Saturday, August 1, 2015

Critters, Garlic, and Sunshine

First the critters. We've identified two. One is our really close neighbor, the woodchuck, or groundhog. Just a few feet from the southeast corner of our garden at the Historic Barns Park, there's a typical groundhog hole that keeps growing in size, perhaps adding on an extra bedroom and bath in anticipation of a growing family. I'll have to admit that I admire the perseverance of the inhabitant, as the ground in that area is so heavily compacted that I can't get digging fork tines into it deeper than about 3 to 4 inches, yet the spoil from the hole is accumulating rapidly. Here's a heavily cropped photo, just good enough to show an eye peering out at us, waiting for us to leave so that 'lunch' will be unguarded. 

The second invading critter is, as we suspected, a deer that appears to enjoy the challenge of a perimeter fence with the top wire about 8 feet above ground. Hoof prints where there were once healthy beet plants provide conclusive evidence. In both cases, the prosecution rests. Now it's up to us to take appropriate countermeasures against these habitual offenders, at least before next year's garden gets underway.

Ah, but the critters don't bother the garlic, so there's a story of success and further promise to be told. Yesterday, I dug the first of this year's Spontaneo (a Northern Italian porcelain hardneck variety) in my home garden, planted 10/11/2014. It looks quite good, although not quite as large as usual. The bulbs, mostly with 5 cloves each, will average a little under 2.5 inches in diameter. On the same day I planted last year's cloves, I planted about 70 bulbils from a couple plants on which I had allowed the scapes to grow to full height and produce flower heads.

The following numbered photo series illustrates my experiment in propagating garlic cloned from a single parent plant. In case you're thinking of trying this, warning: patience required.

1 - Raise garlic as usual, but allow some to produce bulbils. First dry freshly harvested hardneck garlic bulbs in a shady location with good air circulation (e.g., a garage), then store it in a dark place or a paper bag (prevent premature sprouting). Select the best of the bulbs for planting. Separate those into individual cloves and plant in early autumn, about 6 inches apart and 2 inches deep, and mulch with a few inches of straw. (Here at about 45 degrees north latitude, I get good results from planting in early October.) 
2 - As those garlic plants grow during the summer, their flower stalks ("scapes"} begin to curl. At that time, about the first of July here, remove and use most of these; they're juicy and delicious, and their removal generally results in somewhat larger bulbs.
3 - To propagate from bulbils, allow a scape or two to remain. It will straighten upward and grow to form a flower head in which its bulbils grow. We tie our straightening scapes loosely to bamboo stakes to make sure they don't blow over.
4 - A single flower head of our porcelain garlic typically produces 70-100 bulbils about the size of grains of wheat. When they're clearly loosening in the flower head, gently remove them and spread them out to dry right along with the year's harvest of garlic bulbs. Once dry, they will keep until spring if needed.
5 - Plant the bulbils an inch or so apart, about 1/2 inch deep, at your preferred garlic planting time. Mulch lightly with straw. Keep carefully weeded the following spring; it can be difficult to tell the tiny garlic leaves from blades of grass.
6 - Carefully dig and dry the small single 'rounds' of garlic the following year at harvest time; I dug mine yesterday. Most are between 3/8 and 1/2 inch in diameter. I planted about 70 bulbils last year and found 55 rounds this summer; I could easily have missed a few smaller ones in sifting through the soil. I'll dry these and replant an inch or so deep this fall, hoping for some multi-clove bulbs next year and larger ones the year after that. 

As soon as I get this posted, I'll be out enjoying the lovely sunny evening. Yes, we need rain, predictions of which have been grossly exaggerated of late, and yes, that and the heat have adversely affected our gardens this summer. But blue skies smile as we hold the garden hose, ever so grateful that our friends at SEEDS have led the way to installation of a strong, reliable, solar-powered water system for their garden and ours.

How wonderful is the sunshine!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Win Some, Lose Some....

