Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Adirondack Poison: White Snakeroot

‘Tis the season for White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). This pretty, weedy plant can be found blooming in many of our forests from late summer “until frost.” Hm…that could be any day now, if you believe the weather reports!

One of the nice things about white snakeroot is that it is one of our native plants. According to my field guide, it is classified with the bonesets and Joe Pye weed – a Eupatorium. However, botanists, like birders, can be found reclassifying living organisms on an almost daily basis, it seems, and now this plant is in a separate genus: Ageratina.

I think that because we are surrounded these days with warnings about non-native invasive species, we tend to slip into the idea that native plants must all be good. In one sense they are: they are good for the ecological niche in which they have evolved. But this doesn’t make them “good” plants, necessarily. White snakeroot is an excellent example of this, for it is poisonous.

Back in the 19th century, many many people died from a disease that was labelled “milk sickness.” It seems that some milk (and, it turns out, meat) was tainted with something that made the cattle ill and killed people. The disease was known to wipe out large portions of early settlements (Abraham Lincoln’s own mother was one of its victims), and it became such a problem in parts of Kentucky that a $600 award was offered in the early 1800s to anyone who could find the cause of the disease.

Although not officially identified until 1928, legend has it that Dr. Anna Bixby (1809-1869) identified the causative agent long before that. Supposedly many of her patients were dying from milk sickness, and, as was probably fairly common at the time, the disease was blamed on witchcraft. Dr. Bixby knew there must be a more rational explanation, and noted that the disease only turned up in late summer and into the fall, and it seemed to be based on something the cattle were eating. One day she met up with a Shawnee woman who told her that white snakeroot was the culprit. Dr. Bixby fed a bit of the plant to a calf, which promptly displayed all the symptoms. She had all of the plant torn out from the fields and forests where cattle were grazing, and remarkably, the disease went away. Sadly, she never got credit for this (nor did the Shawnee woman).

What happens is that cattle eat white snakeroot when there is no other forage around, so it’s not like it’s a primary food choice for them. The plant contains tremetol, which is the poisonous compound. Tremetol is stored in the meat and milk, and thus it gets passed on to people who consume these cattle products.

That said, according to Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany, the Cherokee and Iroquois did use this plant for a variety of medicines, including treatment for urinary ailments, as a diuretic, and as a treatment for venereal diseases. He doesn’t say, however, how well the medicines worked.

Still, just because a plant is toxic doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it – just don’t eat it! As you walk through the woods, perhaps along a shady path, keep your eyes open for a scraggly-looking plant about three to five feet tall. The leaves are jagged, and the top has a flattened cluster of white flowers. If you are lucky, you may find some butterflies nectaring on it, for it is one of their foods. Take the time to get to know it, for it is a lovely plant. Then note where it is so you can be sure your cattle don’t graze upon it.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Hyde Museum Offfers ‘A Taste of Art’ Wine & Food Event

In conjunction with The Hyde Collection’s exhibition Degas & Music, the Museum (in Glens Falls) is hosting its 7th Annual A Taste of Art … A Wine and Food Experience on Friday, September 18 from 6:30 – 9:30 PM. In keeping with French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ lifelong interest in all things musical, the wine tasting décor will evoke the feeling of a 19th century ‘café concert’ – a popular form of musical entertainment of the period featured in the exhibition.

The evening offerings include a combination of various wines, complementary foods, and lively entertainment. Putnam Wine (Saratoga Springs) and Uncorked (Glens Falls) work together to bring in a wide selection of wines from New York and other US wine producing regions, as well as vintages from Europe, South America, and Australia. The wines are complemented by food samplings from a number of area restaurants including Adirondack Community College’s Culinary Program, The Anvil, Cherry Tomato, The Farmhouse Restaurant, Friends’ Lake Inn, Fifty South, GG Mama’s, Grist Mill, Luisa’s Italian Bistro, and The Sagamore. Davidson Brothers Restaurant and Brewery will host the beer garden in the Museum’s Hoopes Gallery.

Attendees will be entertained by two musical groups – The Dick Caselli Trio and Alambic, as well a silent auction featuring music, food, and art-related items.

