Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Master Gardeners across our district in Northwest Lower Michigan are delighted to welcome our new Consumer Horticulture Program Instructor, Elise M. Carolan, to the MSU Extension office in Leelanau County!  As coordinator of Master Gardener Volunteer activities in our area, Elise will be overseeing numerous community service projects including the Leelanau Community Garden (LCG), now in its 23rd year of operation, as well as our MG/SEEDS Demonstration Garden just outside Traverse City.

For background information, please see The LCG blog has not been supported since 2012 but remains online and serves as an example of the opportunities the garden offers for teaching as well as growing food. The effort was formerly supported in part by the Leelanau Family Court, but that support was terminated in 2014. It’s my understanding that in 2015, financial support is to be forthcoming from the Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan, for which we’re extremely grateful. The garden represents a wonderful opportunity for additional Master Gardener Volunteers to perform an important community service while gaining invaluable experience in food gardening. Even before her selection for her new position with the Extension, Elise offered excellent new ideas on possible ways to improve the LCG’s productivity and overall value to the community; beginning in January 2015, we’ll be consulting with her in more detail. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nice December Day (!)

After a snowy November, it seems downright tropical in our back yard at 34 degrees and sunny. Having left the garden beds mostly in sad shape earlier this fall, I did a little late fall cleanup.  The ground was frozen just enough on top to make most stems of remaining annual plants easier to break off than to pull, which was just fine with me.  Most of those roots I left in place will break down quickly next spring, adding much-needed organic matter to our loamy sand soil; especially the legumes will add extra nitrogen as well.

One discouraging discovery was the proliferation of vole superhighways through the grass, leading to almost every section of my irregularly shaped garden:
I suspect that my expenses for galvanized hardware cloth next spring may exceed those for garden seeds.

And speaking of seeds, I'm glad to see those garden seed catalogs arriving in the mail about every day now. For one thing, they’re much better winter entertainment that what’s on TV these days.  But for another, if you’re looking at this blog, you and I are likely to be “on the same page” with regard to recognizing the importance of fresh, organically vegetables in our daily diets.  One certain way we could all improve our health and well-being over the next year would be to order something from one or more of those catalogs, plant those seeds or plants next spring, nurture them, and consume the results.  Questions on methods?  I'll help if I can. A look at our demonstration garden at the Historic Barns Park on the SW outskirts of Traverse City, MI, might be a good place to start. We’re hoping for a better-than-ever garden there in ‘15.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Bed for the Winter

Regarding the title: the gardens, not me, although based on the November’s weather so far, the idea doesn’t sound too bad.

I’ll start with the Leelanau Community Garden (LCG)--a significant Leelanau County community resource about to be lost unless new leadership emerges, hopefully from within the local MSU Extension and its Master Gardener Volunteer program.  This year, Lead Volunteer Kathy Lewis and a precious few other Volunteers managed to coax more than 870 lb of fresh, organically grown produce out of the garden, only a couple hundred pounds below that of years when irrigation lines were still functional and volunteers were more numerous.  The great one-day efforts (May 29) of over 50 “Greenagers” from Traverse City West Middle School helped tremendously in getting things started, but from there on, few Volunteers were on the scene.  Kathy deservedly received the award of 2014 Master Gardener of the Year for Leelanau County, based mainly on her outstanding effort and leadership in literally saving the LCG from complete failure.
Greenagers at the Leelanau Community Garden
One thing we’ve learned from our experience at the LCG is the importance of water-conserving gardening methods.  The soil there is mostly sandy with some heavier gravel in a few of the beds.  The available flow rate from the old dug well there is less than 1 gal/minute, and the 10+ year old drip tape wasn't even close to usable.  And even Kathy found it difficult to hold a garden hose in one hand while planting or weeding or mulching or harvesting with the other.  Sometimes working alone, she probably didn't average more than about 120 gal/week of water on roughly 1600 sq ft of growing beds, or the equivalent of roughly 0.14 inches/week.  Several factors contributed to the relative success.  First, we've added a good bit of compost over the years; now I would estimate average organic matter at somewhere around 5%, so the soil structure now provides much-improved water retention.  Extensive use of straw mulch helped keep soil temperatures from reaching extreme highs and lows, and reduced evaporation rates.  Minimizing tillage reduced evaporation losses (and carbon losses).  Also, plant varieties needing more water and plants in critical fruiting stages were given priority.

