’s best via working with nature. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life. When I was a teenager. my mother was at one point the President of the YWCA of New York City. She had started at the Y as a volunteer coordinator and her work ethic and passion for the place propelled her to president at lightening speed. The woman knew how to make things happen.

Volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to a community or organization you feel passionate about. It’s a great way to get out and meet like minded people who enjoy similar passions. I purposely use the word ‘volunteering’ as opposed to ‘community service’ because at some point in today’s world, the legal system has dished out ‘community service’ to many making it sound more like a penalty than something that can be very rewarding for the volunteer, them-self. It’s a shame that to a generation of children the words ‘community service’ doesn’t sound like something you would want to do but have to do.

In the gardening world, ‘volunteers’ means something different than people giving of their time to do something for free. Instead when you hear a gardener refer to a ‘volunteer’ they are referring to a specific plant that wasn’t purposely seeded but successfully growing where ever its seed lay.  Last summer we had a number of ‘volunteers’ come up in our backyard and not all in our raised beds.  We had a couple tomato plants come up over in wood chipped area and two more in the raised beds – one in my designated 3 Sister beds and the other in my cabbage bed.  The ones in the raised beds fared better than the wood chipped areas – most likely since we had composted the beds and perhaps the wood chips reduced the ph too much for the tomato plants to fruit. The two plants in the wood chip grew pretty big – one just flowered but didn’t fruit, the other fruited but very late in the season and we only were able to take some of the cherry tomatoes off before they had a chance to ripen on the vine.  Conversely, the volunteers in the raised beds gave off a lot of fruit – both of those were also cherry tomato plants.

From our garden a beautiful snap pea begins to bloom.
A beautiful snap pea begins to bloom

I’m reminded of all this when I was preparing my presentation and was scanning my hundreds of photos of our garden and our client’s gardens.  The pictures get me thinking about the possibilities for this season.  What varieties should we plant this year?  Peas for certain will be among the first things, along with a variety of lettuce…The seed catalogs have sat untouched by me until just the other day.  I was afraid if I opened even one I would be too distracted to work on my Garden To Table presentation.  Later in the night, the day of the presentation, I finally cracked open my first bit of what we fondly refer to as garden porn.  Beautiful photographs of the most delicious looking fruits and vegetables are coupled with mouth-watering descriptions which causes you to have eyes bigger than your garden beds.

I was proud of myself, I didn’t go seed crazy and deliberately focused on edible flowers in as I checked out Annie’s Heirloom Seeds catalog and then also the strawberry starts – had to get those before they sell out like last year. Oh, then there is the potatoes – had to get some of Binje potatoes to try this year…Luckily I was exhausted form my day and that was all my tired eyes could handle at the time.

A few days have past since my seed binge and now we have these wicked cold temperatures outside, I think it’s the perfect time to start breaking out the paper and pen and start listing what we want grow this season.  I’ll need to check the cupboard where I keep our seed supply in neatly labeled plastic containers with pop-tops for one handed handling when out in the garden.  It took me a while to figure out the best way to save and keep seeds organized.  I like the plastic containers because they keep seeds dry and safe, whereas envelopes don’t reseal always and get wet and then compromise the seeds. Or land up at the bottom of your pockets, purse, garden bag, truck…

February is the best time to plan your garden – remember to consider crop rotations into your plan. Crop rotation is the practice of growing related vegetable families in different areas in consecutive years.  There are four plant families that benefit from crop rotation: the cabbage family, the carrot family, the cucumber & squash family and lastly, the tomato & eggplant family. Rotating these vegetable families will help prevent soil borne disease from building up and help keep and provides a principle mechanism for building healthy soils and organically controls pests.

When you plan things out on paper first it makes it a lot easier for to take into account things like crop rotations and companion planting. This way you can also makes sure that the proper companion plants are not only coupled together but the plants which should be kept away from one another will always stay away from one another.

One of many harvestsSo grab your hot beverage of choice and that stack of seed catalogs and enjoy dreaming about what can be. Fresh delicious harvests that will inspire most every meal!

