Planting Your Plate

 

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY LIVING
Boo Wells, owner Farmhouse Kitchen, holds a bunch of multi-colored carrots like the ones grown in their gardens.

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Gardening Benefits Plentiful Despite Challenges

With the coming of summer, lots of North Country folks’ minds turn to gardening. Well, actually, many of those minds turned to gardening as early as January, when the seed catalogs started arriving in the mail and the planning began, on sheets of paper spread across kitchen tables on cold, dark evenings. Hard-core gardeners, it’s said, even began dreaming the moment they finished putting last year’s garden to bed for the winter, pulled the last carrot or dug the last potato through frost-crusted earth and wondered why this crop or that hadn’t come in. “We’ll try again next year….”

    For most of us, gardening may be about the independence of raising our own trustworthy food, the satisfaction of coaxing something edible from the Earth, the pleasure of getting our hands dirty, our latent desire to do something good for a beleaguered planet, or our determination to make the most of the north country’s all-too-short summers: “The growing season is only a few weeks long, and I am GOING to enjoy it, even if it exhausts me!” But for everybody, what’s even more important is that gardening is a super source of family stories.

    For us, these revolve around the expansion and contraction of our gardens as we’ve passed through life’s stages. Growing up in the north country, I got it into my head that everybody had a big garden. A great-aunt, for example, maintained a massive layout, full of flowers and vegetables and plum trees, on hundreds of square feet of river bottom, which she tended religiously into her 90s. A proper lady, she wore pants only when gardening; upon completing her weeding, clipping, hoeing and harvesting for the day, she would repair immediately to her room and emerge in a dress. I naturally assumed that when I grew up I would become a gardener too.

    That proved easier said than done, because for the first few years after college I lived in urban environments, surrounded by asphalt, and then in a boarding school where I taught. We did manage a small (I mean about six-foot by six-foot) plot there, but the grounds superintendent wasn’t thrilled that we wanted to dig up a tiny square of his campus.

    When we moved to the Canton area and bought an old farmhouse with an acre of land, though, it was time for the gardens to take off. We had some fine ones for a few years, and even succeeded in being nearly self-sufficient in veggies one winter. One year we cajoled corn stalks up to a few inches greater than my almost-six-foot height, and we even harvested a couple of palatable (if you define the term liberally) cantaloupes, which our neighbors said couldn’t be raised in the north country – too short a season. Those neighbors were from Birdsfoot Farm, one of the few communal organic operations that survived the idealism of the Back to the Earth fad of the 1970s (and continues to thrive to this day), so we were pretty smug about that. Or maybe just lucky.

    We survived late frosts; one we christened the Great Anniversary Freeze, because it fell on our wedding anniversary, June 29, and devastated not only our garden but also dozens throughout the region. We also endured a cow invasion: one spring day we looked out the window and spotted a dozen Holsteins trampling around in what after a rainy spell was abnormally spongy soil. They’d escaped from another neighbor’s farm, and were having a delightful time trashing our newly-planted spread. A quick call brought the farmer running, issuing heartfelt apologies even before he was within hearing range, and the cows were soon rounded up and headed home, though not before leaving deep holes all over our poor garden; I had not appreciated until then how much a dairy cow weighs, and thus how far into saturated soil it can sink its legs. They also left some fertilizer, though, for which we thanked the chagrined farmer.

    Which reminds me of the prolific rhubarb we cut each spring. We couldn’t imagine how it could get so big and delicious with no work on our part. Then a previous owner of the place told us it had until not many years earlier been a working farm, and the rhubarb had sprouted happily in the former manure pile. Ah, the wonders of nature.

    But the main thing we survived was zucchini. Why we kept planting so darn much of it I could never imagine, except that we knew it would grow no matter what, so there was that smug satisfaction thing again. The problem was that we always went away on vacation in August, and it never had the courtesy to stop growing while we were gone. We’d come home to zucchinis the size of Goodyear blimps. The vines would lose all sense of propriety, insinuating themselves among the bean stalks, climbing the pepper plants for a better view, hauling themselves up the tomato cages and cutting off the tomatoes’ sunlight with fronds as big as truck tires. We prayed for a hard frost.

    Eventually, we moved into town, and the gardens got smaller and smaller as our backs got older and we realized we could patronize the Farmers Market, featuring growers who actually knew what they were doing, for a little cash and a lot less sweat, mosquito repellent, muscle rub and dirt under our fingernails. We’re now down to a fall-bearing raspberry patch, some rhubarb transplanted from that old manure-pile stock, and sporadic asparagus – perennials that require minimal human effort.

