Archive: Feb 2018

  1. McDonald Outdoor Show 2018

    We are excited to be at the 25th Annual McDonald Outdoor Show. The event runs from March 2-4, 2018 at its Independence Boulevard location in Virginia Beach, VA. This year they will celebrate with many displays showing southern garden themes. The event will also host seminars, local and national vendors, and a many other good …

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  2. Starting School Gardens

    Children harvest vegetables in a Delaware school garden.

    What do famed chef, Alice Waters, celebrated anthropologist Jane Goodall, and actress Meryl Streep have in common? All support school gardening initiatives that not only teach children how to grow food, but serve as outdoor learning centers and launch pads for lessons in everything from math to creative writing. From the Julien Elementary School Garden in Turlock, California, to Matty’s Garden at the Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Edible Schoolyard movement is spreading like summer crabgrass. School gardens of every size, shape and composition are springing up in urban, suburban, and rural school districts all over the country.

    Celebrity endorsers and patrons are nice but not necessary to start a successful school gardening program. The critical components are adult vision, student involvement, and the ability to muster enough resources to establish and sustain the garden. If you think you can combine those elements, you are ready to get started.

    It Takes a Village

    School gardens are one of the best teaching tools for kids.

    School gardens often start with a single person: a parent, teacher or administrator with a passion for gardening. But, no one—especially not a successful school garden organizer—gardens alone. Start by engaging others, including school personnel, parents, and students. Work on refining the garden idea.  Listen to everyone. Define the purpose of the garden and what kinds of crops you want to grow. Successful school gardens often combine food and ornamental crops, with the ornamentals providing visual appeal and attracting essential pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. (Click here to learn how to create a butterfly garden.) Use some of the many online school gardening resources to help in the planning process.

    Choosing a Site

    A good school garden site should have quality soil.

    Gardeners and gardening educators know that location is everything. Pick a sunny space on school property and make sure that space is reasonably close to a reliable water supply. If the soil in the designated spot is extremely compacted or contaminated, amend the soil with a quality amendment, like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. You might also think about using raised beds or containers filled with high-quality planting mix like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Large, well-watered containers will also work beautifully if the only available site is covered in asphalt.

    Plan and Permission

    Vegetables thrive in a school garden.

    Before seeking approval from school authorities, your team should develop a clear, logical plan that includes as much of the stakeholders’ feedback as possible, plus practical and logistical considerations.  The plan should also include a mission statement and information about the garden’s purpose, goals, size, and proposed location.  Create estimates of the necessary resources—financial and human—needed for set-up and ongoing operation.  Focus on maintenance, making sure to include provisions for watering and upkeep during periods when school is not in session.  (It may help to recruit a team of volunteers to help with upkeep.) Your goals may be lofty, but keep the overall plan simple and present it in a positive way with as many stakeholders present as possible.  Be responsive to school authorities’ concerns and be prepared to make plan revisions.

    Funding

    You are going to need funding for garden supplies and seeds or starter plants.  Many school gardens start with a contribution from the PTA or other parent organization.  Local businesses may also be willing to donate supplies or at least provide discounts. Dedicated, well-publicized fundraisers are another possible funding avenue.

    You can also seek out grant opportunities, some of the best being offered by Kids Gardening. This exceptional kids’ gardening program also offers additional educational resources to help educators and parents start school gardens.

    With all of these pieces in place, you should be able to start a thriving school gardening program. There’s no better way to help kids learn and get them outdoors.

  3. Traditional Asian Vegetables for the Garden

    Asparagus bean

    Many prized vegetables originate from or were bred in Asian countries, from India to Japan to Malaysia. Great emphasis is placed on the beans, cucurbits, greens, and root vegetables, and many are very old, select varieties collected and grown for generations. The best are flavorful and great for any home garden.

    Local climate often dictates growth preference. For example, vegetables bred in Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia are heat and drought tolerant, while the vegetables of northern China prefer cooler climates. Many of these crops are unknown to American gardeners, but consider trying a few this season, if you like Asian cuisine or simply delicious garden-fresh food.

    Beans

    Yardlong bean

    The asparagus or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) is both attractive and delicious—sporting red flowers and beautiful winged beans.  It is a warm season crop that produces long twining vines that produce edible beans just 75 days after planting. It is grown in tropical regions due to its marked tolerance to high heat. The unusual looking pods taste like a cross between peas and asparagus. Asparagus bean has added value because the leaves are eaten like spinach, and the edible roots have a nutty flavor.

    Also well-adapted to high heat and summer growing is the yardlong bean (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis). Its vigorous vines bear loads of very long beans that reach 12- to 16-inches and taste delicious. They have been grown for centuries in China and are best sautéed or stir fried.

    Cucurbits

    Angled luffa

    Japanese cucumbers are unique in that they are very long, thin skinned, and crisp. They grow on rambling vines that are best trellised to accommodate the cucumbers that can reach between 8 to 12 inches. Try the open-pollinated variety ‘Sooyow Nishiki’, which has thin, warty skin and crisp, sweet flesh.