Last week I harvested the first two kohlrabis of the year from our home garden, both the variety 'Delicacy White.'
The two plants were virtually identical when planted side by side, about 10 inches apart, in some of my best soil but with no amendments besides last year's compost. The one on the left is the only one that split; all the others are gorgeous, ranging from about 2 to 3.5 inches in diameter, tender, and sweet! I've read that uneven watering is the main reason some kohlrabis split, but I figure this one was just trying to teach me a lesson: that plants will do as they choose.

I quartered and peeled them, although the outer portion near the top of the 'pretty' one was so tender that I could have left some of it in place. The center of the lower stem area was fibrous and tough, so a small portion had to be removed. Kohlrabi greens are also quite edible, excellent in soups and stir fries, with a pleasant, mild flavor and soft texture not too different from my favorite kale variety, Red Russian (a variety of Brassica napus, species that includes rutabaga and rape, versus Brassica oleracea, which includes cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, and others). We enjoyed our first kohlrabi harvest in a simple mixed green salad. This week, I'll combine it with some other vegetables (mainly root crops) and try it roasted with garlic infused olive oil and a dash of my favorite balsamic vinegar.

In our 'demonstration' garden at the Historic Barns Park, though, we've only 'demonstrated' what can happen to kohlrabi and others of the Brassicaceae family left unprotected from the local critter population. (We have yet to identify the culprit.) Here are representative portions of what's left of our radish and mixed Brassica beds after some unknown invader did some premature harvesting. Two small kohlrabis survived the onslaught. Next year, we'll install some easily removable critter-resistant barriers around our most vulnerable growing beds.
And that's gardening!  We win a lot more than we lose, and when we lose, we learn; and that's a win in itself.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Well, almost.  After a host of delays, many weather-related, all 22 raised beds and 8 of the 10 buried pots in our demonstration garden at the Historic Barns Park contain vegetable or pollinator-attracting plants in some form.  The following is a list of the vegetable varieties we're growing this year, bed by bed:

1   - Tomatoes: Amish Paste, Siberian Tiger, African Queen, Golden Jubilee
2   - Tomatoes: SunGold, Sunpeach, Mountain Magic, Cherokee Chocolate
3   - Beans, bush dry: Hutterite Soup
4   - Beans, bush snap: Royalty Purple Pod; and beets: Detroit Dark Red & Lutz Green Leaf
5   - Carrots: St Valery, Muscade, & Rainbow; and turnips: Hakurei & Purple Top White Globe
6   - Beans, pole snap: Fortex & Northeaster; and carrots: Nutri-Red & Bolero
7   - Cabbage: Late Flat Dutch
8   - Peas, shell: mix of Green Arrow & Recruit
9   - Garlic, Spontaneo (planted Oct 2014); and peas, snap, Sugar Sprint
10 - Cabbage: Stonehead
11 - Beans, bush snap: Provider
12 - Cucumbers: Straight Eight; and lettuce, leaf: mix of several, e.g., Black Seeded Simpson, Lolla Rossa
13 - Potatoes: Kennebec
14 - Potatoes: Dark Red Norland
15 & 18 - Flowering plants: penstemon, monarda
16 - Beans, pole dry: Good Mother Stallard
17 - Beans, pole dry: Speckled Cranberry
19 - Onions: Patterson, Bridger
20 - Eggplant: Bride; peppers: Gypsy & Intruder; and cabbage: Late Flat Dutch & Tendersweet
21 - Kale, Red Russian; cabbage turnip: Naone Rosse; and kohlrabi: Delicacy White & Grand Duke
22 - Radish: mix of several, and daikon: Summer Cross
- Also in buried 5-gallon pots -  a mix of ornamental flowers; chives; Greek oregano; garlic chives; parsley; and an heirloom summer savory or ‘Bohnenkraut’
- Beside the bulletin board - sunflowers: Tarahumara White Seeded
- In two wide rows just south of Beds 11 & 12 - buckwheat (mainly to attract pollinating insects)

At this moment, we have two empty buried pots, and we’re hoping some generous Volunteer will find a tasty herb to put in them--then we’ll have our garden fully planted!