If you are just starting a new garden and would like some ideas, I highly suggest looking at organic seed websites perhaps with your laptop or iPad or other mobile device to see the different types of delicious food you possibly could be growing in your backyard, porch or balcony. If you are in the Fairfield County, Connecticut area and need help you getting your garden started, please reach out for us to help at info@homegrownharvest.com – that’s what we do. Elsewhere, check your local listing for organic land care professionals that may help get you started. Here is the northeast we have NOFA – the Northeast Organic Farming Association but I am sure there are many regional organizations like NOFA which are committed to promoting and supporting organic land care practices.

ctnofa_logo

August/September – Where did the summer go?

It’s difficult to imagine that Labor Day weekend has already come and gone.  I have been negligent in writing a monthly blog entry this summer.  Once again the busy season whirled by us – selling gardens; installing gardens; going to events; talking to people about their gardens; helping people maintain their gardens.  The company’s second growing season has kept us on our toes from March all the way through until the last days of August. September’s arrival has us preparing for our next event at Live Green CT coming up September 13-14th. and we are working on a presentation about the health benefits of having a small vegetable garden which we will present at the season opening meeting of the National Charity League.

Most of August I spent time in our clients’ and our own garden pruning back the tomato plants – particularly the wildly big cherry tomatoes we planted this year. There are many gardeners oIMG_1129ut there who don’t prune their tomato plants at all. There is an old gardener’s adage: if you do prune you will have less but larger fruit, than if you don’t prune your plants. Towards the end of the summer, I like to prune our indeterminate plants because I believe that by pruning the unnecessary leaves the plants energy is diverted into the fruit and flowers instead of the foliage.  I also like to make sure the plant has plenty of airflow circulation to prevent disease from building up by clipping back the branches filled with leaves, which tend to catch the wind.  I have some plants in containers which if I don’t trim them the leaves get so clustered together that it catches the wind and on a gusty day I have found my container on it’s side!  A clear sign I needed to prune back the foliage so the air could cut through the branches giving plant healthy airflow.

Many times, early in the morning, as I am watching the dogs trot through the backyard I have considered that I should go over to my computer and write an entry about all the things we have been doing. But instead, I would head out to our garden with my camera and coffee in hand and try to capture beauty of the garden in the morning.  The cooler temperatures this season more often than not have forced me to put a robe on which did nothing for my bare feet on the cold grass from the wet morning dew.  I think we only had 3 or 4 days where the mercury rose to 90 degrees of above this summer. We have had to be patient waiting for the peppers to fully ripen to the various shades of red, orange and purple; I believe it takes a little more heat in order for them to fully flourish.  This Labor Day weekend was hot and steamy and it has continued to remain humid.  Hopefully the peppers will appreciate this little spell of hot weather.

Last week I felt the urgency to get my fall/winter garden seeded. With the way time flies the frosts of winter could be here before we know what hit us.  Particularly if the threat of the polar vortex making a possible early appearance in September topped with El Nino winter not too far behind.  About a month ago we put in another new raised bed, a beautiful cedar 4′ x 8′ raised bed from our friends down in North Carolina.  I had to drag out the dog fence so the pack wouldn’t run around and mess it up like they had after the fresh compost was added days earlier.  I seeded a bunch of cole crops: arugula, kale, broccoli, cauliflower along with some carrots and onions. The carrots I selected for this garden were Autumn King, Giants of Colmar, Paris Market and Meridia. In our Maine Kitchen Garden bed between the tomato and pepper plants there was a bunch of space so I seeded Harris Model Parsnips, a few varieties of lettuce: Winter Density, Winter Brown and Marvel of 4 Seasons; as well as a couple of varieties of spinach: Palco and Winter Giant.  I look forward to the promise of what this autumn/winter garden could possibly provide my family. Just think of the salads, soups, sauces and sides we could enjoy!