    Many Asian melons exist, which are bred and selected to be remarkable sweet. The open-pollinated Japanese variety, ‘New Melon’ is golden, smooth skinned, and was developed in the 1950s for Japanese growers. Each vigorous vine produces between four to eight melons. Be sure to plant them as early as possible, because vines take between 110 to 120 days to produce fruit.

    Asian melons

    Most westerners know luffa as a natural sponge for bathing, but in China the young gourds are a popular vegetable. The angled luffa (Luffa acutangula) is commonly referred to as Chinese okra and has a sweet taste (much like zucchini) when harvested young. Give the vines plenty of space, or trellis them for easier growing and harvest.

    Greens & Cabbages

    Chinese cabbage

    Bok choy (pak choi) is a mild, cool-season green that produces rosettes of green leaves with fleshy white bases. These are fast-growing and typically eaten stir fried. Some varieties are very small and others large. The super small variety ‘Extra Dwarf Pak Choi’ is very fast growing , reaching full size in just 30 days, and is just right for edible container gardening.

    Valued as a spring vegetable across Asia, Korean minari is a leafy green that tastes much like watercress. It is closely related to celery and is a vital ingredient in Korean bibimbap bowls or can be prepared as a spicy vegetable side dish. It grows best in cool weather and slows growth in temperatures above 70 degrees F.

    Chinese cabbage is a well-known, cool-season crop that produces large heads that may be barrel-shaped or loose headed. Try the old Japanese variety, ‘Aichi’, which is a large, barrel-shaped variety that produces dense heads with a sweet cabbagy flavor. These grow and taste best in the mild temperatures of spring or fall.

    Root Vegetables

    Watermelon radish

    Radishes play an important role in the cuisine of many Asian cultures. These include watermelon, daikon, and hot radishes as well as those used for microgreens. All radishes are fast growing and best suited to growing in cool weather. When temperatures are hot, they don’t develop substantial roots and taste very hot. Watermelon radish types are some of the most beautiful with their red interiors and greenish-white exteriors. They are also fun for kids to grow. Try the Chinese radish ‘Red Meat’, which is thin skinned, sweet, and ready to harvest 60 days after planting.

    Turnips are a common root vegetable, but most western gardeners are not familiar with red turnips. These fast-growing, sweet root vegetables are popular in Asia and eaten fresh or cooked. They are typically red on the outside and white or pinkish on the inside. Try the traditional Japanese turnip ‘Hidabeni‘, which has flattened roots with scarlet exteriors and white interiors.

    Eggplant

    Green Japanese eggplant

    Eggplant is essential to Asian cuisine, from India to Japan. Most are elongated, mild, thin-skinned, and have few seeds. This warm-season crop bears many fruits over the season. One of the easiest and best varieties to try is the Taiwanese eggplant ‘Ping Tung Long‘, which is very heat tolerant and has bright purple fruits that reach over a foot long. The equally large green fruits of the Japanese ‘Choryoku‘ are also firm, sweet, and delicious.

    Favorite Thai eggplants are a bit different in that many are smaller and oval or round. They may be green striped or deep purple. The small, round variety ‘Petch Siam’ is grown from India to Vietnam. Its small green striped fruits are numerous, and the plants like high heat.

    Squash

    Kabocha squash

    There are many squash grown and favored across Asian countries, but some of the sweetest and best tasting are kabocha winter squash. These somewhat flattened, globe-shaped squash typically have dark green skin and gold to orange flesh that is smooth and very sweet. The open-pollinated kabocha from Japan, ‘Kuri Winter’, has very sweet, thick, golden flesh and dark blue-green skin. Plant it early as vines take 95 to 110 days to produce good fruit.

    Vegetable Care

    For high vegetable yields be sure to feed your crops with a granular organic vegetable fertilizer early in the season. Amendments such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend also ensure high soil moisture and aeration to encourage vigorous root growth. Double–digging is another great way to optimize deep root growth to help plants withstand moderate drought and high heat.

  4. The Best Maples for Maple Sugaring

    The best time to tap sugar maples is in late winter.

    It’s sugaring season across much of southern Canada and the northern United States.  The sun is climbing higher, temperatures are moderating, and maple sap is starting to flow.

    You don’t need sugar maples to make good maple sugar, however.  Purists may blanch at the thought, but several other maple species have sweet-flavored sap that flows on mild winter days and that boils down into delicious maple syrup (and other byproducts).  For example, some of the best Vermont syrup is produced by farms that depend on red maple (Acer rubrum) for much of their sap.  This is a good thing, given that Acer saccharum is in decline throughout most of its eastern Canada to Southeast U.S. range.

