Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blossom-End Rot and Synthetic Fertilizers: Back to the Basics

I received this question via email late last week, and after doing some research, think that it will be very useful to those who have planted tomatoes and/or peppers, especially at this point in the season. Wanted to pass along what I found!

Brad Guindon writes:

Hi, I am a friend and follower of ECC and the garden blog. I started a mini patio garden this summer at my apartment west of St. Louis where I live. I have red peppers, zucchini and basil growing in one large container, and an upside-down tomato plant hanging by my front door. Everything has been growing great until recently. The pepper, which is green and about the size of a golf ball, probably a little bigger, has recently had a soft brown spot appear on a decent sized area of the pepper. I have been making sure to keep then well watered, especially recently with the high temperatures here. I have attached a blurry picture to help with your diagnosis. If you can, please help save my pepper!

Hi Brad!

Thanks for your question, and for following the blog! I did some research based on your description and ran the picture by my dad, and it looks like you are dealing with blossom-end rot. This is a calcium deficiency that causes the dry, sunken spots that you noticed. It is typically found on the first few fruits, and is evidence of fluctuations in the soil saturation and an irregular uptake of nutrients. It is likely that despite your noble efforts to keep the vegetables well-watered, that the high temperatures caused some inconsistencies.

Most of my suggestions are more preventive than anything:
  • First off, next year I wouldn't put too many different vegetables in one pot. It often surprises people to learn just how much soil you need even for one plant, and with too many different varieties you will find that they compete for nutrients in the soil.
  • Also, avoid using water soluble fertilizers (like Miracle Grow). These do not stay in the soil profile long and usually contain a higher concentration of synthetic nitrogen (synthetic releases too quickly to regulate the uptake of nutrients and leaches out of the soil--abetting nutrient deficiencies and thus problems like blossom-end rot). I would steer you more toward granular/organic fertilizers to help regulate the nutrient uptake. For more information on synthetic nitrogen, check out the Northeast Organic Farming Association article HERE. For general information on organic vs. inorganic check out a post from the Vegetable Gardener HERE. And if you need any help in selecting an organic fertilizer, just stop in to Swindlers and check out our selection of Espoma organic fertilizers and plant food!
  • Make sure your pot has good drainage, and maintain a very consistent watering schedule.
  • And to ward off blossom end rot in future gardens, you might try putting down some calcium nitrate about the time the plants start to blossom. The guys over at Wilmington College used calcium nitrate this year for this very purpose.
And for this year's garden there is good news. Discard the affected fruit and try out some of the above suggestions! Let me know if you are successful in saving the peppers!

Oh, and HERE is a link to an OSU extension fact sheet that I found useful (don't get too freaked though, they make it sound pretty ominous).

In fact, here is a sample picture they have included of a pepper affected by blossom-end rot:

Hope this information is useful to you as the season continues!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Demo Garden Grows!

The demo garden has grown beautifully over the last two weeks! The muskmelon, nasturtiums, and even the sweet peas are up! There is a wonderful stand of each. We were a little worried about our chance of germinating sweet peas in this hot weather, but the lure of gorgeous looking and delightful smelling blossoms prompted their planting anyway.

One of the local Girl Scout troops made superb vegetable signs to adorn the garden, which pleased the demo garden volunteers. Our favorite is one that says “sweet pepper” on one side and “sour pepper” on the other.

I finally was able to plant Buckwheat seed this week for our cover crop! It should germinate within 4-5 days, so hopefully I will see little seedlings popping up by the beginning of next week.

While I was planting the Buckwheat, I took a look at all of the other plants in the garden and discovered that a few of our radishes are ready to eat! I pulled one and ate it, yum! Due to the heat the radish was a little spicy, although I always think that Cherry Belle radishes are a little on the spicy side.

The beets, turnips, and radishes were thinned early in the week to allow each plant enough room to grow. While the demo garden beets are a long way from mature, I am now starting to eat the beets out of my families’ garden.

I love beets.

I even have a shirt that says “I dig beets” on it. The greens make an attractive addition to salad mix when they are small and tender and raw beets are good chopped up in salad. I spent the last 4 months in New Zealand, and during my time there I even acquired a taste for pickled beets. Even if you aren’t beet crazy, you will probably still enjoy roasted beets.