Tickets for ‘A Taste of Art’ are $75 per person. Reservations are required and accepted on a first-come, first served basis. Those interested in attending should call 518-792-1761 ext. 23 or email bchildress@hydecollection.org. A special master class is open to Connoisseur Committee members (those contributing an additional $250 to the event). This year’s master class will focus on the wines which would have been familiar to Edgar Degas and his contemporaries. Because of the limited master class space, those wishing to join the Connoisseur Committee should contact the Museum at their earliest convenience.

All proceeds from the wine tasting event will benefit The Hyde Collection’s exhibitions and educational programs through the Museum’s Annual Fund.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Growing Garlic in the Adirondacks

Whenever I mention growing garlic, I encounter people who tell me “you can’t grow garlic up here.” What? I’ve grown garlic successfully now for two years (can’t say as much for onions and leeks)! After conversations with folks, though, I think I have discovered the answer: timing.

Garlic is something you plant in the fall. Don’t try planting it in the spring with your seeds and transplants. You may get lovely stalks, but you won’t get bulbs. Once you discover this, you’ll find growing garlic is a cinch.

First, find some good bulbs. Around these parts, you probably should stick to hardneck garlic. The stuff you buy in the grocery store is softneck garlic, and it is comprised of a bulb that is clove after clove right down to the center (and it probably comes from China or India). Hardneck, on the other hand, has a hard stem in the center which is surrounded by six to twelve cloves, depending on the variety. You don’t get as many cloves, but you get something that is hardier and grows well in our northern climate.

You can purchase garlic from many gardening/seed catalogues. If you place your garlic order in February with your seed order, don’t expect it to arrive with your seeds. Any company worth its salt will not ship garlic until the fall.

I discovered, however, that catalogue garlic is really expensive. For a mere fraction of the cost, you can go to a garlic festival (like the one in Sharon Springs, which I just found out is cancelled this year) to purchase bulbs. This is what I did last year. The comparison is amazing. Catalogue garlic: get about 20 cloves, pay over $20. Garlic Fest garlic: get 100 cloves, pay about $8. It’s well worth the trip to a festival. The nearest garlic festival I could find this year is probably the Mohawk Valley Garlic and Herb Festival in Mohawk on 12 September, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM.

Once you have your garlic, wait until October to plant. The later the better. You’ll want to prep your bed, removing weeds, adding compost, etc. When the day arrives to plant, you’ll want to be ready, so have your bulbs sorted – choose only the largest bulbs and the largest cloves.

It’s planting day. Separate the bulbs into individual cloves. Press each one about two inches into your soil (with the pointy end of the clove upwards) and cover with soil. Space them three or so inches apart. When you have the bed filled, cover it with about six inches of grass clippings – good mulch. Last year I used leaves and I don’t think they worked as well. For one thing, they decomposed and blew away a lot more readily than grass clippings will.

Do not panic if you start to see green shoots poking out of the mulch before the snow flies. This is normal.

Next spring, the shoots will grow (or continue to grow). Just let them do their thing, making sure the soil stays evenly moist (but don’t over-water). Garlic is pretty low maintenance. As summer progresses, the tips of the stalks will loop around a couple of times and develop swellings at the end. These are called garlic scapes and they are quite attractive. They are also edible and are considered a gourmet item, but I I found I couldn’t give ’em away this year! No one wanted to even try them. You can steam them and serve with melted butter like asparagus, or you can cook them in a stir fry; I’m sure the internet is full of recipes just waiting to be tried. I’ve even read you can store scapes in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to three months. If you don’t plan to eat them, however, be sure to pinch them off. Otherwise, they will develop into bulbils, tiny bulbs, taking energy away from the main bulb underground. You want the plant to put its energy into the main bulb, so eliminate all competitors.

Sometime around mid-July, the stalks will start to turn brown. When the bottom three or four leaves are brown, but the leaves at the top are still green, it is time to harvest your garlic. You will want to stop watering a few weeks before this – this will make your garlic better for storage.

