Almanack Contributor Richard Gast

Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Is Something Hiding in Your Firewood?

Cooking on the Woodstove

Heat from the Hearth

I grew up in a home with a fireplace in the living room. My folks used it only on really cold nights, in addition to the furnace, or when the power went out. It was reassuring to know that even during power outages, we could build a fire to stay warm and comfortable.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve heated all of my homes with wood; either as a primary or a supplementary heating fuel. In fact, my wood stove is an integral part of my life and an indispensable emergency heat source. In a region as cold and prone to power outages as this, I simply wouldn’t be without one.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Poinsettia: A Sub-Tropical Plant That’s A Christmas Tradition 

Illustration of a poinsettia

Poinsettias are among the most popular potted flowering or foliage plants of the Christmas Season. They have been for decades. According to the 2020 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Floriculture Report; the most recent statistics available); the wholesale value of U.S. grown poinsettias, that year, was $157-million. At the retail level, by most estimates, poinsettias contribute more than $250-million to the U.S. economy.

Paul Ecke Ranch 

Long-recognized as the largest and most successful poinsettia breeder in the world, Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, California was founded in 1924, by German immigrant entrepreneurs who moved to the U.S. in 1902. For three generations, the Ecke family grew and sold poinsettias; first as cut flowers and field-grown landscape and mother plants and, eventually, as greenhouse-grown stock-plants. They moved their stock-production facility to Guatemala during the 1990s and, in 2012, sold the business and the name. The leadership team stayed on.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Houseplants: Gardening Indoors During the Winter 

Geranium in a pot

The idea of taking plants from the wild and bringing them indoors seems to fly in the face of all things natural. But starting somewhere around 1,000 BC, plants and small trees were being used as ornamental features in homes, in several ancient civilizations.

A Brief History 

We know, from early paintings and sculptures, that the ancient Greeks and Romans grew plants in containers. And that in ancient India, Japan, and Egypt, potted ornamental plants were commonly placed in courtyards and home gardens. It really isn’t much of a stretch then, to hypothesize that some of those plants were taken into homes. In fact, evidence of wild plants being successfully cultivated indoors can be found in ancient Egyptian writings. And for centuries, the Japanese have employed the dwarfing of trees and other plants for room ornaments; a practice known as bonsai tree cultivation.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Growing Local Grass-Roots Food Security 

Inside of a greenhouse

It’s mid-November. The leaves on the trees have all fallen, with the exception of the few that still stubbornly cling to their branches. It’s getting colder. Clocks have been moved back an hour, so night comes early. Migratory birds are gathering or headed south. And it’s crunch-time for animals like chipmunks, and non-migratory, resident bird species (e.g. chickadees, cardinals, jays, nuthatches, some woodpeckers, and crows) that, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have been stockpiling or caching food for a while now, in preparation for the coming of winter.

For many of us, the Thanksgiving holiday marks the onset of winter. The holiday brings family and friends together for warm, memorable reunions, time-honored traditions and scrumptious, festive meals. We relax, celebrate our good fortune, and just enjoy one another’s company, pausing to appreciate the things we hold dear. We say grace and give thanks, as the turkey is carved and the cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes are passed around. And Mom… It smells delicious!

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Halloween Black Cats Have a Bewitching History; Feral Cats are an Invasive Species

A witch on a broom with a black cat

As Much a Part of Halloween as Jack-O-Lanterns 
Have you ever wondered why or how black cats became a traditional part of Halloween imagery, decoration, and symbolism? Or why people dress up as black cats on Halloween?
I know I have.

I Ain’t Superstitious, But…
‘I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat crossed my trail.’ Those lyrics were written by blues great Willie Dixon in 1961 and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, Jeff Beck (with Rod Stewart), Santana (with Johnny Lang), and Megadeath; just to name a few. And the belief that bad luck will result from a black cat crossing one’s path is one of the oldest and most enduring superstitions that I know of. But why is it that we connect black cats to bad luck and witchcraft? Perhaps it’s because cats have been associated with magic since ancient times. Across medieval Puritan-Europe, cats; black cats in particular; were commonly linked to witchcraft and the devil. That association continued into the renaissance, when people believed that witches would transform themselves into black cats. Or that, if you came across a black cat, it might be a witch’s ‘familiar’; a supernatural entity or demon-possessed physical-animal believed to have been sent by the devil, to assist witches in the practice of black magic. » Continue Reading.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Working Safely with a Chainsaw 

Two people wear appropriate safety gear while operating chainsaws

Chainsaws were once tools used only by professional lumberjacks. But, today they’re widely used by farmers, landowners, and homeowners, as well. And they sure are useful! In fact, it’s hard to think of a more efficient, time saving power tool. But a chainsaw in the hands of an inexperienced, unconcerned operator can very-suddenly become lethal.