I think that roasted beets taste exactly like sweet corn. While I am going to have to wait a few weeks for some fresh sweet corn from the farmers market, and probably until August in order to eat corn from my garden, I can eat beets now. Plus they make a brilliantly purple dish on your plate!

To roast beets just cut the greens off about 1 inch above the root and cut off the skinny root.
Toss the beets in olive oil
Roast at 400 F for about 1 hour
Put some butter and salt on the beets and enjoy!
I eat the skin and it tastes just fine if the beets are fresh. If you are opposed to eating the skin, it pulls away easily after roasting.

Kelsey wrote about beets already, so sorry for another post about beets. But please try them if you haven’t already!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Local CSA

So all this talk of CSA had me asking around. Luckily, I didn’t have to go far to find out more. As I was sitting around the ECC office writing up my last post, Mark filled me in on a local CSA he and Taylor belong to: the Bergefurds family owned and operated farm. For $500 up-front they became a member for 25 weeks, receiving a bushel/basket of vegetables (or other specifically requested products) worth around $20 each week. I checked out their website (you should too) and the variety of produce available through membership is astounding! Just go to Bergefurd’s Farm Market to learn about membership, availability, and pick-up locations.

Because honestly, buying local produce is at the heart of a more sustainable economy, and besides that—it just tastes so much better.

Food for Thought

It wasn’t until a Wednesday lunch at Sugartree Ministries that I began to think more critically about sustainable food production. I met up with a good friend, Mike Snarr (professor at Wilmington College and rookie backyard gardener), to talk about his latest project. Along with his wife Melissa, Noah Campbell (pastor at the First Baptist Church) and his wife Allyson, and Don Troike and his wife Carol, Mike is experimenting with the economic benefits (and drawbacks) of small-plot gardens. By tracking the money/time spent from planting through harvest, and the relative sale cost of produce at the local Kroger, they hope to determine which plants are cost effective to grow, and which, surprisingly, may not be.

Their experiment stems from the emerging CSA practice. If you are like me when you hear an acronym you typically just nod along, hoping to eventually piece together its meaning through context. Now CSA is something that I have heard thrown around quite a bit lately, so as we sat munching on salads and watching the come-and-go of people in the kitchen, I finally admitted my own ignorance and asked what CSA meant to backyard gardeners. As it turns out it stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s actually not a new concept at all. Mike explained the idea behind a CSA; essentially it involves a farmer who, by selling “shares” of his crop, includes several families in his harvest.

He gave this example: Say you have ten extra acres. You pool money from a few supporters (perhaps 2-10 families). Their money early in the season contributes to your planting expenses, and in return they receive part of your harvest. You may pull a few bucks in profit, they receive fresh, locally grown produce, and together, you share the risk inherent to farming. Sounds pretty ideal, right?

Well that’s the goal for this project. Eventually. Right now the goal? Determine whether or not families benefit from growing their own vegetables. But this is where it gets tricky (and where I start to ask more questions). What does it mean for food to be “cheap?” Cheap is an artificial term really, as it does not factor in the production time, mileage, or entangled tax dollars for each vegetable. As Mike suggests, food is artificially inexpensive. There is a hidden cost to food production—oil, transportation obstacles, conflict, etc. But these costs are covered in taxes, so they are not typically associated with the food we eat. So really, it may not be at all cost-effective for you to grow your own onions. And I mean that honestly. Sometimes it is just cheaper and quicker to buy a few onions on sale at Kroger than it is to buy the sets, plant them, harvest them, prepare them, etc. But by doing so, you only continue to be a link in an unsustainable cycle of food production.

He then offered up this statistic, just think: the average bite of food has traveled 1500 miles. And do you think that when they charge you a few bucks for “fresh” tomatoes they have factored in the costs of transportation, pollution, etc. Nope.

This is where a CSA comes in. It is, once again, a way to be self-sufficient. To remove yourself from a production cycle that has lost its credibility. Now that sounds pretty cost-effective to me.