IMG_1627So far we have managed to can 9 quarts of tomato sauce for the winter and with the looks of things in the garden we will be able to do a lot more canning before the season is through.  We filmed a video about canning which I need to edit first but once it’s ready to go I will do a whole blog entry dedicated to canning. Smells trigger memories and standing over a simmering pot of tomato sauce can transport me back in to the garden with all its colors and fragrance even on the bleakest of winter days.  Every time we crack open a jar of our homegrown homemade sauce that we canned, we recapture tiny moments of summer which flew by all too fast at the time.

The Early April Garden

A tuckered out pup.
A tuckered out pup.

Spring has finally come to southwestern CT. It’s wet, cold and snowing one minute and sunny and warm the next!  We’ve been working in our garden as well as going to clients’ gardens these last couple of weeks – not letting the temperatures deter us too much. The telephone has been ringing with potential customers, internet inquiries have been coming in and our installation calendar is starting to get filled up. The gardening season is officially underway since the other day, we shoveled our first load of compost off the back of the truck.  My arms hurt so much that I am actually dictating this to Siri – thank you Siri, I will be sure not too mumble too much. My red-neck work-outs have begun. Just to give you a small hint of how hard we have been working, we managed to tire out our three month old puppy, Marley Sage.  Who know I had more energy than a puppy?

April is the time of year, if you haven’t done it already, to make a planning chart of your garden. The planning chart is basically a map of where you plan to put things in the garden.  It’s helpful to have a map so that you can couple things together that benefit one another, like tomato and basil; as well as keep away incompatibles such as beans and onions.  Seeing it all on paper will also help you to create a planting schedule telling you when you should plant certain crops. This is particularly helpful if you plan on using succession plantings throughout the season. Succession planting is simply following one crop with another crop maximizing your overall yield and elongating your season. I’ve been slowly making a plan in my head about what I want to grow but now is the time to start sitting down and writing out the plan. Once I’ve done ours I will be sure to post it – it’s still a work in progress at this point, which could be committed to paper over the weekend since I have to start planning out my clients’ gardens as well.  It’s important to keep in mind crop rotation, which is another good reason to write down a plan you can refer to the next season because life gives you enough to remember.

This month is also the time of year that you should be getting your raised beds prepared for the new season by amending the nutrient depleted soil with a variety of composts and fertilizer to put back the nutrients that your vegetables will need to grow.  Vegetables get their nutrients from the soil – think feed the soil – that’s how you feed the plant. Not by spraying chemical fertilizers on it.  Organic gardening revolves around the concept of soil life and soil biology. Organic practices such as crop rotation, use of cover crops, and companion planting are employed to enhance soil life and biology.  By using a plan, you ensure that you are not at risk of building up soil-borne diseases or mismanage the soil nutrients.

Despite the earlier snows this week, there is exciting news in the garden as the soil temperatures have finally reached into the mid 40s in the raised beds.  I couldn’t help but plant some peas on the last day of March in the new 8′ x 12′ Maine Kitchen Garden we put in this fall.  April in New England can be unpredicable. Temperatures can still be wintery cold – it was 42º but the dampness from the night’s rain made it feel closer to 35º. The soil temperatures have maintained 40º and above status all week and that tells me its the perfect time to start getting some cold crops into the ground.  Cold crops can tolerate colder temperatures and late frost.  Germination can happen for lettuce, arugula and peas

From our garden a beautiful snap pea begins to bloom.
From our garden a beautiful snap pea begins to bloom.

in 40º soil temperatures. If you are as excited about spring as I am, you will want to start some peas. They prefer the cool weather anyway since it tends to make them sweeter. I always look to around or after St. Patrick’s day as the time of year to start directly sowing them into the ground. Try planting rows on two side of a trellis in a sunny location that has fertile soil for double the yield in very little place. Peas are a great addition to the garden – they put nitrogen back into the soil and they are vertical growers not taking up a lot of garden space. They are an early season vegetable, but you can seed again in the late summer for an early fall harvest. Fall harvests fall short of the spring harvest when the soil temperatures start off cooler.  Peas get along great in the garden with just about everybody but chives, late potatoes, onions, gladiolus and grapes. Peas do particularly well with corn, cucumbers, celery, eggplants, bush/pole beans, early potatoes, radishes, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes and turnips. I always plant a wide variety, this year so far it I put in some Half Pints, Sugar Pod2, Oregon Sugar Pod II, Sugar Snap.I will keep sowing seeds every few weeks to try to get a long harvest before the warm weather sets in.

