Be “Berry” Good to Winter Birds

planting for winter birds

I happened to glance out of my kitchen window the other day and was rewarded with a beautiful sight—a flock of cardinals flitting back and forth among the trees and shrubs in my yard. There must have been at least a dozen bright scarlet male birds and less showy females. As they flew about foraging for food, the sight of their colors and movement against the background of white snow was breathtaking!

While cardinals generally hang out in pairs during the breeding season, in winter they come together in groups to look for food in the winter landscape. They love to dine on seeds and fruits, and they are delighted to feed on sunflower and other kinds of seeds offered in birdfeeders. Setting out feeders is a sure-fire way to attract cardinals (and many other kinds of birds). But feeders need regular maintenance — filling and cleaning. They also attract pesky squirrels that not only raid the seeds; they’re also likely to chew up the feeder itself to get at them!

 After many seasons of battling the bushy tailed rodents, about five years ago I decided to forgo feeders and provide natural bird food instead in the form of berried trees and shrubs, along with the seed heads of flowers and grasses. While I already had a number of bird food-providing plants in my gardens, as I selected additional plants I looked for those with the best bird feeding potential. I tried to choose mainly native plants, as these generally provide the best nutrition for native birds, but I’m not a stickler. Some of my choices are native to more southerly areas, such as fringetree (Chionathus virginicus) with dark blue berries on female trees or the evergreen inkberry (Ilex glabra) with its inky black berries.

The result is a landscape that not only looks attractive, but gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping my feathered friends make it through the cold and snow of a Vermont winter. Some of the berried plants I grow include gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and northern bayberry (Morella or Myrica pensylvanica). The fruits of these plants make especially good bird food because their berries contain a high percentage of fat — just what birds need for fuel on cold winter nights!

I also grow winterberry (Ilex verticillata) with its bright red berries that hang on into the winter on the female plants (be sure to include a non-berried male for pollination). Did you know that cardinals get their bright red color from the foods they eat? As the birds digest colorful berries, the pigments make their way into the birds’ feather follicles, giving them their vivid hue.

Viburnums are also good bird food choices. Sadly, a relatively new pest, the viburnum leaf beetle, has made growing many species in New England a challenge. Some, like arrowwood and American cranberry (V. trilobum) are very susceptible to damage. I’ve pruned down my viburnum collection as a result and now only grow Viburnum x rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’. This hybrid is not a native plant, but its berries (red, maturing to black) do attract hungry birds and the leaf beetles leave its thick, leathery leaves alone.

I’ve also made sure there are evergreens to provide cover from predators and shelter from winter winds. One of my neighbors conveniently planted a row of arborvitae on his lot line, and I’ve planted pines, spruces, and junipers around my yard. In addition, the rear third of my yard is a natural wooded area that welcomes birds with food, shelter and nesting spots throughout the seasons.

Landscaping to feed the birds is a great strategy for school gardens. It gives students the chance to help birds, while providing lots of opportunities for the observation and study of these beautiful creatures. Winter is a good time for students to research the kinds of plants that are best suited for feeding birds in their part of the county and to plan where in the school landscape the plants can go. Then, when spring planting time comes around, they’ll be set to do some “berry” good deeds for their feathered friends!

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Starting Seeds: What you need to know to be ready

kids starting seeds

The winter solstice is past, and each day the sunlight coming in my windows is a little bit stronger and lasts a little bit longer. While the cold and snow outside tell me winter is still keeping a firm grip on my Vermont garden, these gradually lengthening days hold out the promise of spring weather ahead. They tell me that, in spite of snowstorms and below-zero nights, gardening season is on its way and it’s time to think about starting seeds indoors.

Although January is too early for me to actually begin planting seeds indoors in my climate, it’s a good time to start planning which seeds to start and ordering them online or purchasing packets at my local garden store. (For help figuring out what to start when in your climate, see When to Plant Seeds.) It’s also the time to check that all my seed-starting supplies are ready, from fluorescent grow lights to germinating mix to cleaned and sanitized pots recycled from previous seasons. (To get re-used containers ready, I scrub them in warm, soapy water; rinse them; then soak them in a tub filled with 9 parts water and 1 part household bleach for 15 minutes. Next I rinse them with clear water and let them air dry.)  

All seeds are in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the right set of conditions to awaken and begin to sprout. For many kinds of seeds, warmth and moisture will rouse them into growth. But for some kinds of seeds, germination requirements are more complex. Some seeds contain chemical and physical inhibitors that keep them from germinating when the environment isn’t suitable. Once the seed receives the proper conditioning that destroys these inhibitors, it “knows” that it’s safe to start on the journey to becoming a plant. Understanding what conditioning particular seeds need sets you on the path to starting these seeds successfully.