Pull up your garlic gently and by hand. You want to be careful not to bruise the bulbs, and don’t leave them in the sun. Trim the roots, and gently brush off the soil. Then you you need to place them in a well-ventilated, but out of the sun location to cure. Curing takes about two weeks and hardens the bulbs up for storage. After curing you can trim the stems and move the garlic into storage. Hardneck garlic doesn’t braid well, thanks to those hard stems. So, instead of long decorative braids, I cut the stems short and stick the bulbs in old onion bags I’ve scrounged from friends.

Never store your garlic in the fridge. Room temperature is good, or in a root cellar where temps are about 32-35 degrees Fahrenheit. Low humidity is also a plus. A fridge is simply too warm and may cause your garlic to sprout prematurely.

Garlic has a history that stretches back more than 5000 years. Coming to us from central Asia, this bulb is full of good stuff that our bodies need. You don’t have to go overboard like me and plant a couple hundred cloves, but everyone with a small garden should at least give it a try.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Asgaard Dairy Takes National and State Honors

Goat’s milk cheeses from Asgaard Dairy of Au Sable Forks collected second place awards in National and New York State competitions earlier this month. Such achievements in the first full year of production took owners Rhonda Butler and David Brunner and cheesemaker Kirsten Sandler by surprise.

At the National Cheese Society annual meeting in Austin, Texas, August 7, the dairy took silver for its goat’s milk feta. “It’s kind of like the Academy Awards of cheese,” said Butler. Last week at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, the placing entry was a fresh chevre with cilantro, hot pepper and garlic—all from the Asgaard garden.

Butler and Brunner, with help from daughter Johanna operate the dairy from the iconic Adirondack farm once owned by artist and political activist Rockwell Kent. They retail their cheeses and a new line of goat’s milk soap direct from the farm, at farm markets in Elizabethtown, Keene and Lake Placid, and at natural food markets in Keene, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. Lake Placid Lodge also features Asgaard’s “Whiteface” chevre on its menu.

Looking forward, this year the family plans to add ten more milking goats to their herd of twenty. The sudden success arrives at a bittersweet moment: the family lost one of their original two goats—Kelly (pictured above with Johanna)—this spring.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Adirondack Family Activities: Producer-Only Farmers’ Markets

Tis the season for zucchini. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la. It is only the closest of friends that can continue to pass out fresh zucchini like it’s a present rather than penance. Since I am in transition, my own garden has been put on hold and I rely on the kindness of others for my fresh veggies. Zucchini, on the other hand, has become the garden growers “gift with purchase.”

I was just given a secret at a recent trip to the Farmers’ Market that if I de-seed the giant green squash first and then chop, it will retain its sweet flavor without having to attempt to swallow seeds the size of cherry pips.

For my children a trip to the Farmers’ Market is a day out on the town. Not because it is errand day. More so because most open-air markets are designed for just that purpose, for people to stroll, smell and experience where food comes from. Sadly and not surprisingly some kids never know the vast amount of travel some of their vegetables have taken before reaching the table.

Lake Placid’s Green Market Wednesday is one of many “producer-only” farmers’ markets. The requirement is simple. The product is either grown at the vendor’s location or made from scratch. Vendors are not allowed to purchase products to resell to customers. This policy provides a creative atmosphere for local farmers and artisans to explore new possibilities with their produce and merchandise.

For us, we show up with little more than water bottles and pick our lunch like it’s right off the vine. Oh wait, it is! The kids weave around the various booths choosing a piece of fruit here and a piece of cheese there.

August 26 will be the last Wednesday Young and Fun series located at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts that runs in conjunction with this particular outdoor market. This is a Salute to Art Day! Clowns, musicians, face painting and crafts are just part of the family-friendly activities available.

Enjoy the market while the children are entertained. Buy a fresh meal while figuring out whether your zucchini toting neighbor is friend or foe.

For a complete list of all Adirondack and beyond Farmers’ Markets check out www.adirondackharvest.com. For a list of producer-only venues, see below.