When you see daffodils and dandelions start to bloom, you should plant your potatoes -soil temperatures are hovering around 45º at that point – a good time to start potatoes.  We prefer to grow our potatoes in smart pots. It’s easy to do, takes very little space and fun to harvest by just dumping out the sacks.  You can couple potatoes with marigolds in a pot or if you choose to put them in the garden be sure to hill them and couple with bush beans, celery, carrots, corn, cabbage, horseradish,peas, petunias, onions, marigolds and french marigolds.  Just keep them away from asparagus, kohlrabi, rutabaga, fennel, turnips, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, sunflowers and cucumbers.

At 50º, germination starts to happen for spinach, Swiss chard and carrots. A whole bunch of delicious crops you can begin to grow in the the early season that are easy to grow, delicious and beautiful in the garden!  Carrots are one of my favorite seeds to sow – be sure to keep the soil moist until you see the first leaves appear. Before sowing be sure you have cultivated the bed deeply and thoroughly to promote good root growth. I found last year I did very well when I coupled my carrots with french marigolds. Marigolds roots emit an enzyme that help fights against root-eating nematodes. Bugs Bunny would have loved my carrots! Carrots also go well with leaf lettuce, onions, peas, leeks, chives and rosemary; be sure to keep it away from dill, parsnip and Queen Ann’s Lace.

Daikon radishes, radishes and beets are others also don’t mind the chilly temperatures spring has to offer. They are all easy to grow and do so quite rapidly in cool weather.  Beet seeds can be directly sown once the soil is workable and for successive crops, simply plant in two-week intervals and you will get a continuous harvest.  Remember all the parts of the radish are edible – so enjoy!  Radishes prefer the company of beets, bush/pole beans, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, parsnips, peas, spinach, nasturtiums and members of the squash family.  They should not be grown near hyssop, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts or turnips however. Beets do well with lettuce, cabbage, onions, kohlrabi, garlic and mint but not pole beans.

Lettuce from our spring garden
Lettuce from our spring garden

Lettuce is another one that quickly thrives in the chilly spring air. There are so many different varieties to choose from – look for ones that are slow to bolt. Lettuce doesn’t do well with cabbage or parsley – so be sure to separate those in the garden. But pair it up with some beets, broccoli, bush/pole beans, carrots, onions, strawberries, sunflowers, radishes, cucumbers and dill and it should do very well.  I also planted two types of lettuce the other day, one called Frizzy-Headed Drunken Woman Lettuce, the name alone is why I purchased the seeds. It’s a butter-head variety which forms a single savoyed 8 inch head with mint green leaves tinged in mahogany red. Very slow to bolt. I also planted a red iceberg since I love me an iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese.  Mache also known as lam’s lettuce or corn salad is a mild tasting green that’s an easy spring-time grower to consider which can be harvested through early winter or longer in milder climates.  Arugula can also be sown in early April. Sow ever 2 weeks and you’ll enjoy a succession of harvests of delicious greens through the fall.

Kale and onions are two more that you can start in April.  You can plant onion sets, not seeds which should be started indoors. Shallot seeds and starts can be planted in early spring. Onions work well with beets, carrots, leeks, kohlrabi, brassicas, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, dill, chamomile and summer savory. Just keep it away from your peas and asparagus.

Softneck garlic can be planted in the spring and fall whereas hardneck garlic should be planted in the fall for overwintering.  Garlic will work with most herbs in the garden and helps keep deer and aphids away from roses, raspberries, apple and pear trees. In the garden it also does well with celery, cucumbers, peas and lettuce. It’s a great companion plant since it helps in repelling codling moths, Japanese beetles, root maggots, snails and carrot root-fly.  I love garlic and we use it a lot when we cook – so having a supply of fresh garlic around is important to us and the flavors can’t be beat when you row your own!

