Sunday, January 31, 2016

You're invited! Montgomery County MG's Spring Gardening Conference

More information at This is always a great event, so check it out!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Links for winter reading

Hello again - it's winter and that means time for a links round-up. In other words, have some stuff I've bookmarked over the last several months that you might enjoy reading too, in between ordering seeds and planning this year's garden.

If you'd like to find some new and interesting sources for your seeds, read Margaret Roach's "A Way to Garden" interview Power-Shopping the Seed Catalogs With Joseph Tychonievich.

And you might want to consider growing cauliflower this year, since it's hard to find or afford in stores right now.

While we're on brassicas, Michael Twitty has a great post on the history and culture of collards: A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia.

This is from way back in September: Adrian Higgins on container gardening in cities.

And here's local blogger Susan Harris on Garden Rant, talking about her favorite watering tools.

Why Pumpkins and Squashes Aren't Extinct: how they became domesticated.

The UN General Assembly has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (leguminous crops harvested dry). I guess Grow It Eat It was just ahead of the curve with our 2015 Year of Beans and Peas! (We'll be giving you updates on our Year of Tomatoes soon.)

But other organizations do Year-Of celebrations too. The International Herb Association has picked Capsicum (or Peppers) to celebrate as Herb of the Year in 2016. And (since I just happened to find it randomly) University of Missouri Extension has declared this the Year of the Carrot.

Speaking of carrots, this is very important: Baby Carrots Are Not Baby Carrots.

How about we wind up with some beautiful things? Salad-making as performance art, vegetable portraits by Lynn Karlin, and fruit and vegetable photographic tableaus by Brittany Wright.

Enjoy and happy January!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Fruits of Our Labor

Potted Meyer lemon and lime trees
 Three years ago, I fell victim to a sale for something I really didn’t need. Well let’s face it, many of us do. This one was from Logee’s Plants for Home and Garden in Connecticut.  It offered a three-fer on little citrus trees. It was like I’d been sucker-punched and went into an auto-order daze. I love Meyer lemons. They cost the moon in the shops -- when you can even find them -- and limes are a staple here for all kinds of reasons (gin and tonic in the summer being one, fish tacos another).  I bought three little trees – a Meyer lemon, a sweet lime and a key lime -- in a daze of bargainry, not really thinking about how I’d look after them or the limited space in the small backyard greenhouse that I use primarily to start my vegetable seedlings.

I’ve left the trees outside in summer. The first year I brought them into the greenhouse for winter they were only mildly crowded with the vegetable seedlings. Last spring I repotted them (how they’ve grown, I’m so proud!). Now, it’s like I’m trying to cram a four-pound sausage into a two-pound casing and I’m not sure how I’m going to have room to grow all the little seedlings for the garden while they’re still there until the weather warms enough to shove them outside again.  But that worry is for another day (coming soon).

 At the moment they’re feeling peaky, what with a little bacterial mold (aphid-borne, I’m guessing) and a lack of moisture on the leaves. (They loved it when I hauled them outside on a warm day in December and vigorously hosed off their leaves, but they are as large as I can manage on my own, and even then, I purposely let the root ball dry out a little to make them lighter -- every gardener needs a cast-iron back with a hinge in it). I’ll hit them again with an insecticidal soap this weekend and hope for the best.

Meyer Lemons and the fruits of their labor
Despite being a semi-clueless tree-mom, those little guys have been generous. We’ve got a bag of little key limes in the crisper, though we’ve finished the 30 or so sweet limes the lime tree gave us. (Not all on gin and tonics, honest). But the Meyer lemon was the start -- 40 sweet fruits!  I made preserved lemons to use in a Moroccan lamb recipe I’ve been eying for some time, and Meyer lemon curd and Meyer lemon marmalade. But mostly, I’ve been making little Meyer lemon sponge custards. They’re a super little dessert or breakfast. Tartish, sweetish, delicious and, I gotta believe, good for you.

Meyer Lemon Sponge Custard

3 Meyer lemons
¾ cup sugar
2 Tblsp butter
3 Tblsp flour
½ cup whole milk
2-3 eggs, separated

Preheat oven at 325-350. Butter 6 custard cups and put in a bain marie (a water bath in a Pyrex dish or something like it – water about halfway up the sides of the cups). Grate rind of lemons gently, since the skins are thin, and you don’t want pith, which tends to be a little bitter. Then squeeze them into the same container. You should have about ¼-1/3 cup of juice and rind. Cream butter and sugar together, add egg yolks, beating until they are well incorporated and the batter is beautifully smooth. Add the flour, then gradually add the lemon juice and rind, and finally add the milk gradually, beating the whole time. Whip egg whites, and gently fold into the batter. Pour into the custard cups and bake for about 25 minutes or until puffed a little and slightly browned on top. Remove from the water bath and let cool. Chill if your family doesn’t scarf them all up immediately or if you’re keeping them for breakfast.
Meyer lemon sponge custard

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Winter Chores and Hot Composting

For the last couple of weeks, I've been putting unplanted parts of the garden to bed for the winter. To accomplish this, I have been cleaning the winter weeds and spent, undiseased vegetables out of the beds and adding them to the leaves I've collected throughout the fall. Once the beds are cleared, I cover them with compost that I've made over the summer.  Normally, one of my finished compost piles will cover one of my beds an inch deep. After dumping it on the bed, all I have to do is rake it out and cover the soil with a layer of weed free organic material (OM) which I can plant through in the spring.  Not only does the compost enrich the soil, but it also protects the soil from eroding.