Just some food for thought.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 19th: Food Preservation "Know-How"

If you are like me, you are getting to the point in the season where the reality of having an abundance of home-grown vegetables is starting to really kick in. Meaning: you are going to have to DO something with all of these veggies. Now cooking has never really been my forte, and after a year spent living in a university dorm my skills are limited to microwavable items and all things non-perishable. And freezing, canning, etc.? Now that is really out of my league.

I think that this mindset is true for many of us, regardless of our experience in the kitchen. My grandparents’ generation had it down—vegetable gardens supplied a family the whole year, not just for a few short summer months, and home-made goods (jams, jellies, etc.) were a staple. And in these times it is so important that we reclaim these skills, not just because it is another step in being self-sufficient, but simply because the quality of home-grown goods is unmatched. Just think back over the many tasteless tomatoes and bitter strawberries you have purchased in the off-season, picked out of a sparse selection of less-than-quality fruits available at a 24-hour grocery. There has to be a better way.

And this Friday, June 19th, you can learn the alternative. The Clinton County Extension Homemakers present: Food Preservation “Know-How.” Here they will cover the basic techniques of pressure canning, food safety, freezing techniques, and jam and jelly preparation. These demonstrations, held repeatedly throughout the day, will be supplemented by kitchen-tested recipes and confidence-building written instructions. Canner lids will be tested as well.
The event will be held in the Ohio State Extension Community Room on 111 S. Nelson Ave. in Wilmington. It is only $2.00 per person for the entire day.

And at $2.00 per person, you really can’t afford to miss out. Because to be informed and self-sufficient is priceless.

Hope to see you there!

Demo Garden Planted!

The Demo garden has transformed from a grassy patch of grass in the veterans memorial area of the park to a growing garden! The Banana Split Festival marked the kick off of the J.W. Williams Memorial Park Demonstration garden.

The garden is split into four 6’ x 6’ blocks to allow for easy rotation in the future. In bed 1 we have planted an assortment of beans, with a few melons, nasturtiums, cucumbers and squash thrown in.

Bed 2 holds garlic, turnips, radishes, carrots, salsify, kohlrabi, onions, and a variety of herbs.

Bed 3 awaits planting until the seed arrives, but will be sown in Buckwheat for the purpose of being plowed back into the soil as a green manure.

Bed 4 contains a variety of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, as well as some sunflowers, nasturtiums, and marigolds that will provide even more beauty to our plot in the weeks to come. Maybe the marigolds and nasturtiums will also help deter some pests, as has been described in previous posts…

The raised bed (bed 2) has been planted using the square foot gardening technique. I was pretty amazed to see how many plants could fit into the bed when using the square foot technique! I cannot wait to see how they do as the summer progresses. I have almost always grown vegetables in straight rows, but the demonstration garden’s mix of square foot design, rows, and free form arrangements reminded me that plants don’t mind not growing in rows. Gardening is quite a creative endeavor.

Now that the garden is planted and starting to really take off, my mind is turning from garden logistics to wondering how this garden can be used as a demonstration. We are hoping that this blog will help us get the word out about the garden, and the banner hanging on the garden fence will hopefully attract the attention of people passing by.

ECC will also be forming educational programs about gardening, food, and nutrition throughout the summer. While these programs will be aimed at the younger generation, we welcome kids of all ages to participate.

If you are interested contact me at mashmore@energizecc.com.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beets: A Versatile Vegetable

So I must admit that despite my Garden Center upbringing and vegetarian lifestyle, it wasn’t until an afternoon working the ECC booth at the Banana Split Festival that I actually tasted a beet. Random, I know. As we sat around the table Taylor began to hand off raw veggies he had recently harvested from the garden; he had a selection of turnips, beets (even beet tops), and fruit covered in a delicious basil pesto (also made fresh using herbs from the Denver Memorial Garden, recipe to follow). And it was surprisingly good!

I have to confess I was skeptical. I remember when my dad first started in on his Superfood health kick and began bringing home a random assortment of obscure foods from each grocery store excursion; the pomegranate juice, almonds, and flax seed were just a start, soon he had progressed to raw vegetables that neither my mom nor I had any clue how to cook. And this led to the raw beets. My father, at the time, knew only four recipes, and none of them included beets. So he simply ate them raw, and by this I mean he walked around holding them by the leafy tops and munching off the bulb.