Some seeds have a very hard seed coat that in nature is broken in a variety of ways that assure that the seed germinates under the proper conditions. Alternate freezing and thawing temperatures, extreme heat from a fire, passing through the digestive system of an animal are all ways in which a hard seed coat can be breached to allow moisture in. We can reproduce this conditioning with a procedure called scarification, which is simply nicking, scraping or cutting through the seed coat.  For example, you can cut off the pointed end of a morning glory seed with a sharp razor blade or scrape the seeds across a piece of sand paper. If you have a lot of seeds to scarify, put them in a jar with some coarse sand and shake vigorously.

Sometimes soaking is enough to soften the seed coat to speed germination.  Soaking can also speed germination by removing chemical inhibitors from the seed coat. Soak parsley seeds for 24 to 48 hours before planting, pouring off the water and replacing it with fresh several times, discarding the leached out inhibitors in the process. 

When we think of planting seeds, what springs to mind is usually a picture of tucking seeds into the soil. And while some seeds do need the darkness of a soil covering for germination, most will germinate in light or dark, though the covering of soil helps to keep them moist.  But some do require exposure to light to break down inhibitors in the seed coat. Lobelia, impatiens, and ageratum are flower seeds that need light for germination; simply press them on to the surface of the germinating medium, rather than burying them.

Certain seeds, usually of perennials, trees, and shrubs from cold-winter climates, need to be exposed to a certain duration of cool temperatures before they’re ready to germinate. This chilling requirement prevents them from sprouting prematurely when the weather is too cold for growth. In nature, these conditions are provided by normal seasonal changes.  When gardeners mimic this process, it’s called stratification. Seeds are given a period of moist cold (40-45 degrees F) for about 6 weeks to duplicate going through a cold winter; a refrigerator easily provides the appropriate “winter” chill.

Once seeds have been conditioned, most need warmth in addition to moisture to germinate well. The majority of the seeds we start early indoors appreciate bottom heat from a seedling heat mat or the top the refrigerator that keeps the germinating mix between 70 to 80 degrees F.

How to know what’s best for sprouting various kinds of seeds? Check the instructions on the seed packet for the specific requirements of the seeds you’re starting. Happy planting!

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Good-by and Keep Cold

plant cold hardiness

Winter is once again descending on the Vermont landscape. When I venture outside now I’m well-wrapped in warm jacket, hat and mittens. But there are no cozy scarves or down parkas for trees and other plants to don against the cold. How do they make it through until spring?

Plant cold hardiness is pretty amazing. Plants that are adapted to my New England winters (and other cold winter climates) have evolved ways of making it through the long months of cold and surviving some pretty frigid temperatures. A plant that might be injured or killed by below-freezing temperatures during active growth will undergo physiological changes that enable it to withstand winter temperatures many degrees below zero. These changes happen in part in response to signals from the environment that the season is changing. Shorter days (it's actually the longer nights that plants are responding to) and falling temperatures send a message that winter is on its way. That's why it's important not to cover plants like roses with winter protection too early in the fall. They need to be exposed to the environmental signals to develop as much of their natural hardiness as they can.

However, sometimes Mother Nature throws meteorological curve balls that can affect how well plants weather the cold. Plants develop the full extent of their hardiness by degrees, going through a period of acclimation before settling into full dormancy. When the onset of cold weather is early and sudden, plants that haven't had a chance to prepare their full defenses may be injured. When a midwinter thaw is warmer and longer than expected, when midwinter temperatures plunge unusually deep into the negative numbers, or when temperatures fluctuate rapidly from cold to warm and back again, especially early and late in the winter, plants can suffer.

If there is a period of cold weather followed by a return to warmer than usual temperatures in late fall, some plants get "confused" and begin to shed their winter hardiness in expectation of spring. Sometimes they even begin growing actively, only to be injured when the cold returns. This is why you may see early spring bloomers like forsythia unfurling a few blossoms in November and December warm spells. Usually enough flower buds remain dormant to preserve the springtime show.

The soil movement that occurs during periods of alternate thawing and freezing during winter warm spells can result in plants being heaved out of the ground, leaving their roots exposed to injury from cold and drying air. When we spread protective mulch over perennials in the garden, we are not trying to keep them warm -- we are actually trying to keep them cold, locked safely in consistently frozen soil. That is why gardeners are advised to wait until the ground is frozen to cover plants with mulch and why a consistent blanket of snow provides such good winter protection.

