Archive | February 2018

A Perennial Life – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

51qZttaFqmLI love annual flowers. They’re quite impressive, blooming continuously throughout summer, providing lots of color and garden interest. They grow quickly, mature fast and provide nearly instant gratification. They’re attractive, eye-catching and beautiful. However, they are fragile. Annuals will perish easily at autumn’s first frost. They’re also more high maintenance, preferring lots of water, care and fertilizer to perform best.

Perennials, on the other hand, are unfazed by harsh winters and months of lying dormant beneath a blanket of snow. Many can tolerate drought, prairie fires, withstand storms, heat, wind, cold and other environmental abuses. The ups and downs of life make them stronger and they persevere. They aren’t concerned with a momentary display of beauty to impress passers by; they’re concerned with sustaining a life that’s in it for the long haul.

I want a perennial life. I want to live a life that withstands the harsh realities, the cold winters, the storms, the droughts, the abuses of this world. I want my roots to go down deep and to hold on tightly to a foundation that can sustain me through tough times. I want to live my life so that its impact continues on for generations, not just for a season. I want to be reliable, strong, determined, unfazed by death or darkness.

I don’t want to be like an annual; a flash in the pan, a brilliant display for a moment in time, high maintenance. I don’t want to merely impress with my outward appearance, knowing that it will all fade away at the first sign of opposition or hardship. I don’t want to be constantly screaming for more – more nourishment, more water, more attention. More, more, more!

But here’s the problem … I want the results of a perennial life, but I don’t want to endure the painful, tedious and difficult process. I would just as soon not go through all the hardships. I’d much prefer an easier life, a prettier life. Admittedly, my human nature wants to be known as beautiful, alluring and desirable, and for people to not notice my character flaws and selfish ambitions. My human nature wants be impressive, colorful and noticed. See me. Notice me. Tell me what I want to hear. But an annual life is a selfish life.

But there’s another side of me … a side that longs to put aside and not care what other people think of me. I long to be known as a person of integrity, reliability, humble confidence and unwavering character. I want to be known as someone whose life impacts future generations and the world. Even more than just to be known as those things … I want to be those things. I don’t want to exist just for my own selfish ambition or glorification … for more, more, more, shriveling when opposition comes my way. I prefer a perennial life, lived one painful season at a time.

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What is Soil, Anyway?

All soils are composed of roughly equal quantities of weathered rock particles and the spaces between them, along with a small but absolutely crucial amount of organic matter. The different types of soil are defined by the particle size of the rocks — sand, clay, or silt — and how much of each you have.

Sand particles are large enough to be clearly visible, and you can feel them as grit when you rub the soil between your fingers. The spaces between them are big, so they keep soil open, providing good drainage, and there is lots of room for oxygen. When there is too much sand in the mix (the problem I have at our lake cottage!), soil cannot hold water, and nutrients wash away.

Clay particles are tiny. You can’t see them, but you can feel them as sort of slippery when the soil is wet. The spaces between them are very small, so they hold water and nutrients for a long time. But that very smallness can make it hard for plant roots to get at the goodies. Soils that contain too much clay water-log when wet, and tend to turn rock hard when dry.

Silt falls between sand and clay. Particles are still quite small, but the spaces between them aren’t as tight as in clay, so drainage is much better.

Loam is the garden ideal, the rock part composed of roughly 40 percent each silt and sand, with 20 percent clay, which is just enough to hold water and nutrients without causing problems. Most gardens fall short of this Shangri-La, tending more toward clay or sand, based largely on the geological history of the area where they are located.

Never Too Much Compost

The-Composting-Circle-of-LifeUnless your soil falls into the ideal, you’ll want to consider amending your soil. Compost, compost, and more compost can only do good — assuming there’s nothing damaging in it. You know the homemade sort is fine, but don’t make hasty assumptions about the stuff you buy.