I don’t know how often I’ve seen it. A recent storm takes down a couple of limbs or a tree, or a few trees in a yard or driveway, and the homeowner is out there with a brand new chainsaw. A beauty! And he can’t wait to use it. He fires it up. It roars! And there he stands, with his new toy in hand, right smack dab in the middle of an intertwining tangled mess of limbs, leaves, and spring poles, wearing nothing but a shirt, jeans, a light, loose-fitting jacket, and sneakers, ready to have at it. Not a care in the world.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Fall is Garlic Planting Time 

Garlic bulbs

Garlic is Delicious 

Garlic is one of the most-time-honored and widely-used seasonings in the world. It’s a staple in home- and restaurant-kitchens on every continent. The name is actually derived from the Old English word ‘garleac’, which translates as ‘spear-shaped leek’.

Garlic lends its flavor to many different recipes and, depending on the variety, has a flavor and aroma that can be sweet, spicy, pungent, or just plain mellow. I’ve heard garlic described as a ‘true culinary joy’, ‘an essential part of any well-stocked pantry’, ‘the secret weapon’, and ‘a seasoning that can quickly bring a dish from bland to bold.’

You can use it chopped, sliced, sautéed, minced, or roasted whole. And you can add it to sauces, soups, side dishes, and main dishes. It’s that versatile!

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

About Grasshoppers 

Migratory Grasshopper

I haven’t seen very many grasshoppers, this year. But people have been asking me about them recently. Evidently, they’ve been observing them for several weeks. And they’re seeing a lot of them, lately.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

The Adirondacks –Spectacular, Historic, and Geographically Unique 

The Great Forest – The Proposed Adirondack Park – 1891

Vast and Varied  

The Adirondack Park is the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River. At more than 6-million acres, it’s the size of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined. Within the Park’s boundary (commonly referred to as the ‘blue line’), are more than 3,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, hundreds of mountain summits (two that exceed 5000 feet (1,500 m) in height (Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak), and an exceptional variety of eastern hardwood and boreal forest habitats, including rare, old growth forests and freshwater wetlands (marshes, peatlands (bogs and fens), swamps, and open river corridors).

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

It’s a Flower; It’s an Herb; It’s Bee Balm

Very Showy and Frequently Cultivated in Gardens
Red-flowered bee balm (Monarda didyma L.) is a long-blooming perennial which is easily grown in any garden soil. It will achieve heights of 3- to 4-feet or more and, when in full bloom, can be stunningly spectacular in most any landscape or flower garden location.

Mine can be seen growing in a single, absolutely bee-utiful, eye-catching cluster, on a short steep rise along the wooded edge of the yard, amid large rhododendron bushes on one side and a cedar hedgerow on the other. The showy white flowers of queen of the meadow (Filipendula), which grows toward the bottom of the slope, enhance the beauty of the scarlet bee balm blooms, although the queen of the meadow fades long before the bee balm does. Hostas, daylilies, and several other perennial flowers, which grow at the foot of the hill, complete the picture. I’ve also seen attractive, crimson bee balm blossoms, like those that bring my little hillside to life in mid-summer, used delightfully among boulders in a rock garden and very appealingly, as a border planting along an old stone wall. » Continue Reading.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Wild Parsnip: An Edible Root with Poisonous Sap

A Vegetable Gone Rogue

Wild parsnip seedling Ken Chamberlain, The Ohio State University via

Often referred to as poison parsnip, wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a biennial plant, native to Asia and Europe. It’s widely accepted that wild parsnip plants are actually descended from cultivated parsnips brought to North America by the European colonists. Documents suggest that cultivated parsnips were grown in Virginia as early as 1609.