Of course, plants can be injured by extreme cold temperatures as well. To use forsythia as an example again, the flower buds are not as hardy as the leaf buds. Often winter temperatures here in Vermont are cold enough to kill forsythia flower buds, resulting in a burst of foliage in spring, but few blossoms. In fact, sometimes the only flowers seen are at the base of the plant -- where snow cover provided insulation to those lower buds. 

Like other woody plants, fruit trees adapted to cold winter climates spend the winter in a period of dormancy. In fact, they are programmed to require exposure to a certain amount of cold before their flower and leaf buds are ready to open, nature's way of making sure they don't open before spring. This is called their '"chilling requirement," the number of hours of below 45 degree F temperatures the buds must be exposed to in order to come out of dormancy. But once this requirement has been met, the buds, especially on stone fruits such as cherries, peaches, and plums, can begin to lose their cold hardiness if there is an extended spell of warm weather in mid to late winter. When this is followed by more cold weather, the flower buds may be injured. The same type of injury can also occur in spring as the plant begins to deacclimate to the cold -- a late frost can nip future fruits “in the bud." As in the fall when plants are developing their winter hardiness, a gradual and consistent pattern of temperature change suits plants best.

Robert Frost, our beloved New England poet, was a keen observer of the natural world and its cycles and uncertainties. So I'll leave you with his lovely and seasonal meditation on trees, winter, and the acceptance of the vagaries of nature, something we gardeners must all confront.

Good-by and Keep Cold

by Robert Frost

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark
And the cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don't want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don't want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don't want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn't be idle to call
I'd summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don't want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm.
"How often already you've had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-by and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below."
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nurtured, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an ax--
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard's arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.

From: New Hampshire, 1923

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Growing Amaryllis With Kids

amaryllis with kids

Looking for a fun indoor gardening project to do with kids this fall? Try planting an amaryllis bulb as a home or classroom project. This enormous bulb is easy to plant and bring into flower, making amaryllis one of the most rewarding plants to force for winter blooms. The large, dramatic, trumpet-shaped blossoms that open atop tall stalks are perfect for decorating a holiday table or livening up a windowsill when the garden outside is at its bleakest. Bulbs become available in mid to late fall at garden stores or through mail-order catalogs, offering flowers in shades of red, pink, white and bicolors that will burst into bloom about 6 to 8 weeks after planting.

amaryllis bulbMembers of the genus Hippeastrum, tender amaryllis bulbs need to be grown as houseplants in most of the country. But in the warmest areas, such as Florida and southern California, they can be grown as landscape plants, which seems like such a wonderful thing. I love watching gorgeous amaryllis blossoms unfurl in limited numbers on my windowsills; imagine being able to watch a whole hedge of them come into bloom in your yard!

Those of us in colder climes need to start by choosing a pot that is only about 2 inches bigger than the diameter of the bulb. Using a light potting mix that drains well, set the bulb in the pot so that the top third of the bulb is sticking up above the level of the soil. Water it well after planting and move the pot to a sunny windowsill. Allow the surface of the soil to dry out before rewatering. Soon you’ll see a little tongue of green emerging from the top of the bulb, usually in about 4 weeks, as the bulb emerges from dormancy. After growth starts, keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and feed with a complete houseplant fertilizer every 2 weeks. Also be sure to rotate the pot a quarter turn every few days so that the flower stalk grows straight up; if you don't turn the pot, the stalk will bend toward the light. In a few weeks, you'll be enjoying the huge blooms that open at the top of the flower stalk. If your bulb is big enough, it will produce two flower stalks for a really big show.

amaryllisOne of the best things about growing amaryllis bulbs is that, unlike most other forced bulbs, they are easy to keep from year to year. With a little care you can enjoy many seasons of winter blossoms. Once flowering is finished, cut off the flower stalks close to the bulb (don’t be alarmed if some sap runs out), but allow the leaves to continue to grow and send food to the bulb to fuel next year's bloom. Give the plant lots of light, keep it watered regularly, and fertilize monthly with a complete houseplant fertilizer.  If you can, move your plant outside to a lightly shaded spot for the summer. Continue watering and fertilizing until late summer or early fall; then stop feeding and gradually reduce waterings until the foliage begins to yellow. Be sure to bring the plant back inside before there’s a frost. Cut down the fading leaves and give the bulb a rest period in a cool spot (55° would be ideal) for at least 10 weeks; then repot in fresh soil to begin the forcing process again. Only move to a larger pot size as the diameter of the bulb warrants. If you stagger the times you pot up or bring bulbs out of dormancy, you can have plants coming into flower from early to late winter.