In its backyard incarnation, compost is the glorious refutation of “garbage in, garbage out.” You put in banana peels, egg shells, and dead flowers; out comes the basic building block of healthy soil. But not everything nasty is capable of transformation. Some commercial compost is made from sewage sludge, which often contains heavy metals that composting does not remove. Other large-scale producers might use paper bleached with dioxin. And some sellers may offer ‘compost’ that is actually nothing more than partially composted bark or sawdust.

digging-in-the-dirt

Nicely enriched soil

These products are almost all carbon, though they can look very much like compost made from a proper mixture of carbon and nitrogen. They take nitrogen from the soil in order to finish decomposing, and when they’re done they don’t give much back except improvements in texture.

On the other hand, many commercial compost makers are environmental heroes, entrepreneurs who saw the diamonds hidden in rough stuff like fish waste. When in doubt, just ask — and don’t buy from anybody who won’t give you an ingredient list.

Keep Deer-Damaged Hedges

deerprunedarbsjpg-32939c2ba91c4fb8

Deer damaged hedge

By now, it is no longer news that deer love classic hedging evergreens such as arborvitae, hemlock, and yew. Gardeners are routinely advised to choose deer-resistant plants instead. But what if you already have the hedge, and deer have already eaten it? What if your newly purchased home grounds are ringed by 20-foot trees that look like lopsided lollipops?

If space is severely limited, you may have to cut them down and start over with something else, but if you have a strip at least 12 feet wide to devote to the area, you can build a better hedge on the bones of what you have.

After all, it’s only the lower regions that need help. Everything above 6 to 8 feet is no doubt fine, and it will only grow lovelier over time. The trick is to go for depth: plant a shorter hedge in front, and you’ll screen the naked area from view while adding textural interest, just as you do when you plant a baptisia in front of rust-prone hollyhocks.

For best results, think in three layers: hurt hedge at the back; good-size shrubs or small trees like holly, lilac, and pieris in the middle; short, full items like mugo pine, boxwood, and barberry toward the front.

The most pleasing hedges have rhythm and rest, which cannot be achieved by a hodgepodge of “one of these and one of those,” so it will pay to limit your selections and plant multiples of each. But if the deer pressure is extreme, don’t do it right away. Instead, plant a test garden of likely candidates and wait a year to see just how deer resistant they actually are. (Deer vary considerably in their tastes, and a plant that escapes unscathed in one place may well get lunched in another.) It’s frustrating not to plunge right in, but waiting is worth it when you’ll be buying — and planting — large numbers of new shrubs.

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Deerproofing the Hedges

There are a number of low-tech, low-cost repellents, including human hair, soap, hot pepper, and garlic, all of which have some deterrent effect, but none of these household items are as effective as commercial spray-on products, especially the ones with bitter components, which have been formulated to be long-lasting.

These once-a-winter formulations are expensive compared to sweepings from the barber shop, but they cost a lot less than fencing or replacement trees.

Add a New Color to Your Garden: Purple

Is your flower garden a study in pinks, oranges, and yellows? Wouldn’t you like to add a little drama? If your favorite color is purple, you’re in luck because there are a lot of choices for flowers, foliage, and berries in a wide variety of purple hues. You can create different looks, depending on the shade of purple you use and the other plants you combine it with. Purple isn’t always one of those “Wow!” colors, but it acts as a great contrast to orange and yellow, which command more attention. It adds a subtle sophistication to the showier colors, and when planted in a combo, that contrast actually makes each color stand out more.

Some ideas:

basel

‘Red Rubin’ basil

‘Red Rubin’ basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurascens)

This tender perennial is as attractive as it is useful. A staple in the herb garden, its fragrant purple leaves work well in containers and borders. Always pinch off flowers as soon as you see them starting to bloom. Doing so encourages the plant to keep producing leaves, making them bushier. It tastes as good as it smells! For culinary drama, combines it with yellow tomatoes. Or try making purple basil vinegar or jelly. Cold hardy: USDA zones 10 to 11.