My Dad, Phil Swindler, with fresh beets from our Garden

I have since learned that there is some real value to my dad’s actions, which at the time I considered absurd. Beets are in fact a “superfood,” meaning simply that they are high in fiber, antioxidants, and other “phytochemicals” (non-nutritive plant chemicals in plants that can prevent cancerous changes in cells and other forms of disease). And you can eat, literally, the whole plant. The leafy tops can be cut anytime (limit one to two snips per plant however), and chopped up for salads, sandwiches, etc. The tops are best when they are tender (which is before the root is ready to be pulled).The actual root can be pulled at about the time that it is the size of a ping-pong ball (this is about its half size, and the time when it is its most tender). If you are not sure how large it is, simply uncover the top with your finger (they grow relatively close to the surface). The roots, high in iron and B vitamins, can be baked, boiled, steamed, or eaten raw.

Leafy Beet Tops

Beets are incredibly easy to grow as well. They don’t transplant well so you will grow them from seed. Because they are a compound seed you can expect two to three shoots from each seed (meaning that you may eventually have to “thin” the plant). Simply plant the presoaked seed about ½ inch deep (your first planting can be as early as 2-4 weeks before the last spring frost). To keep up a continuous supply simply plant a new plot/square every three weeks. From seed to harvest it is about 8 weeks. They can be grown in the summer and fall as well (if possible, avoid the hottest part of summer around the middle to the end of July).

And, as promised, here is a quick and easy basil pesto recipe to start you off. Simply wash and cut up a selection of fresh beets, turnips, etc. and cover in this delicious topping (recipe taken from Simply Recipes: click HERE for full article).

Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe
• 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
• 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
• 3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• Special equipment needed: A food processor
1 Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add the garlic, pulse a few times more.
2 Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Makes 1 cup.

Enjoy! And of course, you can always eat them raw like Dad!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Turnips, spinach, et al.

There's nothing like enjoying fresh greens and vegetables, and it has been quite enjoyable so far. Out of the square foot so far has come a sizable yield of lettuce, spinach, turnips, green onions, and beets. With that some basic toppings, traditional to experimental salads (pesto ranch is awesome), and some attempts at new recipes for veggies typically not grown in my backyard.

Some freshly picked turnips.

The purple top turnips came out really nice, and since there was a significant amount of spinach to consume, we decided to try a combo recipe. I found this spinach/turnip recipe on recipes.lovetoknow.com . It's pretty basic, but really delicious and high recommended.

The simple list of ingredients:

  • ½ pounds spinach, washed
  • 5 turnips, peeled, sliced
  • ½ cup cream, boiled
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Seasonings to taste


  1. Boil separately the spinach and turnips in salted water for about 20 minutes.
  2. Drain off water.
  3. Mix together.
  4. Add the cream, butter and seasonings.
  5. Mix well with a fork, and let cook together for about 2 minutes.
  6. Then serve.
That recipe can be found by clicking HERE . Explore other recipes as there are tons of different ways to mix, match, and prepare the foods you grow.
Purple-top Turnip

The Heat of Summer Approaching

The past couple of weeks have been very busy in the home garden—the start of summer plantings; the harvesting of the spring veggies; and the battle with weeds and pests.

It's safe to say that we will have an enough tomatoes and quite an excess of hot peppers—which isn't a problem for us, and will provide spicy meals for months to come. Just in a day we planted: 14 poblano peppers (called ancho when dried); 4 hot lemon peppers; 2 golden summer peppers; 2 habinero peppers; 2 jalapeno peppers; 3 red beauty's; 2 of the "world hottest,” which I'm assuming to be the Bhut Jolokia.

Jalapenos ; habaneros ; and bell peppers 
On the tomato side we added 7 beefsteak tomatoes to our dozen 4th of July tomatoes, which we planted a couple weeks earlier.