We’re always happy to welcome visitors to the garden, including an occasional monarch butterfly. (Well, maybe not the Colorado potato beetles and definitely not the squash bugs--we’ve agreed not to grow squash this year.)  We’ve asked that a good portion of the surrounding meadow not be mowed until late autumn, as it contains numerous common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plants and we’re trying to get a couple other locally native Asclepias species started to further support the monarchs and attract pollinating insects. That’s why, as shown in the photo below, our garden is surrounded by mostly “weeds.”  Otherwise, the garden is representative of that one might do safely and at low cost in a sunny back yard--definitely more interesting and productive than lawn grass.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Youth Gardening at Its Best

Yesterday the Leelanau Community Garden came alive! More than 40 “Greenagers,” outstanding students from Traverse City West Middle School, came to the Garden to weed, apply compost, prepare growing beds for planting, and plant thousands of vegetable seeds and more than 100 plants that will provide much-needed fresh, organically grown produce to needy Leelanau County residents throughout the coming summer and fall.

The students were divided into a number of teams, each assisted by a Master Gardener Volunteer. The teams were chosen completely at random, so it was amazing to see them almost instantly transform into efficient, cohesive units. I was fortunate to be one of those volunteers, an especially gratifying experience since the five young people who worked with me proved courteous, considerate, and wonderfully dedicated and proficient gardeners. It seemed almost miraculous that a neglected, weed-infested garden was transformed in a mere two hours into a system of neat, precisely planted plots. The garden will soon be producing beans, cabbages, cucumbers, onions, peas, peppers, summer and winter squash,  and a variety of different tomatoes to be delivered to a local food pantry.

Thank you so much, Greenagers!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Shoot(s)out at the MG Corral

Shoots, roots, and rhizomes, that is. Today began the annual battle against quackgrass and other villains at the Master-Gardener-run ‘corral’ behind the Barns. Here's one of the casualties, hanging from a post along with one of my trusty weapons, the other being my antique digging fork. We’re steadily weeding out the enemy!

As in the past, we’re off to a bit of a slow start at our demonstration garden at the Historic Barns Park, but in this our third year at this wonderfully located public site, good progress is evident. The weeds are getting fewer now, and this year’s planned expansion to 22 small raised beds will be much easier than installation of the first 15 thanks to a year of keeping much of the soil in the new area under a mulch of straw on brown cardboard. And we have a reliable water supply now thanks to superb leadership by the Traverse City/Garfield Township Recreational Authority and our great local nonprofit organization SEEDS. We’re especially excited because soon that water system will be driven by a solar array--energy independence at last!

Today we had a great surprise: one of our local gardening friends donated 20 like-new, heavy-duty tomato cages, some of which we’ll use at the Barns and some at the Leelanau Community Garden this year. Such a fine donation is especially appreciated since our basic garden operation is entirely volunteer-financed. Thank you, Chuck!

Next steps: assembling new raised bed frames, adding compost, loosening the soil with a digging fork or broadfork, adding organic soil amendments based on our soil test results expected this week, and planting. What great therapy! We welcome visitors of all ages and plan to offer informal seminars this summer, open to anyone interested in joining us as we garden and learn.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Recycling Latte Cups

About a week ago, I did one of the most distasteful jobs of the spring. When I plant tomato seeds in cell trays to start raising the year’s plants indoors under fluorescent lights, I always use three seeds per cell.  As soon as most have germinated, I thin to two tiny plants per cell; then when all have their first true leaves (different from the cotyledons, or ‘seed leaves’), I do the final thinning.  With two healthy, nearly identical plants in each cell, it’s agonizing to choose the “winner” and snip off the “loser” with sterilized scissors--but it must be done. I base these decisions mainly on the stem diameter and strength, not the height of the plants. Shown here are plants in a 24-cell tray, now reduced to one plant per cell, partially hardened off by spending increasing times outdoors each day for a week.

Today I’m transplanting my first tray of plants into paper cups saved from lattes I've consumed over the past year. Tough duty, but I always manage to accumulate a few dozen. For details on transplanting techniques, see the METHODS & MATERIALS page in this blog.  Here’s a typical plant before and after transplanting; note that I've removed the seed leaves and covered the stem to a point slightly above their former location.