Lake Placid Green Market on Wednesdays from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Schroon Lake on Mondays from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Plattsburgh Farmers Green Market on Thursdays from 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Essex on Sundays from noon – 4:00 p.m.
Saranac Lake on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Queensbury on Mondays from 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Glens Falls on Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. – noon
Saratoga Springs on Wednesdays from 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Epsom Salts and Dry Milk in the Garden

My friend Edna shared with me her secret for growing tomatoes: Epsom salts and dry milk. The mixture is blended together and applied by the teaspoonful to newly transplanted tomato plants, and can be sprinkled on the soil at the base of the plants later in the season.

Hm, thought I. Maybe I should give this a try.

So last year I got out my carton of Epsom salts and my packets of dry milk and commenced planting about 100 tomato plants.

I didn’t have the actual recipe on hand, so I merely dumped Epsom salt and dry milk in each hole before I laid down the plant (I plant my tomatoes on their sides, so roots will form along the buried stem and the upward-growing bit is stronger). Despite my willy-nilly method, the plants did fine and I put up about four gallons of sauce by the end of the summer and gave many fresh tomatoes away to friends.

This year I mixed it up correctly…sort of. And this year my tomatoes are mostly brown and looking rather dead. Some have fruits, although most (all but one) are green and all are very small. The one that is reddening is also rotting.

Now, I don’t blame this on the homemade fertilizer (or my haphazard methods). Nope, the culprit, as far as I’m concerned, is this summer’s weather (and possibly the Late Blight I’ve been hearing about). Cool, damp weather does not make for healthy tomato plants (and I’m really glad I didn’t even attempt peppers this year).

So, the big question is: are the Epsom salts and dry milk actually doing anything beneficial for the plants, or is this recipe an old wives’ tale? I was determined to find out.

As it happens, Epsom salts (so called for the town in England where they were first collected) are actually beneficial to certain soils. A simple salt made up of magnesium and sulfur, Epsom salt is a swell addition if your soil is lacking these nutrients. Soil that is acidic is often depleted in magnesium, so a treatment of Epsom salts can be beneficial. If your soil is really depleted in magnesium, however, you are probably better off giving it a treatment of dolomitic lime. This compound will not only deliver the magnesium, but it will also help balance out the soil’s pH, which should make your plants happier all around (unless they are acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries).

The dry milk has been a bit more difficult to trace for relevance in the garden. One presumes this is to add calcium to the soil (at least that’s what Edna’s book claimed). And it seems that tomatoes really do like to have a good bit of calcium, and having plenty of calcium on hand helps prevent blossom end rot. Blossom end rot occurs when the plant’s demand for calcium exceeds the amount of calcium available in the soil. This could be caused by too much, or too little, water (excess rain or drought), not enough calcium in the soil to being with, or even an over-application of nitrogen fertilizers, which cause rapid vegetative growth and an increase in calcium demand. Putting a little dry milk in the planting hole may help, but it isn’t a long-term solution.

In the end, the answer is soil testing. If your soil has a good pH level (around 6.5), and if it is provided with proper drainage and watering, then regular amendments of good compost (and composted manures) may be all you really need. But that soil test is the key.

I’ve been reluctant to get an official soil test done for my veg garden. I bought a home-testing kit when I started my garden and have used it a couple times, but I’m not so sure the results I got were accurate (this year’s tests said I had no potassium, no nitrogen, and no phosphorous at all in my soil). Considering some of the beds still have a sour smell to them, which is usually an indication of acidic soils, I may just bite the bullet and send in my soil samples for real tests.

When you get your soil test results back, you should also get amendment recommendations – suggestions on what you can add to make your soil better and your plants happier. By treating your soil as a whole, you are more likely to have success with your garden than you are with spot treatments of dry milk and Epsom salts.

That said, adding a little dry milk, or a sprinkling of Epsom salt, probably won’t hurt your garden. And if it makes you feel better by doing it, then go for it. Just remember: while a little may be beneficial, more isn’t necessarily better; all things in moderation.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Making Your Land Pay Program at Cornell Cooperative Ext

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Warren and Saratoga Counties will be offering an educational program on Saturday August 22, 2009 – “Making Your Land Pay” for forest and farmland. Those looking for new income opportunities to offset some of the costs of owning land will find plenty of suggestions. Some of the topics that will be covered include the importance of soils, natural resource enterprises, and places to find additional resources for land owners. During the afternoon attendees will be going into the field. The cost is $15 per person. For further information and to register for this program, please call Cornell Cooperative Extension Saratoga County at 885-8995.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fooling Wasps in the Garden

“What is that green papery thing you have hanging next to the back door?” my mother asked. “It’s a paper wasp nest,” said I. An artificial wasp nest made of paper, as opposed to a nest made by paper wasps.