Like many of those to whom Kelsey referred in her previous article , I too plant Marigolds for their nematode-repellent-power. I planted six Marigolds in various, or as I might say, strategic spots throughout the garden. Besides their potential deterring factor, I think Marigolds, along with other flowers, provide a nice touch to the garden, and recommend planting for aesthetics as well.

Friday, June 5, 2009

VHS Tapes: the new Scarecrow?

Another great question this week:

Dear Kelsey,

Thank you for your Garden Blog--such a great idea. I plan to check it often. My question--how do you protect corn seedlings from critters? I planted some seeds and they actually sprouted. A few days later, all the little sprouts were lying flat in the dirt and little holes had been dug exactly where the seeds were planted--I suspect squirrels. I would like to plant some more seeds, but want to protect them. Any thoughts?

Thanks again for your help,

First of all: the best advice I can give you is to plant twice as much. It may be squirrels that are digging up your seed, but it may also be birds. We have seen it many times before—birds will even dig up pepper plants just to pick at them. They don't eat the seed or the plant, they just dig it up (spiteful, I know). There aren't a lot of ways that you can protect seedlings from birds, usually we just have to replant. As my Uncle Gerry says, there is safety in numbers. Plan on having a few taken by the birds/squirrels/etc. and make sure that you will still have what you need if this is the case.

Because your corn seeds should germinate in as little as four days (meaning you will see the small seedlings you mentioned before), it will not put you behind in your gardening to replace what hasn't germinated. Even if it is 10-12 days after planting, just pop in more seeds.

But, there is another option, if you are up for it. You can protect your vegetables AND put those old VHS tapes to good use. I know that in the ECC garden we have surrounded the vegetables with video cassette tape, held up off the ground by stakes. The sound that the film makes as the wind blows is similar to that of a humming bird and can be disturbing to potential critters; also, the tape is reflective and will be startling to any incoming birds (because a bird’s brain is dominated by sensory perception even slight reflection/movement can be overwhelming). Traditionally people have used the tape from cassettes, but VHS tape—because it is thicker—is more effective.

I have also read that aluminum pie plates can be used! String them up in surrounding trees or from tall stakes; again, the movement and reflection will disturb the birds. They will, however, begin to ignore stationary objects (like scarecrows), so make sure there is sound/movement.

As always, let us know if you have any success!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Marigolds: Do they keep the critters away?

A question came to me the other day, and I wanted to share it with you all:

Hello Kelsey,

Love your blog on Energize Clinton County!!

I have a garden question - I've heard that marigolds help keep insects from vegetable garden plants. Really?

Sardinia, OH

Okay, so this is a really good question. Good, but tricky. Every year we have customers that come in to buy marigolds, specifically to keep insects/rabbit/deer away from their vegetable garden. They come year after year, always requesting a flat of this age-old, yet pungent, plant.

The evidence that these plants ward off insects isn’t firm, however. French marigolds (the variety commonly sold) are said to release a nematode repellent into the soil. Nematodes, worm-like creatures, destroy plant root-systems. There is research suggesting that certain species find the compound released by marigolds to be toxic. And in this respect, having marigolds can be helpful.

I also spoke with Tony Nye at the OSU Extension Office in Clinton County and was told that marigolds may be useful for keeping beetles away from bean plants. However, there is not a lot of evidence saying that marigolds are effective for other insects. Aphids, for example, are sometimes even attracted to marigolds. (Tony Nye did, however, mention another plant, Nasturtiums, that is said to deter not only beetles, but aphids and squash bugs as well.)

In regard to marigolds, I would say that their scent is a distinguishing characteristic. Many say that their odor disguises the scent of vegetables, either confusing insects or preventing them (and possibly rabbits/deer) from perusing around your garden.

Honestly though, despite conflicting evidence, marigolds are a cheap experiment. They are inexpensive (we are now selling them at Swindlers for only 49 cents apiece), hardy, and easy to find. We are trying them out in the ECC vegetable garden, and will have a better idea of their effectiveness as the season continues. My advice, try them out. No promises, but they certainly are cheap and easy. And as always, let us know if you have any success!

Some sites I found helpful while researching this question:
(Fellow blogger, appears to be a well-researched post)
(Alabama Cooperative Extension System—article written by horticulture student and associate)

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