So with the cold, rainy days of April ahead – take solace knowing that the blooms of May are not far away.  Happy gardening!

 

 

Chase away the Winter Blues and Plan Your Garden

groundhog_001Right now it’s raining on top of the three or more feet of snow that has accumulated this winter.  The groundhog cursed us by seeing his shadow and foretold of six more weeks of winter. It is historically now the 7th snowiest winter on record in this southwestern CT area. SWCT is lost between being the part of CT and NY. The rest of the state ignores us and roots for the Sox and Pats while most of us down here are either Yankees, Mets, Jets and Giant fans. We are the New York country cousin dare I say we should be dubbed East New York. That’s an inside joke between myself and my other half, Mark that I will let you in on. If you are ever perusing the real estate section of the New York Times and such you may stumble upon a place named “West New York”. At first I thought they were talking about the Westside of New York, beautiful place with some captivating views of the Hudson River and GW Bridge and apparently of West New York too. You see West New York is actually in New Jersey! So since the towns and villages of SWCT are filled to the brim with NYC commuters and people like myself who are just trying to make a living right here and we follow NY teams over the New England teams, we may as well be “East New York”.

So what does this have to do with gardening – absolutely nothing, other than the fact that if you live in the North, city or suburbs, chances are you have been dealing with a lot of snow. Spring seems months away not around the corner. How can anyone think about planning a garden right now? Actually now is the perfect time to plan a garden. The fresh blanket of snow gives your mind a blank canvas to work with, eliminating the distractions around you.

If you live in an apartment and have plenty of sun, you have many options available to you for growing some food in your home and you explore them all without putting your boots on.  Simply go online and check out the Tower Garden, our aeroponic system that we offer.  If you have a yard put on your snow boots and take a walk in your own back yard, you will be amazed at what it can do to help you start thinking more about spring.  Be careful if you haven’t walked out there for a while – I know I have broken through a few ice chunks in certain areas making walking tricky depending on which part of the yard I’m navigating.  The dogs have done a great job making a few runs – so I can stick to those in most places.  Our garden is in the sunniest part of our yard so the snow should melt quicker there once the temps start to rise.  Since we already added our new garden beds for the season and have everything all set, I have been playing around on paper some ideas for how I plan on incorporating more crop rotation into our garden.  It will be nice having another bed to use that will allow for easy rotations when the time comes. Crop rotating is an important part of gardening that benefits your crops and garden in the long term. Many gardeners don’t realize that the constantly planting the same things year after year in the same space increases the chances of soil borne disease occurrences. Even with proper soil amending to prep the beds, soil borne diseases won’t always go away.

I have a client who lost a whole bed of tomatoes that she had been using for over three years – 13 plants! A shame too since she claimed the same thing had happened the summer before but not to the degree it was happening when she showed us where most of the plants were drying up and dying on the vine. That should have been the first clue that something in the garden was amiss.  Luckily for our client, we were able to plant some new starts in other beds she had that were not filled and she had fresh tomatoes throughout the summer. We recommend that she incorporate a crop rotation plan for the following seasons.

Benefits of Crop- Rotation

  • Simplest way to reduce occurrence of soil-borne diseases
  • Provides principle mechanism for building healthy soils
  • Major way to organically control pests

ImageWhen we planted the new beds we incorporated companion plantings to enhance the health and flavors of the plants as well as attracting beneficials to the garden.  Companion planting is the practice of closely planting herbs and flowers with the vegetable plants.

  • It brings variety into the garden helping to break up the monoculture, in turn deterring disease and bad bug infestation.
  • It’s a holistic approach to working with the intricate layers of the ecology of your garden.
  • Reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Many vegetables and herbs store natural substances in their roots, flowers and leaves that repel unwanted pests and attract beneficial insects.
  • Enhances the beauty as well as the flavor and overall health of your garden by working in harmony with nature.