Special kudos to Volunteers Rick George, Kathy Pilon, and Ellen Lapekas for their excellent work at our MG/SEEDS Demonstration Garden at the Historic Barns Park in 2014!  Two huge anticipated upgrades for next year there are plans for installation of a reliable, environmentally friendly water supply; and the prospect of Kathy Lewis joining our our effort.  Our outstanding nonprofit organization SEEDS (Ecology + Education + Design) is currently conducting studies on a solar-powered water system we hope will be installed in time for most spring planting.  Our success this year was made possible by Rick’s carrying in many jugs of water and hand watering our 15 growing beds (about 374 sq ft).  I estimate our maximum water use to be almost exactly the same as that at the LCG, about the equivalent of 0.14 inches/week.  This year we’re planning to expand our growing area to 542 sq ft, and we hope to water at a rate up to about 200 gallons/week, or the equivalent of about 0.6 inches/week, about 40% of estimated requirements for the remainder of the food gardening areas at the Park.
5 lb of Kennebecs
And on the Home front, 2014 brought really good onions, garlic, late broccoli, cabbage, kale, and tomatoes, germination problems with beets, carrots, & parsnips, very poor quality cucumbers.  Favorites this year were Red Russian kale; Golden Jubilee, Sunpeach (F1), Sungold (F1), and Mountain Magic (F1) tomatoes; Rainbow carrots; and, as always, Provider beans.  Voles ate the tops off of lots of the root crops--even radishes--and all green beans lower than about 8 inches above the ground.  I guess we need a cat--but that's not going to happen, so I’ll have to use better low fencing with 1/4 inch hardware cloth next year.  I hadn’t grown rattail radishes for several years, but this year I truly enjoyed their tasty pods in salads.
L to R: Mountain Magic, Sunpeach, and Sungold
1 lb 12 oz Candy Onion
Lessons learned:

  • We need to do a better job of keeping the soil moist around newly planted seeds to improve germination.  Once a day is not always enough.
  • More careful screening and longer “finishing” times of compost are needed to decrease “borrowing” of nitrogen by soil organisms as they continue breaking down organic matter, particularly any wood chips in the mix.  (We would prefer not to use wood chips in compost at all.)
  • Tomatoes are heavy, and jute twine weakens quickly outdoors.  We need to be more thorough in pruning and supporting our indeterminate tomato vines.
  • For best quality, we should harvest more frequently. especially our green beans.
  • Potatoes need to be covered with more soil and/or heavier mulch layers as they grow to prevent “green tops.”  This is especially true in soils that are “fluffy” and subject to significant compaction by rain.  Next year we’ll try planting in shallow trenches and filling those in with soil as the plants grow, then continuing to aff straw mulch during the summer.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Last Planting Day...Almost

On Tuesday, hoping for some production into autumn at the Barns Garden, I planted some Jade bush beans (est. 53 days), Provider bush beans (50 days), Winner kohlrabi (45 days), Easter Egg radishes (30 days), Red Russian kale (25 days baby, 50 mature), and Tyee spinach (40 days). The only planting remaining to be done there is the garlic, which we'll harvest in perhaps a couple weeks when there's a little more brown on the leaves. We've stopped watering to allow the bulb wrappers to dry partially in the ground. We'll further dry the bulbs in my unheated garage. We'll leave a few inches of stem left on the bulbs, not washing them but only carefully brushing off the majority of the soil. We'll donate about 80% of our harvest to SEEDS or a local food pantry, then plant the remaining 20% sometime in October in anticipation of a similar harvest next year.

Overall plant growth this year is mostly mediocre, not surprising given the poor soil we inherited and our sparse use of even strictly organic soil amendments.  And that's OK: we want to show what can and cannot be done with minimal investments.  We do have some promising successes. Our tomatoes are healthy and have reasonably good fruit set; our beans are strong and full of bloom; and except for deer damage, most of our other crops are on par with the norm for our region though our investments are meager. Our methods work.
On Tuesday morning there was still no water available, so I used four of the jugs Rick had brought from home to water the seeds in. I refilled those and three more of my own, thinking I would need them to do a better job that afternoon, but when I got there, the generator and pump were running and there was good pressure to our hose!  So everything but the garlic got a really welcome drink of water from the on-site well.  Friends from SEEDS are doing their best to keep us informed on when we can expect water to be available.