“What’s it for?”

“To keep away wasps.”

“Does it work?”

Ah…that’s the question. Several gardening catalogues sell these Chinese paper lantern type wasp nests as wasp deterrents, and others sell ones made of fabric. The theory is that you hang them in areas where you don’t want wasps. Supposedly, paper wasps are very territorial and will not build a nest in an area where one already exists. So, you hang up these artificial nests and voila! no wasps.

But does it work?

Well, I routinely had wasps build nests next to one of my sheds. And while I’ve come to terms with bees, I’m not so trusting of wasps. Some, like the bald faced hornet, are very aggressive and don’t need much (if any) provocation to attack. As soon as I would see the beginnings of a paper wasp nest, I would knock it down. Luckily, this worked, but I knew that the battle would only repeat every year unless I took some other measure.

Enter the fake nest.

I purchased a two-pack of paper nests a couple years ago. They lie flat and squashed in the package. All you have to do is stretch them out and lock the wire frame in place. Instant wasp nest. Then you hang it in a strategic location. I placed one next to the back door, easily within viewing distance of the corner by the shed. The other I hung inside the porch (a double assurance against wasps coming into the house – or at least this was the plan).

For two years I have followed this routine, and for two years I’ve had no wasps nests built near my shed (or anywhere along that side of the house). Could it be this really works, or is it merely coincidence?

According to www.wasps.net, fake nests are good for up to 5000 ft. away. The folks over at http://iberianature.com/britainnature/tag/fake-wasps-nest/ also agree: fake nests are an environmentally friendly way to control wasps around your house and gardens.

So there you go! A chemical-free, pet- and child-friendly, totally non-toxic way to control undesireables. If only every pest could be so easily fooled!


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Adirondack Garden: A Good Word for Weeds

I know that most gardening columns are filled with advice on how to get rid of weeds. But I want to put in a good word for them. I’m looking at one really huge one right now just outside my kitchen window: the Box Elder tree (Acer negundo) that is wildlife Grand Central Station all year long, right here in the middle of Saratoga Springs. Of course, that could be because of the seed and suet feeders we hang from its boughs, and the discarded Christmas trees we cluster around the trunk in the winter, and the birdbaths we keep filled in every season –- including a heated one providing liquid water through 25-below-zero nights. But I’ve also read that — even without our additions — the Box Elder tree is ranked among those with the highest value to wildlife.

That ranking is probably because of its seeds that, unlike those of other members of the maple genus, hang onto the boughs until well into the winter, providing food for squirrels and birds when most other seeds are gone. Another positive attribute is its ability to spring up from seedling to tree in a hurry, or as some might say, “grow like a weed.” That’s what our neighbor (who actually owns the ground this Box Elder grows from) said about this tree when he wanted to cut it down. “Just look at the mess it makes — bugs in the summer, seeds all over the place, leaves plugging up the gutters.” Well, we begged and pleaded and pointed out how its boughs provide privacy for his tenants, and he relented. Sort of. He cut down about half of it, but what do you know, it grew right back to its original height (and more!) in just about a year. Ha!

Here’s the thing: if you love the birds and butterflies and want to have them around, you just have to learn to love bugs and weeds. Some people think I’m kind of a nut about that. Two years ago, I led a wildflower walk in downtown Saratoga’s Congress Park, a park more known for its Olmsted-designed formal gardens than for anything allowed to grow wild. But (oh happy fault!) there are geologic faults that run right through Congress Park, creating the springs that Saratoga is famous for, as well as steep banks and marshy spots where the mowers just can’t mow. And there’s where the wildflowers grow, dozens and dozens of beauties most often overlooked: Birds-eye Speedwell, Canada Anemone, Willow Herbs Northern and Hairy, Buttercups, Forget-me-nots, Cuckoo Flowers, Cattails . . . I could go on and on.