    Sugar Maple

    Sugar maple

    As its very name proclaims, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the traditional source of this arboreal nectar.  It’s also a Currier and Ives icon of the Northland, holding sap buckets in late winter and producing five-pointed leaves in spring that turn fiery hues in fall.  Mature, scaly-barked sugar maples line the streets of many old New England towns, as much a fixture as the clapboard colonial houses.

    Red Maple

    Red maple

    Red maple has a lot going for it as a sap source – especially for do-it-yourselfers who want to grow and tap their own trees.  Its sap is only slightly less sweet than sugar maple’s, with about 50 gallons (rather than 40) required to produce a gallon of syrup.  Moreover, red maple thrives in a much wider range of conditions, and attains tappable size (10 inches diameter at breast height) more rapidly.  Plant a sugar maple in a fertile, humus rich soil in sun or light shade, and its trunk will broaden perhaps a third of an inch per year.  A red maple under the same conditions will likely grow at twice that rate.

    Red maple also more than holds its own as an ornamental plant, typically forming an oval-crowned, 40- to 50-foot tree with attractive smooth gray bark that becomes furrowed and scaly with age.  The three-lobed leaves flush red in spring, deepen to lustrous dark-green in summer, and turn brilliant shades of red and orange in early fall.  Conspicuous clusters of maroon-red flowers festoon the naked branches in late winter, providing pollen for early-emerging bees.

    Numerous red maple cultivars are available from nurseries and garden centers, differing in characteristics such as size, habit, seed production, fall color, and cold-hardiness – so it’s likely there’s one that’s a good fit for your yard.  In nature, it’s found over much of central and eastern North America.

    Silver Maple

    Silver maple (image by Famartin)

    Red maple’s close relative silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is its equal as a maple syrup source, yielding sap of similar sweetness.  Its massive mature size, invasive roots, and susceptibility to storm damage disqualify it as a yard tree, unless a yard is of park-like dimensions.  On the other hand, if silver maple is available for the tapping, its sap is well worth the effort.

    Box Elder

    Box elder

    The same goes for another rather weedy, weak-wooded maple, box elder (Acer negundo).  Its common name and poison-ivy-like leaves notwithstanding, it is indeed a maple, and it does indeed yield sap that boils down into delicious syrup.  Although the sap is only half as sweet as sugar maple’s, it’s produced at more than twice the rate, resulting in higher syrup yield per tree.  Additionally, box elders are ready for tapping at a much younger age (within 5 years or so of planting) and smaller size (6 inches in diameter).  Box elder is also hardier and tougher than sugar maple, as evidenced by its coast-to-coast geographic range.

    Box elder has minimal ornamental value.  Nonetheless, it has given rise to several spectacular variegated and gold-leaved cultivars, which are well worth planting.  Look for ‘Flamingo’, with white-streaked leaves that emerge shrimp-pink in spring.  If you’re considering growing ‘Flamingo’ for its sap as well as for its flamboyant foliage, keep in mind that it grows more slowly than the wild type.

    Bigleaf Maple

    Bigleaf maple

    The sugaring season continues sporadically from late fall to spring in the relatively mild climes of upland California and the Pacific Northwest.  Here, the native species to tap is bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).  Its sap has slightly lower sugar content than that of sugar maple, and flows most freely after relatively chilly nights.

    Norway Maple

    Norway maple

    Just about any residential district in the U.S. is likely to host Norway maple (Acer platanoides).  Formerly widely planted for its rapid growth and tolerance of city conditions, this Eurasian native has become a noxious weed in many areas of the U.S., invading native woodlands with its seedlings.  It’s easily distinguished from sugar maple by its furrowed bark, plump egg-shaped terminal buds, and erect flower clusters, as well as by the thick milky sap that oozes from severed leaf stems. Its winter sap, on the other hand, runs clear, and boils down into surprisingly palatable syrup.

    Black Maple

    Black maple (image by Daderot)

    Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have some healthy sugar maples to tap, Acer saccharum remains the maple sugar tree par excellence – with the possible exception of its near-twin, black maple (Acer nigrum).  Black maple differs from sugar maple in its yellower fall color; hairier leaf stems with droopy leaf blades; and more furrowed bark.  Its sap, though, is equally sweet and delectable.  In areas of the North-Central U.S. where it outnumbers sugar maple, black maple reigns as the most important sugaring tree.

    Processing Maple Sap

    Fresh maple syrup

    You need a number of maples to tap for syrup. Each mature tree can produce between 10 to 20 gallons of sap per tree. It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to one gallon of syrup, so you need at least three trees to produce one gallon of maple syrup. Maple sugar houses require large sugaring pans to produce syrup. To learn more about how to process sap into maple syrup, read this article from Penn State Extension about Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner.

    The best time to plant your own maple is in spring or early fall.  Make sure the planting hole is the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and at least three times as wide.  Backfill with unamended soil, and mulch the area around the newly planted tree with an inch of Fafard Natural Premium & Organic Compost, topped with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch.  Water thoroughly, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week).