Nothing beats the winter doldrums better than a potful of stunning amaryllis in full bloom on your windowsill. Here’s a fun fact: the word “amaryllis” comes from the Greek word amarysso, meaning "to sparkle.” Plan now to add some floral “sparkle” to your schoolroom or home when the days are cold and short.

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Get the Most from your Vegetable Garden This Fall

vegetable garden garlic

When fall arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, vegetable gardens in most parts of the country begin winding down. But there is still plenty to keep gardeners busy as the seasons change. Here are some things you and your young gardeners can do to get the most from your vegetable garden, even as the growing season draws to a close. 

  • Plant Garlic Plant garlic for harvest next summer a week or two after the first killing frost up until about six weeks before the ground freezes. Separate a bulb into individual cloves just before planting, and place each clove with the pointed end up, 2-4 inches deep if you are north of zone 7, 1-2 inches deep in southern gardens, and 4-6 inches apart within the row. In the north, once the ground freezes in late fall, mulch the bed with straw, weed-free hay, shredded leaves, or pine needles spread 4-6 inches deep.
  • Let Frost Sweeten Fall Crops Kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards all taste sweetest if you wait until after light frost to harvest. But if a sudden early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants. Leaves of collards and kale are ready for picking as soon as they reach usable size. Sprouts are ready when they are about an inch in diameter. Pick off and compost yellowing lower leaves.
  • Harvest Green Tomatoes Once the nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it's best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes (those that have turned light green to white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors once the weather is this cool. Clip tomatoes from the vine with a short piece of stem attached. Red tomatoes well on their way to ripening can tolerate cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.
  • Cover Greens for Extended Harvest Cover beds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens with floating row covers to extend your harvest season. The row covers will provide a few degrees of frost protection, enough to often give you several weeks or more of garden-fresh produce compared to uncovered plants.
  • Pinch Brussels Sprouts To get the sprouts to ripen together, pinch off the top couple of inches of your Brussels sprouts plants to direct their energy into the sprouts that are already developing along the stem. Unpruned plants will continue to produce new sprouts until the weather is quite cool, though they may be smaller. Clip off any lower leaves that have yellowed, and keep plants watered if fall weather is dry. Sprouts harvested after the first frost will be sweetest. Harvest from the bottom up when the sprouts are between 3/4- 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
  • Plan for an Extra Early Spinach Harvest Try planting some spinach seeds about 4-6 weeks before average date of the first hard fall frost in your area. This will give you plants about the size of a tea cup, the best size for overwintering. In areas with good snow cover, plants often overwinter without additional protection. But covering plants with winter-weight row cover fabric after cold weather hits provides extra insurance. The baby plants will take off growing in early spring (be sure to remove any covering), and you'll be picking homegrown spinach in short order. Look for hardy varieties like 'Winter Bloomsdale' to plant for overwintering.

 

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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KidsGarden Month Winner: It Started With Carrot Seeds

Can gardening change a kid’s life? Monica Velgos, mother of Silas Nahan, the grand prize winner of KidsGardening’s 2017 KidsGarden Month video contest, certainly thinks so. She saw first-hand the many positive changes that gardening brought for 13-year-old Silas, even given the challenges of growing plants in an urban backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He had been introduced to growing things at his elementary school garden, but his interest really took off when his mom happened to bring home a few packets of seeds in May 2016 for Silas and his sister to plant in a couple of containers in the backyard. As his mom says, “The carrots sprouted, the wildflowers grew, and he got excited. He wanted to grow more.”

“Silas now likes to set goals,” she notes. “Besides planning what he wants to grow, sometimes months in advance, he also tries to improve his grades. He will talk about the number of books he wants to read over the summer, the points he wants to reach with online math. After a summer of gardening on his own and participation in the local CitySprouts middle school gardening program, he ended up getting mostly As. This was new for him. Perhaps having a deep focus like gardening set the course for him wanting to go deeply into other subjects, too.”

She also has noticed that growing vegetables in his garden has translated into healthier eating habits overall. Silas invented a green chicken taco filled with homegrown herbs, scallions, and fresh greens like kale and sorrel, in addition to chicken and mashed avocado. He asks his mom to include kale and poblano peppers from his garden in burritos, to put homegrown lettuce on turkey burgers, and to include broccoli and carrots with family meals.

The garden has become a second living room, says Monica, one that the entire family enjoys for its pleasant atmosphere, not just its harvest. Silas checks out things in the garden each morning, and again in the afternoon. “In the evenings he can spend up to two hours transplanting, moving plants around, and filling new pots." His parents and sister often join him. “We go down there too, it’s fun to watch, and he loves to narrate as he works,” she says.