Over time, the plants have reverted back to a wild strain. The wild genes were always there, but they remained suppressed until eventually being displayed through natural selection. The edible first year taproots are genetically identical to the vitamin-C-rich parsnips we plant in our gardens. There are significant differences however, in the biochemical properties of cultivated versus wild parsnip.

Today, wild parsnip is considered an invasive member of the carrot family; related to Queen Anne’s lace; that has become naturalized across most of the United States and Canada.

» Continue Reading.

Monday, July 24, 2023

A Warming Climate


Tulare Lake Basin flood progression
Extreme Weather Events

I recall reading, earlier this year, about unprecedented flooding, in several areas of California that, until that time, had been stricken by years of climate-change-induced mega-drought so dire that, in August of 2021, a major hydroelectric power plant, Edward Hyatt Power Plant, was forced to shut down for the first time since it opened in 1967, due to extraordinarily low water levels. The plant’s reservoir, California’s second-largest, Lake Oroville, had fallen to just 24% of total capacity.

After this year’s January storms, however, the water level started to rise. It was 82% full on March 10th, when officials began letting water out of the reservoir for the first time in four years. Earlier this month, Lake Oroville had filled to 100% capacity.

In April, California’s Tulare Lake, a dry lake, was refilling, due to torrential rainfall. It’s currently five – to seven-feet deep. Fish now populate its waters. And birds have flocked to its shores. Tulare Lake was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. When full, it covered 800 square miles and fed several rivers. But it dried up completely nearly a century ago, as a result of dams, canals, and levees being built in and around California’s San Joaquin Valley; the largest agricultural region in the state of California. The last time a portion of the lake resurfaced was in 1983.

» Continue Reading.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Farm to School: Improving Local Economies and the Health of Children

kid in cafeteria

Pictured here: Sixth grader Dan Wells digs into a tray of cafeteria offerings at Willsboro Central School. Photo by Eric Teed

On June 21, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Franklin County, CCE of Essex County, and the Saranac Lake Central School District (CSD) had been awarded grant funding through New York State’s Farm-to-School program. The program is focused on improving students’ health, by increasing the procurement and use of fresh, nutritious, locally grown and produced food, in meals served in Grade School cafeterias.

CCE of Franklin County will be initiating a new program, advancing a collaborative partnership between Extension and three Franklin County school districts, focused on expanding the amount and variety of local farm products used in school meal programs.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Eating Local and In-Season; An Alternative to Global Food Systems 

food from the farm - Adirondack Harvest

When it comes to food, the definition of ‘local’ is somewhat vague. Some people consider food from the Albany and Syracuse regions or from nearby New England local. To others, buying local means supporting neighbors and friends from within their town or from nearby, by shopping at farmers’ markets and roadside stands, or by joining their neighbors’ CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).

In recent weeks, area markets have offered locally grown sweet, delicious asparagus, beautiful, tangy rhubarb, tender, young greens, tasty radishes, delicious alfalfa sprouts, gorgeous bedding plants, appealing grass-fed beef, lamb, and pork, top-quality, mouthwatering baked goods, yummy farmstead cheese curd. The list goes on. Strawberries and much more will be available soon.

» Continue Reading.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Making Gardening Accessible

Lettuce, herbs, and flowers in a vertical garden

Is it possible to garden with compromised mobility or limited upper body strength or when in a wheelchair or using a walker? Absolutely!

As we grow older, we experience decreasing physical stamina and/or the development of other limitations in our physical abilities, forcing us to reduce the magnitude of tasks that we take on. We learn to slow down, but we don’t have to give up.

In my lifetime, I’ve worked with several dedicated direct care providers to introduce, or reintroduce, youth, the elderly, and disadvantaged, disabled, and special needs clients and friends to the satisfaction and tranquility of gardening. Cornell Cooperative Extension provided training, informational materials, and limited funding, while local farm and garden centers provided seeds, starter plants, and assorted building and gardening materials.

I’ve also had the good fortune of knowing several devoted gardeners with limitations, who crafted and tended remarkable gardens; cultivating their own food and ornamental plants for years; even decades. They remain an inspiration.

» Continue Reading.

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