If it tastes good on the plate – it will work in the garden together too – like tomatoes and basil, strawberries and lettuce, peas and carrots.

Speaking of peas, I can’t wait to start planting some peas in the garden. As soon as the top layer is workable I will be seeded peas, carrots and few other cold crops week after week.  What are cold crops you may ask – well that a topic for another time. Until then, I will hold on the fact that spring is less than a month away and enjoy the return of the birds who recently I have been awaken by as they chirp outside my bedroom window.

January Gardeners Dream & Scheme

ImageJanuary can be a tough month for some people. Here in New England it’s cold, snowy, and icy one day and the next its in the 50s, rainy and grey. The sun shows up once in a while, faking us out from time to time making us feel it should be warmer than it actually is.

In order to help beat the winter doldrums, on crummy you-want-to-stay-in-bed-days, I love pouring over the seed & plant catalogs, dreaming and planning what this year’s garden should contain.  We will be sure to get our orders in by the months end as the general rule of thumb, “You snooze, you lose” applies to ordering seeds and starts. On the nicer days, I take the time to get outside, walk the backyard and scope the areas where bushes, trees and shrubs may need some pruning; check the garden beds for the crops that were planted in the fall and have been overwintering like garlic and carrots.

Last fall we installed one of our new products to our backyard garden, the lawn slowly giving way to more and more raised beds. It’s an 8’ x 12’ deer-fenced Maine Kitchen Gardens, 65 square feet of new growing space to plant this spring! The new growing space will make crop rotating much easier for us going forward. I’m so glad we installed it when we did so there will be no reason to get it all planted up once the time comes.

Outdoor thermometerJanuary is the perfect time to plan and install a new garden. After all, spring is only 61 days away. Many people make the classic mistake of waiting until April or May and by the time they get everything all said and done (if they do it at all) they have missed an important part of the growing season – early spring.  Cold crops love just that – the cool temperatures of early spring when it’s between 40º F and 70º F.  If it gets too warm, the cold crops bolt and go to seed.

There are a few cold crops in particular which you can directly sow outdoors since their seeds germinate in soil temps as low as 40º F. Peas germination and growing temp ranges between 40ºF-70ºF. Arugula & Lettuce enjoy germination and growing temps between 40ºF-60ºF and potatoes germinate at 45ºF. If you see your daffodils in bloom, start planting your potatoes in the garden! At the end of this January, early February we will start a few seedlings indoor, for the other cold crops that need higher temperatures to germinate, like strawberries, spinach, Swiss chard and onions.

In New England, regardless if there is snow on the ground St. Patty’s day is the time to plant our peas outside and it will be here in the blink of an eye.   That’s why the planning stage in January is so important despite the possible snow that could be in your yard right now.  It can be hard for some to envision which is why we try to help people as much as possible in getting their gardens up and running; so people can enjoy growing their own.

Bein’ Green – Living Green

Kermit used to struggle with “Bein’ Green” and many Americans, as well as others around the world today struggle with ‘living green’.  Our society has been accustomed to throwing things away – after all it sometimes feels like takes more effort to recycle.

Three years ago I bought a Toyota Highlander Hybrid in an effort to try to be more ‘green’ and not use so much gas etc… Gas prices were rising and I felt I had to do something. What I didn’t know was that I have to make sure the car is started at least every 3-4 days, otherwise the battery will die. WHAT????!!! Unfortunately I learned this the hard way, after buying the car and upon returning home from a 7 day vacation to discover that my car which was only 10 days old was dead.  It was later explained to me by the guys in the parts department that if I leave on vacation I need to hook the car up to a trickle charger. WHAT???!!!! Back up the truck – I have to do what?? My car is a 2009 and back then – three long years ago which in technology terms might as well be decades – they didn’t just plug right in like a golf cart does and some cars now like the Chevy Volt. I have to lift the hood and attached jumper cables directly to the battery and then plug into an outlet.  I hate having to deal with my car, especially the battery.  I accidentally touched the two cables together once and received quite a jolt. Thus my very warranted fear.