Silas’s gardening enthusiasm is contagious. His sister has become interested in native species and now cultivates a garden area of her own, filled with native flowering plants to attract bees and birds, along with a little oasis where they can drink. “There are many more birds in the yards now, because of all the greenery. Watching the birds adds to the fun! Both kids feel a lot of responsibility now toward their plants and the creatures who visit them. They celebrate every bee.”

Monica also notes the important lessons that the sense of ownership of a garden provides for a young gardener like Silas. “Creating a garden has given Silas ownership,” she says. “He gets to plan it; he gets to choose when to harvest; he gets to make decisions. There are not many things in life that kids get to make all decisions about. This garden represents his interests expressed the way he wants them expressed. There’s no garden mistake that he will ever make that he won’t learn a lot from. And when he has success, like he had from his delicious husk cherries, which he chose to grow himself, he is so proud. As parents we’ve discovered this great opportunity to let him exercise decision making at a level that he sees as important but that is not going to be disastrous if there is failure.”

Silas has lots of plans for his future garden —and his future as a gardener. He’d like to try growing different varieties of potatoes, some more unusual herbs like epazote, and perhaps some Jerusalem artichokes. But he also has lots of ideas for way to grow as a gardener, including possible work for the nonprofit Food Project on their farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts in coming summers and high school courses in plant biology and food systems.

Watch Silas's winning video entry:

Wouldn’t it be great if all kids had the opportunity to grow and learn in the garden, the way Silas and his sister have? Each $12 you contribute to KidsGardening allows one more child the opportunity to learn through the garden, engaging their natural sense of curiosity and wonder and creating a generation of kids connected to their food and community and engaged in nurturing a healthy planet. 

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Blog By: Susan Littlefield

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Plan for Fall Harvests

I’m not a hot weather lover. Sure, I want some summer days in the 80s to help the tomatoes and squash ripen. But while those veggies are reveling in the hot sun in July and August, I’m out in the garden, weeding and watering, and thinking wistfully of those nice, cool fall days ahead. I think the autumn months are the pleasantest time of the year to be outside, so I always look forward to the fall gardening season. Lots of delicious crops are suitable for a late harvest, even in areas like Vermont with a short growing season. Fall crops are also a great choice for school gardens, as they can be harvested (and in some cases planted) after students have returned from their summer break.

Late season gardening does take a little advance planning, however. For many of the crops to be ready to pick in early to mid-fall (or even late fall and winter, depending on your climate), they’ll need to be planted in mid to late summer in order to have time to mature before the weather turns too cold.

One of my favorite veggies for fall eating is kale. In order to have an ample harvest of both baby greens for salads and full-size leaves for soups and sautés, I plant some seeds in cell packs in mid to late July. When the seedlings are several inches tall, I set them out in the garden, covering the bed with lightweight row cover fabric stretched over hoops. Covering plants is an easy way to keep away pests like flea beetles and caterpillars, although kale seems to be less enticing to these critters than many other cabbage family members. I’ll make another sowing of kale a few weeks later, in mid-August. Then toward the end of the month and again in mid-September, I’ll sow seeds directly in the ground, to be harvested as “baby” leaves. If I’m really organized, I’ll even sow some seeds inside a cold frame in late September. This way, I’ll have a good chance of being able to serve home-grown kale at Thanksgiving dinner – maybe even Christmas!

Many other greens make great fall crops. Spinach delights in cooler temperatures and isn’t tempted to bolt (flower and go to seed) in the shortening days of fall. Swiss chard, bok choy, Asian greens like mizuna and tat soi, arugula, and mache are all great candidates for late season harvests. Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips are other possibilities, along with that weird and wonderful member of the cabbage family called kohlrabi.  Cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel’s sprouts can all be grown for fall harvest, but because they take a relatively long time to reach maturity, in many parts of the country at this point they would need to be set out as started plants purchased from a garden store.

So how do you know when to start these various plants so they’ll be ready for harvest in the fall? You just need to do a little arithmetic. First, find out the average date of the first hard fall frost in your area (most of the crops suggested tolerate temperatures at least down to 28°F). Next, look for the days to maturity listed on the seed packet. Take this number and add in 10-14 days as a fall factor, which takes into account the slower growth that happens as a result of the shorter, cooler days of fall. Add to this the number of days of the harvest period. Then count back this number of days from the frost date and —ta-da!—you have your planting date.

Actually, what this really gives you is a good “ball park” idea of when to plant. Because the weather and actual frost date varies from season to season, starting some seeds earlier and some seeds later than the calculated planting date will give you the greatest likelihood of a long and abundant harvest season. And if you plan to give plants protection, in a cold frame for example, you can often add another 2-4 weeks to you growing season.  Keep in mind that cold tolerance can also vary within a particular crop, depending on the variety you choose. For example, choosing lettuce varieties bred for fall harvests will set the stage for late season success.

