Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Native Plant of the Month: Blueberry

Native plant from 2 Green Acres - Blueberry
Sneaking this one in on the last day of September....

Now is the time to think about planting bushes. Blueberries are a great bush that should be considered in every yard. They are beautiful and provide great berries to birds and humans. In addition to their berries, blueberries have nice white flowers in the spring, and also offer wonderful color in the fall.

In Noah's Garden, Sara Stein said it best when she said about blueberries,
"They have the common touch. They're chummy with evergreens, comfy among flowers, at ease in tall grass, as much at home in a foundation planting as a hedgerow. No one could ask for a less demanding friend. Blueberries are happy in full sun, relaxed in dappled shade, uncomplaining of drought, but just as pleased to grow in damp. No blueberry pal of mine has ever asked for pruning, wanted my protection from pests or weather, or even expressed the slightest appetite for food."
There are two main types of blueberries, high bush (vaccinium corymbosum) which can grow to 12 feet and low bush (vaccinum pallidum) which grow to about 2 feet.

Native Plant from 2 Green Acres - Blueberry

I want to plant a hedgerow in my yard, and high bush blueberries will figure prominently in my hedgerow. I was all ready to plant blueberries this fall. Unfortunately, I did not do my homework - I did not do my soil test. Blueberries need acidic (ph between 4-6.5) soil, and if you need to amend your soil, it takes some time. Based on other soil tests around my yard, I doubt I have the appropriate ph. So, no blueberries for me this fall. Instead, I will get my soil tested, modify as needed, and then plant in the spring.

A lot of native plant experts suggest that you test your soil, but not modify it – instead you should plant what works in your soil. In general, I agree with this advice. But I REALLY want some blueberries - so I will test and modify.

Don't miss the native plant sale at Herring Run Watershed Association. The dates are October 3 and October 18. Check it out!
Also take a look at last month's Native Plant of the Month.

Photo credits: Rockinfree and Photofarmer

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vegetable Gardens: A smart financial move?

A lot has been written this year about more and more people turning to gardening as a way to reduce food costs. The idea – buy some inexpensive seeds, throw them in the ground and voila – abundant, fresh food. We all know it isn’t quite that easy, but intuitively, we believe that vegetable gardening can be cost-effective.

A couple weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an article in the Sunday business section that argued against gardening as a money saving strategy.

While the National Gardening Association claims that the average gardener saves more than $500 a year, the author thinks that the association has inflated the price of purchased vegetables (they assume an average of $2/pound). The author argues that $1/pound is more reasonable. I'm not so sure. While I certainly can get some vegetables for $1/pound; good tomatoes are NEVER that cheap where I live, and I certainly can’t get organic food for that price.

Her second argument is that vegetable gardeners are not saving money because they are growing more vegetables than they actually eat. Apparently, the average garden produces more vegetables than the average American family would consume over the growing season. The author thinks very few people are canning or preserving vegetables in another way, so people must either be giving away some vegetables, or wasting them.

I think a better explanation is that families with a vegetable garden eat more vegetables than the "average American family". I know that our vegetable consumption has gone up significantly since we started our garden. We eat about 80% of our harvest, give away about 15% and waste maybe 5%. And because we are eating so many vegetables, there is less room for meat on our plate, further lowering our food costs.

Does home gardening save money? I think so. But there are lots of other reasons to start your garden – a connection to nature and the seasons, access to the freshest food possible, the chance to reduce your carbon footprint – and many more I am sure I have forgotten.

For another perspective on the home vegetable gardening trend, check out this recent blog entry at Garden Rant.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Local Food: The Vermont Edition

I just returned from a short visit to Vermont. While there, I got to sample a lot of great local food. In one day, we were able to attend to several cool local food events in Vermont.

Raw Milk Farm Tour – one day a year, a number of dairy farms open their farms to visitors, offering tastings of raw milk, cheese, and other dairy product. Raw milk (which is neither pasteurized nor homogenized) supposedly tastes better and contains beneficial bacteria. I am not much of a milk drinker, but I was interested in trying the raw milk. I could not really taste a difference between this milk and the milk I buy at the store, although significantly creamier than the 1% milk I drink. At the farm that was offering raw milk, we also tried several cheeses including a nice aged gouda.
local food - cheese from Vermont
Cheese Farm Tour – this tour is one weekend a year in northern New York and southern Vermont. It was designed to offer a view in to small-scale cheese making operations. This was a bit of a bust. The one farm we went to was extremely unprepared for the number of people that visited. There were not a lot of people there when we stopped by, but they were out of most cheese samples, and were low on cheese to buy. Still we had a beautiful drive in the country and got to see a see a small goat farm.