And I was going on and on, extolling at length the virtues of one particular plant that spreads through the grass, Ground Ivy. I had read in a wonderful book by Hannah Holmes (Suburban Safari: A year on the lawn) that patches of this lovely little flower, as pretty as any orchid (click on photo above), are sought out by crows in molting, when their new feathers are poking through skin and causing them pain. Apparently, this Mint-Family plant has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities that soothe their pain and prevent infection, and the crows will roll around in it. Now, I found that pretty fascinating and was sharing my enthusiasm for Ground Ivy when I was interrupted by “Ugh! That’s Creeping Charlie! [Another name for Ground Ivy] I can’t get rid of it in my lawn! That’s a weed!”

Well, yes. It is. But such a nice one. I don’t think she thought I was nice when I responded to her revulsion: “Why would you want to get rid of it? Get rid of the grass instead.” Because, you see, that really is my ideal. Why would anyone prefer plain old grass to deliciously herby Ground Ivy (what a pungent, minty scent it emits when mowed)? Or to Speedwells of every kind, dainty little striped blooms in shades of blue from royal to mist? Or to Violets, white or purple or yellow? Or to Strawberries, Buttercups, Daisies, Clover. . . good lord, even Dandelions! All carpet the ground no taller than ankle-high, so they don’t need frequent mowing. All grow without needing to poison the soil with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. All thrive without being watered. All provide food for butterflies, caterpillars, ants, worms, birds, and bees. All are as pretty as pretty can be. And every single last one of them is a weed.

Let’s hear it for weeds!


Thursday, August 6, 2009

CCE Campaign Promotes Seasonal Recipes for Local Foods

Eat Well, Eat Local and Eat Together is the theme of a campaign by Cornell Cooperative Extension in counties across New York State, including locally in Warren County, that coincides with the local harvest season. Also known as Eat3, the program’s goal is to help families choose, prepare and enjoy healthy meals together using locally-grown produce.

Each month, from July through November, the campaign will feature one local and healthful meal that families can prepare and enjoy together. The recipes have been chosen to emphasize kid-friendly foods that take advantage of fruits and vegetables in season. For example, the Meal of the Month for July features Broccoli and Black Bean Quesadillas and Fruity Pops. The quesadilla recipe boosts the nutritional value of a traditional tortilla and cheese quesadilla by including broccoli and beans. The frozen fruit and yogurt “pops” uses seasonal fruits, such as berries and peaches, in an easy recipe that kids can make themselves.

Cornell Cooperative Extension is currently distributing recipes highlighting July’s Meal of the Month, as well as postcards and a colorful refrigerator magnet to remind families to Eat Well, Eat Local and Eat Together. Families are also being encouraged to visit and register at the Eat3 website, www.Eat3.org. Those who register on the website will be entered into a monthly drawing for a $50 grocery store gift card. Two gift card winners will be chosen each month. The website features additional seasonal recipes with nutrition information, tips, games and a chance to share comments and questions about the recipes and eating together.

Contact Alexis Flewelling at amf252@cornell.edu or at 518-668-4881 to request July’s free Meal of the Month recipes and magnet from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Warren County.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Late Blight: What Not to Do

A Wilmington woman who suspected her tomato was afflicted with “late blight,” a fungal disease killing area nightshade crops, put the plant in her car and drove it to the Hhott House garden center in Saranac Lake late last week to get an expert opinion.

The opinion was, yes, the plant did indeed have late blight, and now it had traveled through Lake Placid, home to Cornell University’s Uihlein Potato Research Station, which provides seed stock for much of the state. It had also come within six miles of Tucker Farms, a commercial potato grower in Gabriels, and, less important, within a block of my potato and tomato plants, the latter which are finally fruiting.