Enjoy the fun —and wonderful weather—that fall gardening affords. A little planning now will let you and your students enjoy the bounty of a school garden for months to come!

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Gardening with Allergies

Ahchoo!   Summer is here, plants are in leaf and flower, and lots of folks are sneezing.  The cause of much of this allergy misery? Contact with grains of plant pollen. What to do if you are among this sensitive lot and you still like to garden? If you want grow your own veggies or plant a garden to help pollinators, are you just making your allergy woes worse? Is there such a thing as allergy-free gardening?

Well, there’s good news and bad news, as they say. The good news is that growing your own fruits, vegetables, and many kinds of flowers is not likely to exacerbate your allergy problems. The bad news – you’re still probably going to encounter some symptom-inducing pollen when you’re outdoors, regardless of what plants you decide to grow.

To understand why, we need to start with a little background info on pollination, the process by which pollen grains produced by the male parts of a flower are transferred to the female parts of the same or a different flower, leading to the eventual formation of seeds.  The flowers of some plants are perfect, meaning each blossom carries both male and female parts, while other kinds of plants may have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Some plants are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on completely different plants. The plants with only male flowers produce pollen exclusively, while those with only female flowers bear only fruits and seeds.

Some plants rely on living creatures called pollinators to move their pollen for them. Pollinators are most often insects such as bees, but in some cases birds and even bats act as pollinators! Plants with showy, fragrant, nectar-rich flowers, whether on trees (like apple trees), flowering shrubs (like lilacs), or flowering annuals and perennials, generally have heavy pollen that needs to be moved from one flower to another by pollinators, which is why the plants expend their energy producing blossoms and scent to attract these needed creatures.

Other plants simply toss their pollen out on the breeze and depend on the wind to carry it to receptive female flower parts. Because they don’t need to attract pollinators, their flowers are not showy or fragrant. But because this method isn’t directed, the wind-pollinated plants need to produce large quantities of light-weight pollen in the hope that a small portion will reach its intended targets. Wind-pollinated plants include grasses, many weeds (like ragweed), and nearly all conifers, along with a great many broadleaf trees like aspens, cottonwoods, oaks, ashes, elms, birches, and olives. (And just to keep things interesting, some plants use both strategies to some degree!)

These wind-pollinated plants are the ones causing allergy problems because their pollen is traveling through the air, often for long distances – and up into people's noses. However, not all wind-borne pollen has the same allergenic potential. For example, oak, birch, pigweed and ragweed pollen is considered highly allergenic, while pine and spruce pollen is less so. For those plants that are dioecious, the male plants are the trouble makers, allergy-wise, because every flower they bear is a pollen-producing male. Seedless male clone tree varieties are popular for street and landscape plantings of trees whose female flowers produce a messy litter of fruits and seedpods, for example ash and mulberry (e.g. “seedless” ash and “fruitless” mulberry varieties are pollen-producing male clones).

The pollinator-dependent plants with their showy flowers are generally less of a problem for allergy sufferers because their heavy pollen isn't carried on the wind. This means that most flower and vegetable gardens don't contribute much to allergy issues. Sweet corn is wind-pollinated, but most other vegetables are insect or self-pollinated or are harvested before they produce pollen-bearing flowers (for example, carrots and spinach). And since showy flowers are the point of flower gardens, most of these plants generally do not cause big problems for allergy sufferers. Of course, if you bury your nose into a blossom to enjoy its fragrance, you’ll be exposing your sensitive nose to pollen. And it’s probably best to skip cutting flowers for indoor bouquets that may shed some pollen indoors.

But what about goldenrod, you may be wondering. Isn’t this plant with its showy flowers the cause of lots of late summer sneezing and misery? The answer, actually, is no. Goldenrod has heavy pollen that is ferried from flower to flower by pollinators like bees and butterflies. The real culprit is usually ragweed, a wind-pollinated plant with nondescript, greenish flowers that blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its highly allergenic pollen wafting on the breeze bedevils hay fever sufferers, while the more eye-catching goldenrod, unfairly, takes the blame. 

When you’re choosing plants for your home landscape or schoolyard, it’s a good idea to keep their allergenic potential in mind. When choosing dioecious plants like most ashes and junipers, skip male tree clones and select a female, pollen-free clone, if available. (Check garden references or consult knowledgeable garden store staff to find out which kinds and varieties of plants are wind-pollinated and dioecious.) You’ll probably also want to give ornamental grasses a pass. Take care to locate allergenic wind-pollinated trees and shrubs away from building foundations to reduce the chance of pollen blowing indoors when windows and doors are open. And be sure to keep weeds under control, especially ragweed!