The water issue, though, remains critical to our success in fulfilling the main objective of our garden: to demonstrate and teach methods of home food production that involve no power equipment, minimal initial investment of both time and money, little ongoing maintenance (e.g., weeding), and inexpensive, strictly organic care of the soil and the plants it supports. Success in that endeavor, unfortunately, in our region with its sandy soils and sporadic rainfall, presumes the availability of a reliable water supply beyond that of direct rainfall. Most homes have at least one such supply readily available: either an external "hose bib" offering full-time well or municipal water on demand; a sloped roof large enough to fill barrels, cisterns, etc., with sufficient rain water; or both.  At our Barns Garden, we have neither. Thus, regardless of other advantages our site may have, it falls short of our goal of offering a gardening environment representative of that available to the typical home gardener. Being truly representative, providing a realistic model of the successes and failures, resources and deficiencies, that home gardeners may anticipate, is the essence of our main mission as volunteers at this site.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mid-July Updates

Earlier this week (7/14/14), Rick and I divided a few hours between the Leelanau Community Garden and the one at the Historic Barns Park.  At the former, Rick and Lead Volunteer Kathy Lewis mowed for a while to perk the place up a little, and we replanted a sad-looking bed of beets of which no more than a few percent had germinated. The potato plants were being consumed with gusto by a small army of Colorado potato beetles, and the 6 hills of cantaloupe planted July 7 were just beginning to break ground. Adding to our pessimistic thoughts on the future of project is the prospect of needing volunteer financing to pay the electric bill for operating the pump beginning next year: a mere $18.46 per month to provide a maximum flow of only about one gallon per minute. Surely a community that benefits from donation of an annual average of over 800 lb of fresh, organically grown produce could cough up that much. Sad.

At the volunteer-financed Historic Barns MG/SEEDS Garden, our main concern proved to be...what else...water. On that day, the pump failed. Our good friends at SEEDS have been working the problem, though; by today, someone had filled our water jugs and done a good bit of watering. I’m not sure which of our friends to thank, but Thanks! The squash, onions, garlic, beans, tomatoes, and carrots all appeared to be in good shape. No new deer damage to report! Timing being almost everything in gardening, though, we missed our green shell pea harvest season--not a very large one, but still a loss. We’re letting them dry on the vines; hopefully a local food pantry will find a good home for them.

And here at home, my vole problem continues: 
Most of my potatoes look OK--no beetles!  But here are some of my Dark Red Norlands
Need I say more?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Barns Garden Ups & Downs

On Thursday afternoon (6/26/14), Rick George and I went to the Barns Garden to do some watering and to start on some bamboo trellises for our growing tomato plants. We found that our great volunteers had been busy weeding, watering, and planting; their squash and herbs are up and doing well. We were fortunate to find the generator and pump running, so watering was easy. It was disappointing, though, to find that the bed of beets had been demolished by deer and the beans and carrots were coming under attack.  Upon learning of the loss, our FoodCorps friend and coauthor Lianna was moved to reply, “Oh, deer”!  I, for one, have decided to forgive the pun. This time.
Note the hoof prints
We’re still awaiting news of a hoped-for decision to provide full-time electric power to the pump that services the SEEDS Educational Garden, the Community Garden, and our smaller effort at the Historic Barns Park.  If and when that’s accomplished, we’ll contemplate installing some drip irrigation lines.  And we hope before long the remainder of the surrounding fence will be improved to exclude Bambi and family.

Friday, June 20, 2014

New School Garden at Betsie Valley Elementary

by Lianna Bowman, FoodCorps

Despite the on-and-off drizzle and the last-week-of-school jitters, last Wednesday (6/11/14), Mr. Luebke’s 3rd grade class and I headed outdoors at Betsie Valley Elementary to get to work on their brand new school garden.  We had delivered three raised beds and a load of compost a couple days before, and after much discussing over the “where” and the “how,” it was finally time to put the 3rd graders to work!

We split into two groups.  The “woods” group went to gather more top soil from the surrounding forest, and the “weeds” group pulled up weeds from the ground where we would place the beds.  You could see the students getting totally absorbed in their tasks, dirt and weeds flying back and forth.

One student had so much fun pulling up sod that he wanted to take a sod chunk back to class with him!  (Don’t worry custodial staff, he was finally persuaded to leave the sod outside).