The GIEI recommendation for established gardens is to add an inch of compost to the garden each year.  For new gardens, the recommendation is to add 6 inches the first year and several years there after in order to build up a reserve of  OM in the soil.   If your soil test shows the percentage of OM, your objective is to get the OM % in your soil above 4%.  Soils with high OM percentages (greater than or equal to 4%) provide residual nitrogen (N) to plants throughout the summer as the microbes in the soil digest the OM, releasing N and turning the OM into humus.  Soils with high OM percentages release some N and can reduce the amount of fertilizer needed for each crop.  The higher your OM percentage, the more N will be release during the warm weather when soil microbes are active.

During cool weather, spring and fall, you will still need to fertilize your crops at planting time (.2 of a pound of N per 100 square feet) and when side dressing plants.  Side dressing recommendations can be found under each crop profile on the GIEI website..

Throughout the gardening season, I add additional compost to those areas where a second or third crop is being planted. As I empty a bin, I reload it with an 30 to 1 mixture of browns and greens.

Hot Composting

The four ingredients needed to hot compost are an appropriate mixture of carbon rich materials like leaves or other dead plant material (browns) and nitrogen rich materials which are living/green plants, vegetable waste from the kitchen or if they are not available, a nitrogen rich fertilizer like urea (greens).  The appropriate ratio of browns and greens is a 30:1 ratio.  To determine how to create a 30:1 ratio of brown to greens, you can either wing it or refer to the carbon to nitrogen ratio spreadsheet on the Howard County MG composting website.  Just click on the link on the right side of the page and enter the approximate weights of the browns and greens you have and adjust those values to reach a ratio around 30:1.

For example, this fall I was mixing 100 pounds of dry leaves with 160 pounds of grass clippings. to create a 30:1 mix.  As I mix these two materials together, I wet them down so that the mixture is about as damp as a rung out kitchen sponge. I continue adding browns and greens, mixing and wetting until my pallet bordered bin is full.

I have a five bin system, made up of recycled oak pallets that I select from the wood waste pile at the Howard County landfill.  These bins are about 4 by 4 feet, but in the winter you will need at least a 3 by 3 foot bin to retain the heat built up as the microbes start the decomposition process. Pallets last a couple of years before they start to rot, at which time I cut them up and burn them in my fireplace.  When loading the bins, I always leave on bin empty, so that I have someplace to turn a loaded bin into.  Another trick I learned several years ago is to cover my winter piles with a sheet of plastic to keep excess moisture out.  I also insulate the top of the pile by covering it with bags of dry leaves.

After loading the bin, the aerobic decomposers start to work, they use the N from the greens, oxygen and moisture to breakdown the carbon rich materials.  This process produces lots of heat.  When first started, the pile should heat up very quickly (2 days) and reach between 140 to 160 degrees.  The picture shows a 6 inch instant read thermometer in a pile I recently started.

After about a week, the temperature in the pile will have declined and the pile will have shrunk in size.  At this point, the bacteria and other aerobic decomposers will have used up oxygen in the pile and the pile needs to be turned to introduce more oxygen and check for the moisture content (Pile should be as damp as a wrung out sponge.).  Breaking up a matted down pile can be difficult, especially  if you are composting leaves that have not been shredded  I use a mini tiller, place it on top of the pile and use it to breakup the pile.  A word here about shredding leaves, which is not necessary.  However, the smaller the particle size you start with, the faster the materials will decompose, but the pile will mat down faster and may have to be turned more often.

After turning the pile out, I just fork it into the next bin.  During the first four weeks, the pile will need to be turned weekly and it will continue to reach very warm temperatures since it will contain a good amount of green material or nitrogen to act as fuel for the bacterial.  As the fuel is used up, turning the pile to introduce oxygen won't cause the pile to heat up as much because a large portion of the nitrogen in the pile will have been used up.  After about 8 or 10 weeks, turning the pile won't produce any temperature increase and the pile should be left to mellow for 4 weeks.  After that period of time, the compose can be used.

The University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center has a publication on Backyard Composting.  If you would like to learn more about composting, you can always visit one of Howard County MG compost demonstrations sites during the summer to learn more.  Date and times for the compost demonstrations can be found on the Howard County GIEI class schedule.

If you are like me and can't produce enough compost to fulfill your gardens requirements, high quality compost is available at Howard County's Alpha Ridge landfill.  This pilot composting facility produces high quality compost from yard trim (grass, leaves, etc) and food scraps collected and delivered to the facility.  Lab tests are conducted on the compost to insure it meets EPA limits on metals and to insure that it is mature compost with no residual herbicides contamination.