But keep in mind that what's growing in the vicinity of your home or school landscape can also contribute to your allergy woes, and unfortunately, there is not much you can do to stop this “traveling” pollen from reaching your property on the wind. Wearing a mask outdoors when pollen counts are high may help keep you more comfortable, and promptly showering and washing the clothing you wore after outdoor activities will help keep pollen from making its way indoors. Pollen counts are generally highest in the morning, so scheduling gardening or other outdoor activities later in the day may also help.     

If seasonal allergies make you miserable, a visit to an allergist for testing can help you identify the specific plants that are most problematic for you and let you fine-tune your plant choices. Finally, check out the website of Thomas Ogren. He is a widely recognized expert in this area and has written a book on allergy-free gardening that rates a wide variety of plants according to their allergenic potential.

And, between the sneezes, enjoy those homegrown fruits and veggies!

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Ten Tips to Help Pollinators

You’ve heard the saying, “Think globally; act locally.” Well, here’s your chance! June is National Pollinator Month. Pollinators are vital to the production of many of the foods we eat. In fact, it’s estimated that a third of the crops we grow depend on pollinators. But many pollinators, including honeybees and native bees, are in trouble. Populations are in sharp decline due to pesticide use, disease and parasite problems, and loss of food and nesting habitat. How can you help?

Just like people, pollinators need food, water, shelter, and a safe and healthy environment to live in and raise their young. Here are some ideas for ways you can help pollinators in your schoolyard, community garden, or home landscape.

  1. Plant a pollinator-friendly garden with a variety of flowering plants to give a succession of bloom from spring to fall. This will provide pollinators with nectar and pollen to feed on all season long. Remember that many flowering trees and shrubs are important sources of food for pollinators early in the season. Especially when planting flowering annuals and perennials, try to group each kind of plant into clumps of three or more rather than dotting them individually throughout your garden. This makes it easier for pollinators to locate plants!  
  2. Include lots of native plants in your garden. Native plants have evolved along with native pollinators, making them generally the most beneficial to these insects. Choose native plants that are adapted to the soil, light, and moisture conditions in your garden and you’ll help pollinators and make your garden care easier.
  3. Include plants to feed all stages of pollinators’ life cycle. There are no butterflies without caterpillars! Make sure you have plants that will feed both the immature as well as the adult stages of pollinators. For example, while adult monarch butterflies feed on many kinds of flowers, their caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants. Similarly, the caterpillars of eastern black swallowtails feed on plants in the carrot family, like Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, parley, and dill. And accept that these caterpillar host plants will be chewed on – plant them in an inconspicuous spot if you don’t want to look at ragged leaves.
  4. Minimize the use of pesticides, even organic ones. Even pesticides approved for organic gardens may harm pollinators, so try to keep any pesticide use to a minimum. If you do use a one, choose a pesticide with the lowest risk to bees and other pollinators; check the label for bee hazard information. Spray in the evening after the pollinators have stopped flying.
  5. Go wild! If you can, let a corner of your schoolyard or backyard go “wild.” A wooded area, hedgerow, or unmowed “mini-meadow” will provide shelter, food, and nesting areas for many pollinators.
  6. Provide a source of water. A shallow basin of water set on the ground with some stones or piles of gravel in it on which insects can perch will help pollinators quench their thirst. Some insects, especially butterflies and some pollinator bees, prefer a mud puddle. Let a hose or faucet drip just a bit to form a damp, muddy sipping spot. Add a bit of sea salt or wood ashes to the mud to add micronutrients and minerals to their diet.
  7. Don’t be too tidy. Leave some leaf litter and plants standing over the winter to provide spots for pollinators to overwinter. If you can, leave some dead wood standing in an out-of-the-way area to provide nesting sites for native bees.
  8. Build bee housing. Make nesting blocks for pollinating bees that nest in wood, such as mason bees, by drilling at least 10 holes 4 to 8 inches deep and 5/16” in diameter in a block of untreated wood. Hang your bee “condo” with the holes set horizontally at least 3 feet off the ground and facing as close to southeast as possible.
  9. Enhance your lawn. Lawn “weeds” like white clover and dandelions provide a source of food for pollinators when they’re in bloom. Think of your lawn as pollinator habitat and embrace the idea of letting more than just turf grasses grow there.
  10. Spread the word. One pollinator-friendly garden is good; an entire neighborhood or community of them is even better! Share information with your school community, neighbors and others in your town or city about the importance of protecting and nurturing pollinators, and encourage them to make their gardens and landscapes welcoming to pollinators too.