Now for the final hardening off.  These were started on April 15 (25 days ago) and should be ready to plant in one of their garden destinations during the first week in June, about 7 weeks after starting. At outdoor planting time, the top halves of those labeled latte cups will begin the last phase of their useful lives as cutworm collars around the stems of the plants they've helped nurture. I’ll bid a fond farewell to most of the bottom halves of the cups, although if some have survived in fairly good shape, they might do for starting next year’s pepper plants. I hereby resolve to empty even more new latte cups before next spring.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Egyptian "Walking" Onion Harvest

I just had to have some onion for today’s salad, so I dug the first of this spring’s perennial Egyptian ‘Walking’ ones. Stems averaged about ⅜ of an inch in diameter, and they were just a little tough, so they had to be cut into quite small pieces to avoid adding an unpleasant texture to the salad; but they tasted delicious!

Egyptian onions have extensive, succulent root systems. Even these early ones required a good bit of tugging on a digging fork with tines pressed at least 8” into the soil to pull them out.  Shown here are the roots from just one stem; the root mass for these six closely spaced stems was a tangled ball about 10 inches in diameter. For the person patient enough to wash them carefully and snip them into tiny bits, or better, to puree them in a blender, the roots can add a wonderful spicy flavor to an otherwise bland salad dressing.

So, you ask, how can I grow these earliest of delectables?  See for a summary. I honestly don’t recall where I got my original start of these perennial onions, but if you’re reading this, you can do a quick online search for information.

Plant the bulbils (top setting “seed” starts something like the “sets” you can buy everywhere this time of year) in the fall, and harvest just a few in the spring but let the remainder grow another year. By the following spring, you’ll have a nice onion patch like this:

Harvest what you wish, but leave some for the future. By mid-summer, your onion patch will have clusters of bulbils atop each plant:

By early autumn, these will have matured and may even send out shoots on which additional bulbils will form. At this time, the largest of the bulbils can be harvested for pickling, or for the luscious flavor they’ll add to soups or stews.

As winter approaches, the top stems will die and fall to the ground, allowing bulbil clusters to touch the soil up to a couple feet from their parent plant stems. There a new plant will be seen to have ‘walked’ to its new location. Are these bulbils hardy in northern climates, you ask?  The average February temperature  in my region was just over 9 degrees F, but here’s a bulbil cluster that lay on the ground all winter, now sending forth roots and shoots.
By next spring, a new bunch of tasty green onions will have grown at this spot!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Far out west, that is, there’s a blog with an accompanying site worth a long look, wherever your garden aspirations may lie.  Los Angeles? If, like me, you live in Michigan, that’s like another planet, huh? But raising food plants from seed indoors and getting them ready to plant outdoors is pretty much the same around the world; indoor climates aren’t generally all that different from one place to another.

For an accurate, well presented, and beautifully illustrated series of articles on nurturing many types of food garden plants from beginning to end, start with the link: and click on garden-of-eatin’.  The ‘Garden Betty’ is Linda Ly. The remainder of Linda’s site and the accompanying blog are generally entertaining, but it’s the almost universally applicable garden how-to that I’ve found worthwhile.  I’ve looked hard for any serious bits of bad advice in Linda’s articles and have found nothing worth exercising my specialty (nitpicking) upon. I take a few extra steps in sanitizing my indoor plant-raising operation and have a few additional tips, some of which are or will be buried in the METHODS & MATERIALS section of this blog; but Linda’s quality photography and text give very workable alternatives for most food garden activities.

Another tip for the day: Michigan Master Gardener Volunteer Whitney Miller is developing an extensive annotated map of community gardens, both food and ornamental ones including school gardens, in Northwest Lower Michigan. See:  The site includes links to the local Master Gardener Association and many others related to the Master Gardener Volunteer program coordinated by the Michigan State University Extension. Numerous opportunities to volunteer and to learn are available throughout our area!
Onions from a local community garden destined for a food pantry serving families in need

Friday, March 20, 2015

A "Cool" Article

Just a short post today to recommend a really good article by Rebecca Krans in today's Michigan State University Extension newsletter.  Please see:
I have just one suggestion to add: using a broadfork or digging fork to loosen soil without turning it helps to minimize disruption of the soil structure and maintain populations of beneficial soil organisms. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thankful for the Thaw...and Onions