The plant was bagged and discarded in the trash, as it should have been to begin with. Late blight is spread by spores that can travel several miles on the wind. Here is a reminder from the Clinton Essex Cooperative Extension on what you should do if you suspect your tomatoes or potatoes have late blight.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Habitat Close to Home

When the editors of Adirondack Almanack asked me to take over Ellen Rathbone’s garden columns while Ellen is on vacation, I couldn’t help thinking, they have got to be kidding! Me, write a garden column? I guess they don’t know that I’m more of an anti-gardener. Not anti in the sense of “against” (I love other people’s gardens), but in the sense of “antithesis of.” In short, I’m a weed-loving wildflower nerd who will risk drowning and broken bones and heart attacks and Lyme disease pursuing additions to my wildflower “life list,” but I faint at the thought of cultivating the plot behind my house. » Continue Reading.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Meet Guest Contributor Jackie Donnelly, Woodswalker

Elen Rathbone will be away on vacation for a couple of weeks so we’ve asked Jackie Donnelly, who writes the Saratoga Woods and Waterways blog, to fill in. She’ll be posting Ellen’s columns under the name Woodswalker beginning Sunday.

Jackie is a former editor/writer recently retired after 15 years as a Hospice nursing assistant. She’s not a professional naturalist (she majored in English), but a self-described “lifelong nature enthusiast and wildflower nerd.” She also says she is an admirer of Ellen Rathbone, whose blog inspired her to start her own on January 1 of this year, she says “hoping to document a full year’s cycle of the beautiful wilderness settings and amazing diversity of flora and fauna close to my home in Saratoga Springs.” Liberated from land by her Hornbeck canoe, she primarily haunts the Hudson River where it forms the northern boundary of Saratoga County, with occasional forays into the “genuine” Adirondacks.

Please join us in welcoming her.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bee Balm – Garden Pest or Protected Species?

Earlier this year we had a visitor in who was telling me how she had submitted a floral arrangement at a garden show only to have it rejected because it had bee balm in it and bee balm was a protected plant in New York State. “What?!?” I said. “Bee balm’s not protected; it grows like a weed in my gardens!” “Oh, but it is,” she claimed. I promptly grabbed a copy of New York State’s Protected Plant List (put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation), and sure enough, bee balm (Monarda didyma), aka: Oswego Tea, is protected.

In truth, this plant is not yet an endangered species, nor is it threatened. It is, however, listed as exploitably vulnerable, which means it is “likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of [its range] within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.” As I stand there and stare at my flower beds, which are slowly being swallowed up by bee balm, I find this hard to imagine.

New York is home to five species of Monarda: basil-balm (M. clinopodia), bee-balm/Oswego tea (M. didyma), wild bergamot/horsemint (M. fistulosa), bee-balm/purple bergamot (M. media), and dotted horsemint (M. punctata). Of these five, only one (basil-balm) is non-native, yet at the same time it is listed as rare.

Two of my gardens are a sea of red: bee balm that has gotten out of control. Still, the hummingbirds like it, and that’s why I planted it. What I have yet to discover is why this one is so aggressive, while the other varieties I have planted have obligingly stayed in their private little clumps: the pale purple wild bergamot, which blooms late in the season, the lovely pink one, which is only just now budding, and the scrawny white one, although I’ve got my eye on this one because it seems to be slowly spreading (I’m just now thinking it might be basil-balm). I had a deep magenta variety which also spread, but I haven’t seen much of that one lately; it could be I dug it all up and gave it away.

Most bee balms that you find in nurseries today are hybridized varieties, which come in all sorts of colors and fancy names. Domesticated. The only problem I have found with these is that many are prone to powdery mildew, which doesn’t seem to harm the plants much, but it sure looks awful. My phlox are also susceptible to the mildew, but I’m not too keen on the white phlox, so I don’t feel too badly when I pull out contaminated plants.

Since I’ve sort of made it a mission to promote native flowers in my gardens, I guess I don’t mind too much that the bee balm is thriving, especially now that I know it is a protected plant. Maybe I’ll start offering it to the State for reclamation plantings!


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Adirondack Gardening: Is All Poo Created Equal?