 

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Growing Pest-free Cabbage

I love cabbage! Not only is it tasty and loaded with nutrients, it’s one of the prettiest vegetables in the garden. Those plump heads in shades of green and reddish-purple nestled in their ruffs of crinkled leaves look so nice; I almost hate to harvest them. Cabbage is also a great crop for young gardeners to grow in school and home gardens. It can be planted both early in the season and grown for fall harvest, so it fits well with school session schedules. And kids are always excited to check on the progress of those rapidly expanding cabbage heads, some as big as basketballs at harvest!

Confounding Cabbageworms

But, alas, we’re not the only creatures that love cabbage. Grow cabbage anywhere in the country and you will most likely have to deal with cabbage worms (they’re actually caterpillars, in spite of their name). You'll know they have paid your cabbage patch a visit if you see large, round or irregular holes chewed in the leaves between the veins and midribs, as well as masses of green or brown frass (the polite word for caterpillar poop) between the leaves. The cabbage heads may also be tunneled into. This damage comes courtesy of green worms that are up to about an inch and a half long and have a light stripe down the center of their backs. They are either cabbage loopers or imported cabbageworms. Most gardeners have seen small, white, day-flying butterflies with a black wing spot flitting through the garden– these butterflies are the adults of the imported cabbageworm. The cabbage looper adult is a brownish moth that flies in the evening.

If your cabbage leaves are riddled with small holes or have areas where only the outer layer of the leaf had been chewed, leaving a translucent spot, the caterpillar of the diamondback moth is at work. Smaller than the other worms, these 1/4-inch long green caterpillars feed on the undersides of the leaves and wriggle rapidly when disturbed.

All of these pests also happily dine on other members of the Cabbage family, so you may find them on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collards as well. But fortunately, all three of these pests can be controlled relatively easily and safely on cabbage and related crops.

My preferred method is exclusion. As soon as I put my cabbage seedlings in the ground, I cover the bed with a floating row cover and keep it on until I harvest my crop. These lightweight covers let in light and air, but exclude the adult butterflies and moths. No flying females, no eggs laid, no worms! And since what’s getting harvested are the leaves of the cabbage plant, I don't need to worry about removing the covers to let bees in to pollinate flowers, as I would with fruiting crops like squash.

If you don't want to use row covers (they do keep those pretty cabbage heads from view) and you only have a few plants, you can handpick worms from leaf undersides and drop them into a container of soapy water to kill them. Or you can spray plants with the safe microbial insecticide Bt, which only affects butterfly and moth caterpillars. They need to ingest Bt in order for it to work, so be sure to spray the undersides of leaves where the caterpillars are feeding. Bt works best when the caterpillars are small, so begin spraying as soon as you see the adults flying or notice any leaf chewing. You'll need to make repeat applications throughout the summer, as the adults lay eggs all season long.

Imported cabbageworms and cabbage loopers spend the winter as pupae attached to plant debris, so clean up the garden well in the fall to reduce the number that overwinter. (Loopers may not overwinter in colder areas, but they generally work their way up from south by mid to late summer.)  Diamondback moths overwinter as adults under plants debris, so garden clean-up will also help to reduce their numbers.

Cutworms and Root Maggot Control

Cutworms and cabbage root maggots are other cabbage pests that may be encountered in many parts of the country. Damage from these pests can also easily be prevented with the use of barriers. Cutworms are night-feeding caterpillars that chew through the stems of young plants right at soil level. To protect plants, place cutworm collars around the stems of seedlings at transplant time. One easy strategy is to wrap the stems of your cabbage seedlings with 4-5 thicknesses of 3-4 inch wide newspaper strips, placed so that 2 inches of the strip extend below ground when the seedling is planted. You can also encircle stems with collars made from cardboard, yogurt containers, or the like, with two inches pushed into the ground and at least one inch above.

Root-feeding cabbage maggots hatch from eggs laid by small flies in the soil around the base of a cabbage-family plant. Row covers will exclude the female flies and prevent egg-laying, but this method needs to be combined with crop rotation to be successful. The adult flies emerge in the spring after having overwintered as pupae in the soil, so covers only work in areas that were not previously infested; otherwise the adults will emerge under the covering.  You can also prevent egg-laying by placing mats made from flat, 6-inch wide squares of weatherproof material around the base of each plant when you set it in the garden. Make a slit in one side leading to a small hole in the center for the stem and tuck the mat around the stem. Make sure the mat is firmly in contact with the soil so flies can’t sneak under to lay eggs.

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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