‘Concord Grape’ spiderwort (Tradescantia hybrid)

The dark green grasslike clumps of ‘Concord Grape’ spiderwort are one of the first things

spiderwort

‘Concord Grape’ spiderwort

to emerge in spring. Then a big show of flowers starts a few weeks later. Hot weather and lack of rain are hard on spiderwort. Cut plants back by two-thirds when the heat takes its toll and keep them well watered during dry spells. Dig the clump in spring and cut into smaller sections, then replant them. They recover quickly, and will probably even bloom the first year. Larger leaf plants contrast well with spiderwort’s grassy foliage. Try planting with Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum pictum) or Lungwort (Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’). Cold hardy: USDA zones 4 to 9.

KICKIN ‘Lavender’ aster (Aster hydrid)

aster

KICKIN ‘Lavender’ aster

In autumn, reds and oranges take over the landscape. Sometimes you want a little purple to add to that fall blend. Asters are perfect for that, and their late-summer flower show is a welcome sight. It starts when a lot of others are fading out. KICKIN ‘Lavender’ is on the small side compared to standard asters, so it can be planted closer to the front of the border or in containers. Blooming asters show up in garden centers in late summer, but they will survive better in the north if planted in spring so they can get established. Cold hardy: USDA zones 5 to 9.

 

 

Safer Salads Summary

This article was written by the late Sally Jaeger-Altekruse, former OCMGA member, for our Winter 2007 newsletter

In the middle of October, I was walking through the Appleton Public Library and my eye caught a heading on the magazine rack. What I found was very interesting and I would like to share it with all of you. The article was entitled, “Safer Salads”, was written by Jorge M. Fonseca and Sadhana Ravishankar working at the University of Arizona and was published in the American Scientist, Volume 95 on pages 494-501.

The researchers begin by stating that the number of outbreaks, for fresh produce, of food poisoning caused by microorganisms has risen in recent years. They mention the following possible explanations:

  • People are eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and salads than ever before.
  • More meals are eaten outside the home at restaurants or public gatherings which is the most common setting for outbreaks.
  • More people are in contact with the food we eat and with large volumes of food.
  • More of today’s produce is imported from abroad where standards may be less strict.
  • Transit times from field to table can be longer.
  • Reporting of consumer illnesses are more abundant and more accurate both at the local and national levels.
  • Some scientists believe that proliferation of antimicrobials and antibiotics are partly to blame.

Several studies have shown an inverse relation between populations of natural microflora and pathogenic bacteria in soil, produce & surfaces in general.

To get an idea of the increase in outbreaks, the researchers put forward these statistics:

“For the 25 year period from 1973 until 1997, 32 states reported 190 produce-related outbreaks which together involved 16,058 illnesses, 598 hospitalizations and 8 deaths.”

“For the 14 years between 1990 and 2004, produce was implicated in 639 outbreaks involving 28,315 cases, a threefold increase in half the time.”

They next follow up with information on the individual pathogens responsible for the outbreaks. Two of the most common are Salmonella and E. coli 0157 :H7. I found these facts to be quite interesting on them:

Salmonella is an intestinal microbe that animal shed in their feces and soil that contains fresh or incompletely composted manure from animals can act as a reservoir for the bacteria. Salmonella is acid-tolerant so it survives well in low pH fruit and vegetables. “If produce that is grown in contaminated soil is not washed thoroughly, Salmonella on the surface can be spread to the inside portion during slicing or cutting.” (I guess this means we all need to do a better job at composting manure!)

E. coli was once more associated with ground beef, with recalls of raw beef and undercooked hamburgers, but now affects fresh produce also. ‘The rise in E coli-tainted fruits and vegetables probably comes from cattle operations, which can contaminate fields through feces or feces-laced irrigation water.” We need to also be concerned about cross- contamination between meat and fresh produce which can occur many places along the food chain. Although some can occur during processing, “nearly two-thirds … associated with produce have occurred during late summer and fall, when warm temperatures and outdoor cooking can subvert good hygiene, and about half … have involved cross-contamination during food preparation.”