But alas, time flies when you’re having fun. After 45 minutes outside, we had barely filled just one of the beds!  So it became a multi-day project for the 3rd graders, and on their last day of school, they planted five tomato plants.

Mr. Luebke and I planted a cover crop of peas and oats in the remainder of the new bed space, and he is organizing families to be in charge of watering for a week at a time over the summer.  Here’s hoping we get a beautiful crop of tomatoes for students in the fall!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Leelanau Community Garden Update

Just a reminder: there will be a work bee at the Leelanau Community Garden (on Horn Road, 1/2mile north of M-204 between the villages of Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau). Kathy Lewis will be there tomorrow (Thursday 6/19/14) from 9 to 11 AM.  She has tomato plants to plant (and stake) and leftover seeds to plant. Beets, turnips, and carrots are coming up and will need thinning, mowing should be done, and as always...weeding!

The next work bee will be at the regularly scheduled time, Monday from 9 to 11 AM, on 6/23/14.  I'm not sure I can be there, but Kathy will definitely appreciate your help!

Monday, April 21, 2014


Finally, it feels like spring!  Yesterday I celebrated by getting some peas in the ground.  Soil temperatures at 6-inch depths were 47 where the dark soil was exposed, and 43 where I hadn't cleared away all of last year's straw mulch.  I planted where it was 47, which should allow slow but reliable germination.  This year I'm planting Sienna and Dark Seeded Early Perfection shell peas, Snowbird snow peas, and Sugar Sprint snap peas.  For some really early tasty tendrils for salads and as a cover crop in an area with poor soil, I'm including some field peas. Later, for a fall shell pea crop, I'll try Recruit, which is reported to have good mildew resistance but poor heat tolerance.

This evening, if the rain doesn't chase me in, I'll get some early radishes (Rover) and some rat-tailed ones for seed pods to add to salads.

Also, yesterday we uncovered and harvested the last of the dismal late carrot crop at the MG-SEEDS demonstration garden.  These were planted as soon as we could get a place prepared for them, in 95-degree soil in mid-July.  They were well covered and didn't show signs of having frozen, but they didn't have time to mature last fall and were small and tasteless.  We're hoping for an earlier start on carrots this year--maybe tomorrow!

Sunday, March 30, 2014


I’ve never before tried starting either beets or spinach indoors, but I figured only two things could happen: failure, from which I could learn, or success, from which I could eat.  Or something in-between.  Transplanting beets would seem difficult, but a few years ago I watched a good friend do so with almost 100% success. Her "secret" was making a planting hole the same depth and diameter as the root ball, then carefully holding the root ball together and sliding it down into the hole, and then watering immediately.

So this morning, I started Red Ace F1 and Detroit Dark Red beets, and some Red Kitten F1 early flat-leaf spinach.  Instead of my usual milled sphagnum, I covered these with moist coir.  Like the sphagnum, coir is said to have antifungal properties, minimizing the chance of damping-off problems.

The Brassicas I planted 10 days ago are doing fine. They’re getting only bottom watering now, and I’ve begun thinning.  Germination was above 90%, and there’s at least one healthy (so far!) plant in each cell.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


That word has many possible meanings these days; you’ve likely heard it lately in the saying, “Spring has sprung.”  I recall my father using it to mean something badly warped or bent out of its normal shape and not recovering.  So at least in our corner of Michigan, this spring is, apparently, “sprung.”

But true to my calendar, I started the first of this year’s Tendersweet F1 cabbage, Diplomat F1 broccoli, and Red Russian kale on a heat mat set for 75 degrees in my chilly basement just a couple hours after the Vernal Equinox this past Thursday.  (If you haven’t started some, it’s definitely not too late!)  The Red Russian (Brassica napus pabularia) is a different species from all of the other popular kales.  It’s quite sweet, and my clear favorite for eating fresh and raw, in salads or just rolled up and munched right in the garden.  The Tendersweet is true to its name, and we’ll see about the Diplomat—I haven’t previously tried it.