So clean up your gardens this winter, load your compose piles and wait for the seed catalogs so that you can plan for the 2016 garden.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Field of Greens - Community Garden Gets Refugees Growing

This article originally appeared in the TERP online magazine on December 18, 2015
Community Garden Gets Refugees Growing

At a community garden in Riverdale, a woman circles her small plot of land, carefully examining a bed of baby spinach sprouting through the soil.

Dhan Gautam visits the garden behind the University of Maryland’s Center for Educational Partnership building three times a week to tend her 150-square-foot patch of land, where she grows flowers, bitter melon, tomatoes and other vegetables. Her efforts don’t just put fresh food on her table; they reconnect Gautam with her homeland, and connect her with her new community.

The Field of Greens program, funded by the UMD Extension, Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority and other community partners, provides 51 plots for local refugee families to grow and harvest their own food. Launched in 2014, the program also aims to encourage sustainable and urban agriculture in an area where ample yard space can be hard to come by.

“At my parents’ home, we had a big garden,” says Gautam, who moved to the United States from Nepal in 2008. (Many of the gardeners resettled in Prince George’s County after regimes in Bhutan and Nepal drove out Buddhists.) “We grew everything there and never had to buy vegetables from the market.”

Agricultural backgrounds are common among the refugees, who are drawn to Field of Greens as an outlet to apply their skills and connect with their native country, says Betti Gregus, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer serving as the community garden coordinator.

Field of Greens, Gregus says, is essential in helping local families live healthier lives through better access to fresh food.

“Many of these people are low-income, and the veggies they grow here often make up much, if not nearly all, of their diet,” she says.

Once a vacant soccer field, the all-organic garden recently expanded to include a youth area, where student groups from the International Refugee Committee and local schools plant in raised garden beds, and a communal “food forest,” which includes more than 70 trees and shrubs that will one day bear fruits and nuts.

“But it’s not just about the food—it’s the whole community aspect,” Gregus says. “You can really see these people come to life when they bring home things they grew themselves.”

Watch this video about the Field of Greens by the HGIC:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Upcoming Seed Swaps

Catch the Gardening Fever in 2016 at a local SEED SWAP

Did you know that the last Saturday of January each year is National Seed Swap Day? Yeah!!

Most local Seed Swaps are open to the public, are sponsored by public libraries and University of Maryland Extension Master Gardeners, and are guaranteed to be FUN and EDUCATIONAL!

You don’t have to bring seeds to participate. Most seed swaps have kid’s activities and information on seed starting and seed saving.

Caroline Co.- Saturday, January 23rd from 10am- 1pm at the Central Library-Denton. The seed swap is followed by a pot-luck meal.

Calvert Co.- Saturday, January 23rd  from 10:00am-1:00pm at the Calvert Library. For more information call: Calvert Library 410-535-0291 or Calvert Extension 410-535-3662

Anne Arundel Co.- Saturday, January 30th at 10:00am at the Crofton Library.

Carroll Co.- Saturday, January 30th beginning at 11:00 a.m. at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library. Registration is required--beginning Jan. 16.   410-386-4488,    

Harford Co.- Saturday, January 30th at from 1:00pm to 3:00pm at the Whiteford Library.

Montgomery Co.- Saturday, January 30 from 12noon-4:00pm at Brookside Gardens, Wheaton, MD. 11th Annual Washington Gardener Seed Exchange. To register:

Kent Co.- Saturday, March 19 from 11:00am-1:00pm at the Kent County Library in Chestertown. Call 410-778-3636 for more information.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

2016 Gardening Resolutions

It is cold outside! That means, we, gardeners, finally get to spend some time indoors and think about the upcoming growing season. New seeds catalog, enticing us with even better than seeds than ever before, arrive in the mail almost daily.

The trick is of course to find the seeds that I want at the smallest number of companies: those shipping and handling cost tend to add up quickly. Apart from the usual suspects (tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, lettuce, greens, etc), I want to try my hand at some vegetables and herbs that I have never grown before: lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, sesame seeds and nigella (sometimes called black cumin). It is going to be interesting just finding sources for these seeds.

The cold weather also gives us some time to reflect. What did not work so well last year? What would I like to do differently? In other words, what are my gardening resolutions for 2016? There is of course the usually, yearly list:
  • Stay on top of the weeds more
  • Do a better job pruning
  • Mulch the flower beds BEFORE they are in full bloom
  • Plant everything that I buy before next winter (or better yet, don't buy any new plants until I have planted what is currently residing in my garage)
  • Carve out some time to actually enjoy the garden

I could go on and on. However, what I would really like to accomplish is to keep better records! I always start enthusiastically in March/April, but once the growing season is in full swing, I simply forget to make any notes. Then of course, a year later, I am wondering what I did and why it didn't work. If only I had notes to refer back to.

I'd like to think this is an attainable goal for 2016. What are your Gardening Resolutions?