Dorset Farmer’s Market - our first stop of the day was at the farmer’s market in Dorset. I know, every town has a farmer’s market, but every market has a different mix of products and has its own personality. This one had a great small town vibe. Lots of people at the market knew each other, yet people were also very friendly to strangers as well. One vendor even brought their pet baby goat. This goat, who was blind, was obviously a regular at the market. A man selling apples was giving out samples of a sweet crab apple (I think it is called a Hawthorne crab apple). Wonderful flavor.

Local food from the Dorset Farmers Market, Vermont
At our three stops we bought:

  • Locally baked bread
  • Three kinds of cheese
  • Apples
  • Lots of local vegetables, including onions, peppers, heirloom zucchini, and French fingerling potatoes
Baby Goat at Farmers Marketet, Dorset, Vermont

That night, we had a great dinner using all of these local products. Although I love the fact that our purchases support local farmers, my main motivation in buying all the food was the fun of sampling the local food of the area we were visiting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Native Plant Seminar: Woods in your backyard

At the recent Native Plant Seminar at The Irvine Nature Center, I attended an afternoon session entitled “The Woods in Your Backyard”. The purpose of the seminar was to teach homeowners with relatively small lots how to manage the woodlands on their property.

In Maryland, 78% of all woodlands are owned by private landowners, and 80% of those holdings are under 10 acres. So what we do in our yards can have a significant impact on the health of the eco-system in the state.

Here are three important things that we can each have in our backyard, no matter how small:

Mast trees – These are trees that produce fruit or nuts to feed local wildlife. Examples are oak trees, hickory, dogwood, or black cherry.

Snags – Unless they are a hazard, don’t cut those dead trees down! Standing dead trees provide food and habitat for many species, including woodpeckers.

Brush piles – These piles provide shelter for small mammals and other wildlife. One important thing to note – the base of the pile should be larger items (tree branches, for example) and then be covered with smaller pieces. This creates nooks for small mammals and birds.

For some great online resources go to The Woods in Your Backyard website.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beware the invasive plant:Knotweed

There are at least three kinds of invasive knotweeds – Bohemian, giant, and Japanese knotweed. (latin names: Polygonum x bohemicum, P. cuspidatum, P. sachalinense). All have similar characteristics – they are incredibly invasive and incredibly hard to kill.

This time of year, knotweed is particularly noticeable in the native landscape because it is flowering. I am not sure which type of knotweed this is. The picture was taken on a recent hike on the MA & PA trail in Harford County, Maryland.

Because these plants are so prolific, they crowd out native species. And because they spread by runners, they are hard to contain.

Here is some great information on how to eradicate.

Believe it or not, this plant is still sometimes sold as Fallopia japonica. Growers indicated that this is a hybrid and does not have the invasive qualities that traditional knotweed does. However, a quick review of the garden boards shows that people have problems keep control of the hybrid as well.

I admit, this plant is somewhat attractive, but there is no need to plant it! There are plenty of great, non-invasive alternatives. One idea from the great book Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants is Aruncus dioicus, commonly known as Goatsbeard.

photo credit: Gideon Strauss

For more information on Goatsbeard, check out this site. And here are some more ideas for native alternatives to knotweed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Preserving Tomatoes, part 2

As I mentioned in my first post about preserving tomatoes, I am overwhelmed by all the tomatoes I have this year from my vegetable garden. I am determined not to let any go to waste. And, since I am afraid of canning and have limited freezer space, I need to be smart about my preservation methods.

Oven-drying tomatoes is, hands down, the best way to save a lot of tomatoes in a small amount of space. But I need to be realistic – there are only so many oven dried tomatoes two people can eat in a winter.

So my second method for saving tomatoes is freezing them. This is a fast, simple way to save tomatoes. And, although it takes up more space in the freezer than the oven-dried, it still takes a lot less space than freezing whole tomatoes.

Here is the process:

After washing the tomatoes and cutting away any bad parts, place them in boiling water for a minute. Then remove and place in an iced water bath.

preserving tomatoes - local food from my vegetable garden
preserving tomatoes, local food from my vegetable garden
This will make it easy to remove the skins – do so.

preserving tomatoes, local food from my vegetable garden
Then, grab the tomato and squeeze it over the sink. Lots of juice will come out. Some people save the juice and use it for another purpose, I did not.

preserving tomatoes, local food from my vegetable garden
Once you have a big pile of tomatoes, throw them in a zip-lock bag. Label the bag, remove as much air as possible, and pop it in the freezer! You now have crushed tomatoes waiting to be thawed.
preserving tomatoes, local food from my vegetable garden
That’s it! The whole process takes less than 30 minutes.

The only other thing you might want to consider is using a series of small bags and putting a cup or two of tomatoes in each bag – that way you have pre-measured portions that you can pull out of the freezer when you need them. I did not do this, but probably will next time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Native Plant Seminar: Creating a meadow

For me, the highlight of the recent Native Plant Seminar at Irvine Nature Seminar was a talk by Larry Weaner on Creating Native Meadows. Larry Weaner is a landscape architect focused on native plants and natural landscapes.