    Meanwhile, gardening has evolved a new ethos as a beneficial aspect of the larger environment, partly in response to concerns about global climate change and natural habitat loss. Trees (carbon captors), bees (pollinators), water conservation practices and native species (as opposed to invasives) are the “in” things today.  We’re all for it; we’ll just let the younger generations do the labor while we rock on the deck until the raspberries are ready to pick, sometime in October.

 

Incorporate bright seasonal blooms in holiday decorating

 

As I move through local l_col_hallett_1116stores, preparing for the holiday season I notice displays of paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs. Growing or “forcing” these bulbs are excellent projects for young gardeners, for holiday hostess gifts, and for adding a natural element to your holiday decorating. Pots of flowering bulbs add a touch of cheerful color to a room and make wonderful eye-catching centerpieces for a holiday table whether you have a rustic or glittering theme.

Paperwhites belong to a group of daffodils that are not hardy for Northern New York gardens. But they grow easily in a pot indoors. Their large clusters of pure white flowers arch above green foliage, and their perfume fills a room with fragrance. Paperwhites require no preparation and are absolutely foolproof.

Plant paperwhite bulbs in the soil close together, but not touching and always plant the bulbs with the tip of the bulb growing toward the sky. The bulbs should be planted just below the surface of the soil to leave as much room as possible for rooting. Keep the pots in indirect light and evenly moist but not soggy. For best results, as the paperwhites set buds, move them to a brighter relatively cool location, as if the bulbs were outside in the spring, as buds develop and bloom. I found that paperwhites tend to get very tall and tip over in their pots. I like to plan and use a support for them. I think three to four birch sticks, red twig dogwood, or a coat hanger wire trimmed and wrapped in raffia or holiday ribbon looks nice.

Once they start to gain some height I tie them in with the raffia or garden twine. If you are not looking for a rustic natural look you can always use decorative or holiday ribbon to keep the leaves and blooms looking tidy. Gardeners often dispose of paperwhite bulbs after they finish blooming. With proper storage and care during the winter, however, your paperwhite bulbs will grow and flower again in two or three years. I keep bulbs wet thru winter and cut off spent blooms. I set my potted paperwhite bulbs outside in a shaded part of garden in the summer. Before the first frost, I cut back the green leaves, bring the bulbs in and store them in my basement and repot them about 6 weeks before Christmas time. Sometimes the bulbs will develop “sister” bulbs that can be carefully broken away and repotted as well.

Of all flowering bulbs, amaryllis bulbs are the easiest to bring to bloom. The amaryllis comes in many beautiful varieties including various shades of red, white, pink, salmon and orange. The amaryllis (hippeastrum) is a tender bulb that will bloom without special treatment when first purchased. The amaryllis is often thought of as blooming at Christmas, but they can be started at various times to have a continuous display of color. The planting period can range from October to April. The bulb is native to tropical and subtropical regions from Argentina north to Mexico and the Caribbean. The larger the bulb the more flowers will be produced and always store un-planted bulbs in a cool place between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

When you are ready to plant place the base of the amaryllis bulb in lukewarm water for a few hours. The bulb should be potted up in a light, rich soil, a pro-mix in which you might start seeds, in a pot that is only 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter than the bulb. The upper half of the bulb should be exposed above soil and the roots should be down and in the soil. Press the soil around the bulb down firmly to set the bulb securely in place after planting. Initially, after planting water thoroughly, allow the soil to become quite dry. Water more frequently after the flower stalk appears, but never water when the soil is already damp or this will cause the bulb to rot. Put the plant in a warm, sunny spot until the flower buds show color, and then move it out of direct sunlight. You can place them on a table or other focal point to truly enjoy the show of color.

After blooming, cut off the flower stalk about 2 inches above the bulb to prevent seed formation. At this point, place it in the brightest possible location where it eventually has full sun for at least five hours daily. When the weather warms move it outside and fertilize it weekly with a household plant food as you would your window boxes and hanging baskets to build up the nutrients needed for blooming the following year. Amaryllis should be brought indoors before the first frost of fall. Traditionally, the bulb is then given a resting period by placing it in a dark location, withholding water and allowing the leaves to dry. The bulb may be forced into bloom again after resting eight weeks. If necessary, repot in a slightly larger container. If the pot is large enough, remove the upper 2 inches of soil and top-dress with fresh potting soil. This completes the cycle, which may be repeated annually for many years of lovely blooms.