Contamination can occur through several ways. Bacterial or parasitic pathogens can develop on the surface of fruits and vegetables or inside the flesh through damaged sites. Some studies suggest that contaminants can enter through the root system of plants and of course contamination can occur by people who work with and around the produce by not washing hands often enough and then coming in contact with the food the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates a minimum waiting period of almost a year after animal husbandry operations cease before growers can cultivate the same field for edible fresh crops.” This is because “Fields that are used to contain animals are more likely than other places to harbor enteric pathogens in the soil;”

“For the same reason, raw manure is a dangerous soil additive for croplands and should be adequately composted (with sufficiently high temperatures) before use as a fertilizer for food crops.”

“Given the risk of having animal feces in contact with food crops, one might think that organically grown crops – which use organic fertilizers such as composted manure instead of synthetic fertilizers – would be especially likely to be contaminated with enteric pathogens. However, this hypothesis appears to be untrue; No clear differences exist between organically grown and conventional produce in terms of microbial safety.” The article goes on to suggest that “new regulations say that growers of certified organic produce must carry a certificate that proves that such products are pathogen-free.”

So how do they suggest we should protect ourselves? It boils down to some very common sense ideas:

  • DO wash produce vigorously with lukewarm tap water before eating;
  • DON’t save washed produce for later (unless you dry it with a salad spinner or towel);
  • DO keep produce that tolerates low temperatures in the refrigerator;
  • DON’T eat produce that looks or smells spoiled;
  • DO trim away bruises, damaged areas and the stem scar;DON’T cross-contaminate foods or surfaces, particularly when handling raw meat or eggs;
  • DO wash hands, kitchen surfaces and tools before and after preparing foodDO wash hands often during food preparation.

In closing, I found it interesting that the authors “prefer to avoid salad bar and all-you-can-eat buffets because so many individuals (many of whom, statistically, failed to wash their hands after using the toilet) have come in contact with the food.”

Vegetables: Sweet Potatoes are Super Foods!

by Lisa Johnson, horticulture educator for Dane County UW-Extension

landscape-1506015991-baked-sweet-potatoes-1Did you know you could grow sweet potatoes in USDA Zone 5a, 5b, and 6 in Wisconsin? Sweet potatoes, or Ipomoea batatas, are tender, warm-weather plants related to morning glories. They come from Central and South America, and need a long, warm growing season. They grow on trailing vines, with bush-type varieties for smaller spaces.

Usually you buy what’s called sweet-potato slips, which are unrooted cuttings. They arrive by mail, 4-6 inches long, for planting in late May to early June. Soil temperatures should be a minimum of 55º F, 3 inches down for best rooting. Test this with a soil thermometer.

Strip off the bottom leaves, leaving one node (growing point) and a couple of leaves on top. Plant node-end up, 3 inches deep in mounded rows about 18-24 inches apart. Leave 36 inches between the center of each row, or plant in hills with three or four slips per mound.

If the soil is dry, water it before and after planting. Keep slips moist while rooting, but drier once established. Don’t water the last three to four weeks before harvest. Watch out for voles because they love the roots!

sweet-potatoes-freshly-dugHarvest sweet potatoes before danger of frost in late September or early October. Handle roots carefully; they bruise easily. Gently remove dirt clods without rubbing. Don’t wash them before curing.

Curing sets the skin, heals wounds, and converts starches to sugars. Curing allows the roots to store much longer than those uncured. Ideally, cure them in a warm area for 10 days at 80º to 85º F and high humidity (85 to 90 percent), or next to a running furnace for two to three weeks at 65º to 75º F. Once cured, store in a dark location at 55º to 60º F. Don’t refrigerate! Wrap cured sweet potatoes in newspaper and store in a cool closet or basement. Store properly, they can last six to 10 months!