Before I start describing our plans for spring in the gardens, I have a little anecdote to share. A few days ago, just before the big snow melt, my wife lost one of her hearing aids. We looked everywhere we could think of for it--no luck.  The one possibility I feared was that when she had been out shoveling snow, it might have come out without her realizing it and been tossed into the 3-foot-high snowbank near the walk. I thought perhaps I might find it someday, or more likely, it would become part of the shrubbery or the front lawn. Well, yesterday I was on my way out to get the morning newspaper, and behold: there it was emerging from the melting snow on top of the somewhat lower remaining pile. And it still works! That’s the second reason I’m glad spring is on its way!

As always, the approaching vernal equinox brings happy thoughts of seeds sprouting and the first delicious fresh garden produce of the year. It’s still a little early for the outdoor spring cleanup (necessary because the fall cleanup was far from perfect), but definitely not too early for things to get moving indoors.

Actually, I have a little head start already. Seed starting trays are washed, some paper “pots” made, seeds purchased, and onion plants slowly growing under fluorescent lights in my cool basement. In recent years, I’ve been just purchasing onion plants, as they need an early start and some patience to be ready for planting outdoors sometime around the third week in April. In fact, I ordered quite a few plants for this year, scheduled for delivery in mid-April. But I’m resolved to grow more onions this year, as we’ve already used most of last year’s harvest, so I also obtained some Bridger and Yellow Borettana seed and got that started on February 12 and still looking more like a thin stand of lawn grass than onions.
That brown stuff on top is milled sphagnum (not peat!), which, along with careful sanitation, and good air circulation, helps prevent fungal damping off disease.

Aside from these, we’ll be growing mainly Candy (sweet as…) and Patterson again this year.  My few remaining Pattersons are as firm and crisp as on the late September day when I finished moving them to our cool basement after drying.

Our always-tentative indoor planting schedule for this spring looks something like this:
March 23 The first broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale
March 30 Kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and spinach
April 6 Sage (needs light to germinate well) [I lost some of mine to
encroaching shrubs last year.]
April 13 The first tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and lettuce

About a week after that, we’ll be starting our first cool-season crops outdoors; but we’ll leave that for another day.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Master Gardener Strategic Visioning Retreat

On February 19-20, 2015, the Michigan Master Gardener Volunteer Program took a cautious but determined step forward toward bringing new life to an already invaluable statewide community service program.  No such program is, or ever will be, perfect; but on those two days in DeWitt, Michigan, strong hands pulled this one to a new level by its bootstraps.

Special Kudos to the following:
- Dr Ray Hammerschmidt, MSU Extension (MSUE) Director, for his presence on a busy day, and his inspiring talk reassuring all of the Extension's strong support for the program
- Mary Wilson, State Coordinator, MSUE Master Gardener Program, for her continuing dedication, superb leadership, and unflagging positive energy in the face of unstable funding in recent years
- Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia and Claire Bode, MSUE Educators, for their outstanding work as facilitators--they managed to keep a rowdy crowd on track!
- The entire Board of the Michigan Master Gardener Association for strengthening ties among Master Gardeners throughout the state and financially supporting their activities

Attendees at the conference addressed five different but interrelated critical issues, with preliminary assessments described below.

Participants believed relationships among all levels of Master Gardener (MG) program participants would profit from careful rebuilding.  The program has suffered by losing many of its former MG Volunteers, who have failed to obtain recertification, in many cases because they have found the costs in time and money needed to recertify were prohibitive.  Providing value to those individuals in the form of encouragement and rewards, and simplifying recertification requirements, were seen as possible stimuli in regaining their participation.

More thorough and timely communication among all parts of the MG program, including consistent guidelines for volunteer and educational hour reporting, were considered desirable.  Major improvements in the usability of the Volunteer Management System (VMS) program were sought in the form of enhanced mentorship of VMS Ambassadors from the state level and application of more consistent guidelines.  Adding new functionality to the VMS should result in more MG Volunteer appreciation of its utility.