In gardening parlance, manure is pure gold. It has all the necessary ingredients for successful plant growth: nitrogen (helps plants produce the proteins necessary to build green stems, sturdy roots, and lots of leaves), phosphorus (facilitates energy movement within the plants), and potassium (regulates photosynthesis, helps move nutrients within the plants, and helps make plant proteins). In addition to the big three (NPK), manure also contains humus, a mixture of plant and animal remains that form a bulky and fibrous material that is not only nutritious for your garden, but also makes the soil a better growing medium by fluffing up heavy clays, providing food for the critters that live in the soil, and retaining moisture during times of water shortage.

And yet, while some farms can’t give the stuff away, others of us have the devil’s own time trying to acquire it.

For example, I live in a very small rural town here in the mountains. If I walk down the street a few hundred feet from my house, there’s a family with a bunch of horses. I called one day to see if I could relieve them of some of their no doubt copious piles of manure. Sure…that’ll be $300 a load. Oh, and the “load” is mostly “topsoil” with a little manure throw in. I decided to look for other options.

There’s the bison farm about half an hour away, with all the free bison doo that you can cart away. Likewise, there’s the goat farm down towards Thurman – nannyberries galore, yours for the taking. Sounds great! But how do you cart away a load of manure when all you have is a Prius? Another acquaintance of mine, who raises sheep and chickens, has offered me a load of dung…sometime. I think I’ll follow up on this lead while I’m on vacation next month, maybe offering an exchange of labor for this largesse.

As I made the rounds trying to find a good source of poo for my nutrient-starved garden, I was struck by the variety of manures available within a short distance of my home: horse, bison, sheep, chicken, alpaca, goat. About the only types we don’t have nearby is cow and pig. I started to wonder, then, just how much of a difference there is between each type. I’d heard that goat droppings are a “cool” manure that can be put on the garden right away without danger of “burning” the plants, unlike horse or cow manure, which is “hot” and must age for at least six months before use. So I decided to do a little homework to see which type was best. Here are my findings.

Pig and poultry poop are very high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can burn your plants. If you use pig or poultry poop, you need to let it age for several months before use. Bird droppings are often quite prized by gardeners (as are bat droppings, which are also very high in nitrogen). One of the greatest inventions for utilization of poultry poop is the mobile chicken coop. This nifty device makes garden creation a snap: you set up your chickens in a location where you want a future garden. The birds spend the summer scratching up the dirt, fertilizing it, eating the bugs in it and basically turning it into a pre-fab garden plot. Next spring you relocate the birds and turn their old run into ready-to-use garden beds.

Horses and cattle (and bison) spend a lot of time grazing, and what goes in must come out. As a result their dung is very high in the fiber department, which means you will have lots of good humus if you use horse or cow manure. On the other hand, you are also likely to get a lot of weed seeds. Horse and cow manure both need to age before you can use them. The general rule is to let it rest and decompose at least six months before use. During this time you can decrease the weed seed problem if you cover your manure pile with plastic and let it really cook for those six months. My pumpkins liked the horse manure I planted them in last year, but the books say that horse and cow manure are both rather low in those essential nutrients N, P and K. You can do better, but if this is all you have available, it’ll work just fine.

Goats and sheep are prolific poopers and their dung comes in tidy little pellets (so does alpaca poop). Because of this, it breaks down quickly and easily, which means you can make use of it sooner than you can horse and cow manure. In general they have more K than horse and cow manure, but N and P are about the same. Unless… I read that if your goat droppings come from goats that are kept indoors (like milking goats often are), then you will likely get additional nitrogen in your manure load because you’ll get the goats’ urine mixed in with the hay and droppings that are mucked out of the stalls. Can you put goat or sheep dung directly in your garden without aging? Yes and no. You really should age/compost any manure first, but because the droppings of goats and sheep are small, they break down more quickly. You can put them directly in your garden, but be sure to keep them off roots and away from stems.

After doing my research, I’ve concluded that any manure I acquire will be a welcome addition to my gardens. And if some of it doesn’t have, say, quite enough K, then I can supplement with something else, like greensand. The bottom line is that you cannot keep taking nutrients out of your garden without somehow replacing them. Manures are probably the easiest source of nutrients around. So roll up your sleeves and make friends with your local farmer. Swapping some labor in exchange for a load of poo seems like a pretty fair deal to me.