Sweet Potatoes Recommended for the Lower Half of Wisconsin

Cultivar Name                 Days to Harvest                                   Root & Flesh Color

  • Beauregard                     100                                        light purple skin, dark orange flesh
  • Bush Porto Rico               110                                             copper skin, orange flesh
  • Centennial                      100                                                   orange skin, flesh
  • Jewell                             100                                                        orange flesh
  • Vardaman                       110                                              golden skin, orange flesh

Planting Pots: Clay or Plastic, and a few other options

Clay (Unglazed Terra Cotta)

Advantages:  Weight of the clay adds stability; pots in the classic tapered shape are less likely to tip over than are tapered plastic pots. Porosity enables water to evaporate, which has two benefits: roots are less likely to drown if the plant is overwatered; and evaporation cools the pot, helping to prevent overheated soil.

Drawbacks: Clay is heavy, even before you fill it with soil. Evaporation means plants must be watered more frequently. Fertilizer salts build up on the outsides and rims of clay pots. And they are breakable. Another fault, though not of the clay itself, is that many good-looking clay pots are designed more for beauty than use: a pot that is narrower on top that it is at its widest point will probably have to be broken if the plant in it needs potting up.

Plastic

Advantages: Lightweight. Inexpensive. Easy to clean and compact to store. Plants in plastic need less-frequent watering. Fertilizer salts do not build up. Plastic is not unbreakable (in fact, many plastic pots become brittle after a few years), but it’s not as fragile as clay.

Drawbacks: Tippy, especially if the plant is attractively large in proportion to the pot. Holds water so well it increases the danger of water-logging. Can overheat in a sunny spot, especially if the plastic is a dark color. There are now pseudo terra-cotta ones, complete with fake fertilizer sales, that look pretty convincing from a distance. But the beauty bottom line is still, well — they’re plastic.

Other Materials

Glazed clay pots don’t transpire water as fast as unglazed ones, but they still provide more evaporation than plastic. Salts are less of a problem on glazed clay. These pots can be gorgeous, but that’s not always a plus. Pots are there to support the plants; beware of using one that’s so pretty it upstages its contents.

Glass is uncommon for good reason, as it combines the faults of clay and plastic without offering the benefits of either (unless you count weight).

Galvanized metal tubs will rust where the seams are, no matter what the literature says, and Wood will rot. Containers made of these materials should be lines with heavy plastic and used as cachepots.

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Tips on Putting Pots in Pots

  • The outer pot is called a cachepot, from the French for “hide pot,” and it can be made of any material, in any shape. As long as you can put a potted plant in it, it qualities. Ironically, the one thing it is unwise to use is a valuable antique cachepot — or actually, a valuable antique anything. The minerals and algae that tend to collect on the inside of cachepots can discolor porcelain, bond to metal, or otherwise cause irreversible damage. Plastic lines are not reliable damage preventatives, though if you are determined to use an antique, a liner may help protect it.
  • If the outer container is china or glass, use a plastic pot inside to minimize the chance of breakage if the interior pot hits it. If the outer container is metal, wood, or straw, line it with plastic for protection against rot, and use clay for the inner pot to give the plant roots a slightly better chance to breathe.
  • Prop up the inside pot. Water is going to run out of it and collect in the cachepot, and if the plant sits in water constantly, the roots are likely to rot. Any water-resistant elevator will work: a piece of brick, an overturned saucer, or a short stack of plastic deli tubs (open end down). You can also just use a thick layer of pebbles, perlite, or styrofoam beads, though loose materials like these make routine maintenance more difficult.
  • Remember to lift out the plant and empty the cachepot frequently; that water can get nasty. And if the assemblage is outside, mosquitoes can breed in it. Outdoor cachepots should contain small chunks of Mosquito Dunk (a biological control organism, widely available at garden stores).