Participants recognized and appreciated the great integrity consistently demonstrated by MG program participants at all levels.  Strategies to improve equality in the actual delivery of program benefits to all portions of Michigan's culturally and economically diverse population included surveying potentially underserved groups and updated program delivery methods.  A "marketing plan" was proposed to locate areas of need and solicit feedback on potential program growth in areas now lacking adequate access to the MG program.

Program Delivery/Distance Learning
It was agreed that providing standardized (but also carefully aligned with local needs), top-quality educational materials statewide by multiple delivery methods is at least desirable if not essential to MG program equity and growth.  Participants indicated preference for carefully constructed, quality-first introduction of new technology in both initial MG training classes and follow-on educational events.  It was felt that stability of new delivery systems after introduction would be very important in encouraging participation among areas now lagging in adoption of up-to-date technology.

Funding/Program Sustainability
It was generally agreed that at least modest increases in overall program funding are needed, but participants generally emphasized the need for improved funding equity and for tapping alternate means of resource acquisition.  It was proposed that Master Gardener Volunteers might act as advocates for additional local, state, and federal support; and that the possibility of additional support in the form of corporate sponsorship should be sought.  The concept of substituting locally available skill sets from both Master Gardeners and other local area residents was also discussed at length.

Overall, it was a great privilege to participate in an event that opened many possible doors to enhancing and expanding a program offering great opportunities to learn, to work for the betterment of our diverse communities alongside many outstanding people who share our values, and to look toward better future science-based care for the environment in which we live.  The MSUE Strategic Vision holds great promise for the future, and it will be exciting to see its results begin to take hold.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thoughts on Watering

On Thursday 2/26/15, a school garden training program will be held in Traverse City; please note our previous post on that event. As a small part of the proceedings, I'll be saying a few words about watering food garden plants. As a friend of mine is wont to say, "Everything has to have a drink." Here's an outline of what I'm planning to say:

Conserve water when possible
  • Whether planting indoors or out, start with planting mix or soil with structure that holds water well.
    • Add organic matter as needed to improve soil structure.
  • Mulch with material that dries quickly on the surface but reduces evaporation from soil.
  • Learn which plants require more water and which can do without; apply only what’s needed.
    • Most plants, even in sandy soil, can do well with less than the equivalent of an inch of rain per week.  That’s about 60 gallons per week per 100 sq ft of root zone.
  • Use a rain gauge to help determine when plants have received sufficient water.

When starting from seed:
  • Especially indoors:
    • Premoisten soil or mix before planting.
    • Apply a light mulch, e.g., milled sphagnum, which dries quickly, reducing chance of fungal pathogens.
    • Cover containers to reduce evaporation, but watch for fungus growth!
  • Mist or gently sprinkle soil surface twice daily as needed to keep moist until germination is evident.

After germination:
  • If indoors, move to a cooler area and begin bottom watering to keep surface relatively dry to reduce chances of disease, e.g., fungal “damping off,”
  • If outdoors, gradually allow soil surface to dry before additional watering.  Don’t overwater, but make sure soil several inches below the surface is moist.
    • If in doubt, squeeze a soil sample tightly; if it “clumps” together, it’s too wet.

As plants grow:
  • Learn which plants require more or less water and apply accordingly.
  • Water the soil over plants' root zones, and avoid unnecessarily wetting the foliage.
    • Root zone can extend laterally more than twice as far as the plant’s drip line; water the root zone, not just the stem area.
  • Water early in the day so that foliage can dry before night; and evaporation losses are lower then.
  • Water less often; with well-established plants, twice a week should be enough.
  • Add extra mulch (straw).

  • A sprinkling can is fine for a small school garden; and remember: kids love to water!
A watering can with a long spout allows a child to water plants without walking too close.

    • Develop child sense of pride in nurturing.
    • Teach awareness of plant below-ground structure.
    • Sprinklers or sprays are good for germination and very early growth, but:
  • Ground-level drip irrigation systems are much better for established growing plants.
    • Less likelihood of disease.
    • Less water waste to evaporation.


       Click on Watering Garden Plants, etc.