As I mentioned before, I have never really been that interested in a creating a meadow. They are beautiful, of course, but that carefree look always seemed like it took a lot of work.

Mr. Weaner started his talk by saying nature has always been influenced by humans and it is wrong to say that the best thing we can do is go away, leave things alone. A book that demonstrates this point is: Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson.

I thought this was a great point, and one that often gets lost in the native plant community. Often, people equate “native plants” with “let nature take its course.” But in reality, humans have always impacted nature and continue to do so. The very idea of actively planting natives and trying to restore habitats is an act of human intervention.

That said, Mr. Weaner also made a real distinction between developing habitats and creating gardens. Gardens are areas that are actively managed, weeded, watered. Habitats, on the other hand are lower (but still some) maintenance and focus on planting plant communities that are adapted to a specific areas. Plant communities (and not just plants) are key – it is important to plant different species that each play a role in the environment. Mono cultures, however beautiful, are difficult to maintain.

So, interesting theoretical info, but what does that mean in terms of creating a Native Plant a meadow in Maryland? Unfortunately, I am not really sure, because I did not sign up for the afternoon session!

However, I now have a mini-obsession with meadows, so I am trying to learn more. When I do, I will share it here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Native Plant Seminar: Lots to learn

American Lotus at Native Plant Sale and Seminar
This past weekend, I went to my first Native Plants Seminar at Irvine Nature Center. Although it was my first time attending, it was the 18th annual event, and there were a few people in the audience that had been to all 18!

The morning started with a great native plant sale, including this beautiful American Lotus, apparently the only lotus plant native to the U.S. I don’t have a pond, so did not have anywhere to put the lotus, but I did pick up a few maidenhair fern.

The plant sale continued all day, but for seminar participants, the morning was filled with two general sessions – Creating Native Meadows and The Seldom Scene: Little Known Plants with Landscape Potential.

Following the general sessions, there were workshops on topics such as Native Meadow Design, Tree Branch Anatomy, Confusing Fall Wildflowers and the Woods in Your Backyard. I attended the Woods in Your Backyard, which was a great session, but I almost wished I had attended the workshop on meadows.

I have never really thought about creating a meadow in my own yard, primarily because they seem incredibly difficult to establish, and even the maintenance does not seem so easy (Hello? Do you really think I am going to set a fire in my yard?). But this speaker was so inspiring and, while he did not make it sound easy, he did make it sound do-able.

I am working on separate blog posts on creating a meadow and the woods in your backyard. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Preserving Tomatoes, part 1

This year, I have been overly blessed with tomatoes. Although I only have 4 plants in my home vegetable garden, they are all prolific producers. We are eating tomatoes every day, giving them away, and still I have mounds of tomatoes on my kitchen counter. I can't let these tomatoes go to waste, so I had to figure out how to preserve them.

Some day I want to learn how to can, and I have heard that tomatoes are an easy place to start (something about their acidity means less of a chance for botulism). But canning intimidates me. It seems hot, difficult, and time consuming. And I am just a bit too lazy to work that hard on something that, in the end, might make me sick.

I have a friend who freezes whole tomatoes, and although I like the simplicity of that approach, I don't have enough freezer space for it to be practical. So my first foray into preserving tomatoes is by oven drying the tomatoes.

There are endless variations on the recipe to oven dry tomatoes, but they all come down to this: cut up tomatoes, put them on a cookie sheet, turn the oven on as low as it will go, and cook them for 8 or more hours. Last year I made oven dried tomatoes by slicing the tomatoes into rings and lying them on the cookie sheet. This worked great, but it I was only able to dry about 4 tomatoes at a time (on 2 cookie sheets). This year I tried a different method.
Instead of slicing the tomatoes, I cut them into wedges. This allowed me to get a lot more tomatoes on my two cookie sheets (11 tomatoes total). I also put a little salt and olive oil on the tomatoes. Some recipes also suggest a little thyme or other herbs, but I did not try this.

tomatoes from the 2 Green Acres vegetable garden
The bad thing about the wedge method is that it takes longer for the tomatoes to cook. I had my oven set at 180 for about 8 hours, and then turned it up to 190 for the final 2 hours. This is not required, I was just trying to hurry things along. By the end of 10 hours, the tomatoes had lost most of their moisture and shrunk significantly.

Preserving tomatoes, local food from the home vegetable garden

After letting them cool, I put what had been 2 cookies sheets worth of tomatoes into a single sandwich bag and then popped it into the freezer.

Oven-dried tomatoes, grown in the 2 Green Acres vegetable garden
And in case you are wondering what to do with those oven-dried tomatoes, here is one really great appetizer recipe that uses tomatoes as well as some pesto from the garden
(which is also easy to freeze).