Anyway what does this have to do with gardening? Nothing accept to demonstrate that in order to be green – I had to do things differently and start thinking differently. Some consider this extra work and are so accustomed to instant gratification that the change needed isn’t worth their added time.  Gardening teaches patience, there is no rushing Mother Nature – after all, my generation was taught not to fool with Mother Nature.

I am a child of the ’70’s and I remember when the country renewed it’s efforts during the tough economic times of oil crisis to “reduce, reuse & recycle”. That’s initially when my mother introduced me to vegetable gardening.  Recycling wasn’t a new concept however in our country’s short history, as there were many efforts to reuse and recycle things throughout time particularly during war time.  Mankind for centuries has been collecting and melting down scrap metals for re-purposing. Yet in 2013 we still seem to struggle with “reducing, reusing & recycling” in our daily lives.  Sure more cities and municipalities have made great efforts providing recycling bins in subways and on city streets. But the laws regarding recycling vary from state to state and make things complicated for households.

I have and continue to try to recycle over the years but it can be very challenging to keep up with at times. I have a wonderful area for our household trash – it’s in a corner cabinet – which helps out at least in setting up an organizational system. Growing up my mother had a similar cabinet but her cabinet has a two-tiered lazy-Susan where she would store canned goods. However, when I was picking out my kitchen accessories I opted for a three trash bin system which hides nicely in the corner cabinet.  I see from the my cabinet’s manufacturer website their newer system has four- bins.

It’s neat and tidy and also keeps the dogs out the trash for the most part and worked wonderfully as long as I was the only one throwing out the garbage.  But as the children grew older and started to throw things away for themselves, although they knew the system didn’t always adhere by it and their friends, well, let’s just say no one seems to bother to look before they throw something away.  This would lead to everything being tossed with the non-recyclable trash that and impossible to sort out at times.  Then I even purchased a fourth bin which sits out in the kitchen which was marked 5¢ Refund Only on the lid hoping that everyone would get a clue if at least the cans were no where near the other trash.  This has been more effective recently with about a 10% error ratio when my son’s friends are over.

Recently we have been composting and I found that again – in order to be successful – I needed to figure out a system.  We had already set up our composter outside which I discuss in my November 10, 2012 post Homegrown Harvest: Composting: The Making of Black Gold: Mix, Mash, Moisture, Move: The Four M’s of Composting but I found initially I had to think first before I threw things away, also how or where was I going to collect the scraps for the composter while in the kitchen.  What was I going to do – run clear across the house and out the side door to our composter every time I had a contribution? I don’t think so. I knew I needed a containment system for the kitchen and took to reading a number of people’s recommendations on blogs and websites etc…I  was at the pet store when I stumbled upon the perfect bin. It’s not too big, but not too little measuring 15″ tall and holds 16 quarts and has a secure lid. This is important in my house with four dogs roaming around plus it helps contain the smell and start the composting process.

After a few weeks I added a small cup by the coffee maker so we can easily dump out coffee grounds and tea leaves and simply dump it into the mini composter bin when it’s full. That reduces the number of times we have to open the lid because once you have a few wonderful compost-able scraps like orange peels, egg shells, some dryer lint, edamame shells and more you have quite the odoriferous brew going in there.  I like the size of this bin since it’s not too big, it doesn’t get to heavy and makes shaking the contents around easy and can be walked to the compost just as easily without breaking your back.  The kids are adapting to the idea of composting and although my daughter doesn’t want to smell what’s in there she will leave her clementine peels in a bowl on the counter near-by for me to throw it out. Baby-steps – it beats her simply throwing them out and having me fish them out of the trash.

Everyday, I work on new ways to continue to make recycling an easier part of our lives. As long as it takes to break a habit – it takes just as long to form a new one, at least the good ones.  I look forward to the seeing our compost supply build and will be equally excited to use the beautiful Black Gold in our garden this summer!

If you have had any experiences with recycling or composting, please leave a comment. I love to collect new and different ideas on how to “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle”.