I planted three seeds per cell in a sterilized plastic cell tray, covered them with about 1/8 inch of milled sphagnum, moistened them gently, and covered the tray with clear plastic to hold in the moisture.  By this morning, at least one seed in each cell (all three in most) had germinated and had nice green cotyledons unfolding.  I took them off the heat and put them just an inch or so under fluorescent lights just inside the basement window.  I’ll thin to one plant per cell as soon as their first true leaves are growing well.  A few cells had tiny white spots of fungus growing in spite of my efforts to sterilize the trays and planting tweezers; and I used a good fresh commercial starter mix.  I carefully spritzed them with cool chamomile tea, which should discourage the fungus.  Here’s a typical cell of the cabbages:
With care and luck, these should be ready to transplant outdoors by about the first of May or when our soil temperature climbs into the upper 40's, whichever comes first.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Low-Energy Gardening

Today’s Traverse City Record-Eagle has a story on an upcoming “energy forum” to be held by the Leelanau League of Women Voters, Tuesday February 25, at the Leelanau County Government Center.  I’ll be there with a storyboard and a couple “show and tell” items as an advocate of low-energy home composting and food gardening.  In the US, we spend roughly $45 billion each year (much of that for fossil fuels) and more than half of our residential water supplies on our 30 million acres of lawn grass.  We grow it, we mow it.  It’s easy to convert some of that lawn to productive food gardening without power equipment, and the result can be a healthier lifestyle along with net cost savings.  The secret?  Compost!—together with care to preserve the many beneficial life forms that support plant growth in the living soil.  Hence my recent post on that subject.  I’ve been remiss in not posting ideas on starting a home food garden “from scratch,” but I’ll soon remedy that omission.  Organic home food production can be done with surprisingly little expenditure of energy—including your own.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Home Composting Notes

Home composting is an integral part of my gardening activity; I recommend it highly for everyone, gardener or not.  I see responsible recycling in its many forms as a serious public duty, and I believe composting, whether by the individual or by the community, as, in the long term, the most important type of recycling.  It’s more than a means of conserving resources and reducing costs—it’s a process that can significantly narrow the growing gap between nature’s small surplus and humankind’s large deficit in processes impacting our collective ability to feed ourselves.  It is the only method through which many millions of tons of organic matter per year may be safely and economically returned to the soil that forms the basis of our of our most basic livelihood.

Please take a few moments to review a recent compilation of my composting notes by clicking on METHODS & MATERIALS here or above.  I hope you’ll forgive my excessive “salesmanship” on this topic—it’s obviously one about which I feel very strongly.  I’ve included some basics on the process, a few photos, and some pointers on how to make high-quality compost suitable for use in an organic home food garden; and I’ve listed a few suggestions for further reading.  I don’t claim to be an “expert,” but my results are improving with experience.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


My wife and I are spending a couple months in Ohio this winter for some “quality time” with friends and family. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m already ‘champing at the bit’ to get started gardening. Check out the “snow rolls” that formed on a local lawn-grass “wasteland” in 30-mph winds a few evenings ago.

Thought I would share some plans for 2014 including a few late New Year’s Resolutions. First, I’m planning to give a talk on composting this coming spring, after which I’ll participate in a composting workshop at the MG-SEEDS garden. I seriously doubt that any audience I’ll have will be more attentive or ask better questions than the fifth-grade kids who came to hear my talk at Woodland School near Traverse City last year!  Resolution 1: I will do a better job of “practicing what I preach,” e.g., more carefully sorting out and moving compostable material into locations. (I’ll post dates and times for the events when they’re firmed up.)  Resolution 2: I will update the talk and improve the handout that goes with the events; and I’ll get the handout posted here on the METHODS & MATERIALS page well before the events.

So far this winter, I’ve accomplished only one thing related to gardening: I’ve plowed through a dozen or so garden seed catalogs and web sites, marking dozens of vegetable varieties that look oh, so gorgeous that I just must give them a try. Resolution 3: I will resist temptation to choose based on appearance or to try every new “improvement” that comes along; I will stick mostly with tried-and-true varieties using my own saved seed or that sold by responsible organizations and grown for taste and nutritional value.

Last year, I allowed some of my plants to get too weak and “leggy” because they didn’t receive enough light and weren’t moved outdoors soon enough.  Resolution 4: I will install additional fluorescent lights, and build and use new cold frames to help “harden off” plants more effectively.

Last year, I waited too long to thin several things, including summer squash, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and beets. This made the squash more vulnerable to fungus diseases because of the reduced air flow and sunlight, and it caused many of the root crop plants to produce thin, tough roots.  Resolution 5: I will thin each crop to its recommended spacing as soon as its seed leaves appear.

Oh, I could go on and on, but I need to save SOME mistakes for 2014—that’s how one gains more “experience” with each successive year.