Throughout the holiday season, pots of flowering potted bulbs add a touch of cheerful color to a room and give the gardener in all of us the satisfaction of a job well done and a little hope and warmth for the holidays.

BRIAN HALLETT is an art teacher at South Jefferson Central School in Adams. His family owns Halletts’ Florist and Greenhouse in Adams, which has been in business for more than three decades.

Spring 2016: Today’s Gardner

Start a family garden and watch kids’ excitement grow

WEB0510_biz_Halletts2

Brian Hallett

There is an affinity and almost magnetic attraction between children and the earth, whether it’s making mud or discovering the emergence of a germinating seed. Children and nature seem to go hand in hand. They just love getting their hands into dirt, digging and planting. Whether you are an accomplished gardener or a novice, gardening is a chance to partner with nature to make magic. [Read more…]

The joys of pickling, canning easy accessible

While time consuming, the art of pickling is not as complicated or challenging as it may seem. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Living

When my 3-year-old daughter took a liking to pickled cucumbers, I went from dabbling in pickling to becoming a full-fledged enthusiast. Today, there is plenty of literature on the craft of pickling and my daughter, to whom I regularly give pickled cucumbers, is nearly 22.

My interest in pickling predates its mention in the 2013 National Restaurant Association food trend forecast by a few decades. When I was visiting my daughter in Boston this summer, I noticed numerous pickled items on menus and used as garnishes. I suspect pickling has become popular along with the organic, local food trend. And, of course, there’s nothing more local than your own backyard. [Read more…]

Natural ways to control persistent garden pests

Brian Hallett

Nothing can take the green out of a gardener’s thumb like an insect infestation. Despite cold winters, the north country is not without its garden pests. And, controlling common garden pests like aphids can really seem like a full-time job if you do not properly plan your garden. Not only do these tiny insects suck the fluids from plant leaves and stems, leaving behind honeydew, a sticky residue that attracts ants to feed on it, but aphids also promote the spread of plant disease. Aphids are tiny, rarely exceeding an eighth of an inch, and teardrop shaped with long, slender legs. Depending on the species, aphids can be green, brown, yellow, red or black, and they are often found congregating on the underside of leaves. Luckily, there are some basic, all-natural ways that you can prevent garden insect invasions so your sowing and reaping time doesn’t just become spraying and worrying time. [Read more…]

Spring planting is time to let your creativity bloom

Brian Hallett

As I write this column I must mention that today — the first day of spring — I have shoveled snow away from the greenhouse twice in order to enter. As any gardener knows, there is nothing quite like the green of new plants or the smell of fresh soil. This alone is why each year I shovel my way inside, turn on the heat, clean the water system and start planting. [Read more…]

Time to prep your garden for a north country winter

Brian Hallett

The beginning of fall means cooler temperatures, beautiful leaves, bountiful harvests of crisp sweet apples and yard work. Yes, I said yard work. Fall is the perfect time to add some curb appeal with colorful hardy mums, corn stalks, golden orange pumpkins and spring flowering bulbs. Heading out into your garden in the fall can be a nice break from pre-holiday planning. I know that when I pick up a rake or my favorite trowel worries seem to disappear.

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Grow a ‘victory garden’ to share with family, friends

Brian Hallett in the main greenhouse at Halletts' Florist and Greenhouse, Adams. Photo by Justin Sorensen.

In 1917, the National War Garden Commission launched the War Garden Campaign or Victory Garden program. People planted vegetable, fruit and herb gardens at private residences and public parks to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. Gardeners could share their skills in support of the war and be rewarded by the produce grown.

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Growing a north country garden: Local professionals offer tips for best results

Timothy Widrick of Zehr's Flowers and Landscaping, Castorland, pulls a shrub out of the ground at a landscaping job in Lowville. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

Planting and maintaining a garden and keeping landscaping lush in the north country is always tricky. Various factors, including late frosts in May and blazing sun and dry soil as early as June, can mean a rocky start to any planting season.

As signs of spring start sprouting, local greenhouses and nurseries become overrun with questioning patrons, wondering what bushes and trees thrive in a cold north country climate and what flowers can be planted in early spring for a summer’s worth of color.

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