Sunday, August 2, 2015

Is This Plant Really Hardy to Zone 4?

Those of us in northern climates always check the rated hardiness of plants we buy to make sure they can survive the cold winters. I live in a borderline area that is zone 4 to zone 5. I also live on top of a mountain which tends to cause about a two week delay between when plants bloom a couple miles down the road at the base of the mountain and when they bloom in our yard. All of which means I look for zone 4 hardiness whenever I add plants to the yard.

But just because a plant is rated for zone 4 doesn't mean that it is comfortable in zone 4 climates. Forsythia bushes, for example, grow very well in our yard and around much of New Hampshire without fear of being killed off by cold temperatures. A late frost or excessively cold spell during the winter, however, may mean that the forsythia will not produce any flowers, or very few, during a particular spring.

The same is true of many fruit trees that are supposed to be safe for zone 4. Some peach trees, plum trees, and other varieties may suffer from the same late frost damage that forsythias may experience. If this happens, they may have no blossoms at all in a given year, and, therefore, no fruit at all in the fall.

If you have fruit trees that produce fruit some years and none in others, it may be a result of the tree being planted in a zone that pushes the limits of it cold tolerance. The tree generally isn't hurt by the late frost or winter cold snap, so technically it is hardy for the region, it's just that it may be unable to produce fruit or flowers unless the winter weather has been particularly favorable.

This year turned out to be one of those years for us. We have loads of developing apples and grapes, but the forsythia, peaches and plums never blossomed at all. Their tender flower buds having been nipped by Jack Frost. Covering them with a thin, light tarp or plastic sheet would probably have helped if we could have predicted the coldest weather or the rogue late freeze. Such covers help trap ground heat and form a protective temperature barrier around the covered plant and will also prevent frost from precipitating directly on the plant.

If you do elect to cover them, just be aware that the covers can also catch snow and become far too heavy for the plant to support. This can cause broken branches or even snapped trunks completely destroying the young fruit tree.

Choosing plants that are hardy to one zone beyond where you live will help ensure that they produce regularly. If you must have peach trees or other semi-hardy fruit trees in New Hampshire or other northern climes, choose a hardy variety, such as the Reliance Peach, and understand that unless you take precautions to protect them, you may have some years of little or no fruit production.

Friday, August 1, 2014

How to Clone a Tomato Plant

Choose an offshoot, or sucker, from the junction between
the main stem and a larger branch of your tomato plant.
Photo by Brad Sylvester
All rights reserved
When most people think of cloning, they think laboratories, bio-hazards and maybe even one of the Star Wars movie sequels. In reality, cloning your favorite tomato plants is quick and easy. It's a great way to propagate tomato plants and jump start your winter indoor garden.

Because clones are genetically identical to the original, they should share all the properties of the parent plant. This method is great for propagating hybrid varieties that don't breed true from second-generation seeds.

Just keep one plant inside over winter and use it to create the next spring's plantings. It's also a great way to save money. If you buy one large potted tomato plant from a local vendor, you can clone it and get extra plants for free! This is a great trick for expensive heirloom varieties.

To promote a vigorous and healthy tomato plant, you should remove the suckers (especially from the bottom 1-2 feet of the plant) as these will divert energy away from the main producing stems and lower your overall yield if left in place. Removing the suckers also keeps the tomato from getting too thick and bushy near the ground. Good airflow around the base of your plant helps to prevent mold, fungus, and diseases from getting a foothold in your garden.

First make sure the tomato plant you're using is healthy with no signs of blight or other disease. Using contaminated plants for this will just propagate the disease and the new plants will not be successful.

Then look for the places where a large branch comes off the main stem. Many of these will have a new smaller branch growing from the "V" formed by the stem and the branch. These are called suckers. These suckers are what we're after. In the picture below, the small stem in the center is the sucker. They will grow and add new leaves, whereas the other established branches will not. Look at the other branches and notice how there is no place on them where new leaves are growing. These branches are just food factories for the rest of the plant. The suckers are like brand new complete tomato plants and will add new leaves, flower, and bear fruit. They should snap off easily if you gently bend them at their base. Be careful not to squeeze the stems as this can damage them and kill the suckers.

You can plant each sucker in an individual pot or put several into a planter box or window box. Space them at least 3"-4" apart if you use a common planter. If you use an individual pot, choose one that is at least 3-4" deep to allow room for good root development. And bear in mind that you may need to transplant to a larger container later if they get too big before it's time for them to go outside into your regular garden. I use Miracle Gro's Moisture Control Potting Soil. It is the right consistency, doesn't pack down hard, holds moisture well, and feeds the plants for the first three months in the new soil. This helps them grow faster and more reliably as they establish new root systems. Using a pencil or similar implement, poke a hole into the soil.

You'll want to plant the sucker as deeply as possible keeping leaves and branches about an inch above the top of the soil. If you need more depth, you may need break or trim the bottom-most pair of leaves off the sucker before placing it into the hole. Gently firm up the soil around the newly planted sucker. You want to make sure you don't leave any air pockets around the stem.

Water the new plant generously and keep an eye on it for the next few days. For the first few days, you will see it wilting from time to time. Remember it has no roots at all and needs to re-establish an entire root system. For the first week, it should be kept out of direct sun, but still in a bright place. When you see it wilting, you can give it a boost with a light leaf misting to help the plant absorb water. It will most likely wilt every day for 3-4 days until some new roots begin to form. Keep the soil very moist for 3-4 days, then water as you would a normal tomato plant.

After about a week, your plant should have enough roots to keep it going with no special treatment, place it in the sun and keep it well watered. If they do start to wilt, continue to mist them. I'd wait at least 3-4 weeks before transplanting to their permanent location (longer is ok). Then, just take care of it like any normal tomato. Remember tomato plants love the sun! Once it is established it should be given as much light as you can give it during the day, but don't be tempted to leave indoor grow lights on 24 hours a day. Plants need the day night cycle for proper growth and maturation. 12-14 hours of light per day works great for tomatoes.

Not every cloned plant will make it past the first week, but if you follow these steps, you should have a very high rate of success. With good follow up care, you'll have a healthy new crop of cloned tomato plants. You can increase your rate of success by applying a Rooting Hormone to the suckers before placing them in the soil. There are many different brands available and they can be found online or at your local nursery. Follow the directions for the one you buy. Basically, though, all you need to do is dip the portion of the sucker that will be in the dirt into the rooting compound before planting it. If the rooting compound you choose is a powder then just dip the sucker in water first to help the powder adhere to the plant. With a rooting compound, you should get nearly one hundred percent success in cloning tomatoes.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Maple Sap 2014 Season

I put out some maple taps on February 22nd, this year. Normally, that would be a bit late. As it turns out, this year it is early. For maple sap to flow best, the trees should be subjected to a day/night temperature swing which hits 40 degrees F. during the day and drops down to below freezing at night. While we've certainly been below freezing at night, the days with high temperatures over 40 have been few and far between.

I suspect this will make for a short season this year, since once we start getting warmer days it may be late enough in the spring that the night time temperatures don't drop below 32 or at least not consistently.

This is the first year that I'm using the small "tree-saver" taps instead of the 7/16" diameter taps. They seem to work quite well so far, but we'll see how it goes when the sap really gets flowing.

I'm thinking about trying to tap some birch trees this year. Supposedly, birch sap runs a bit later in the spring and when the maples are just finishing up, the birches are just beginning. Birch syrup, I'm told is not as distinctively flavorful as maple syrup. It is said to have a molasses-like flavor. Birch sap also has a much lower sugar content than maple sap so it takes several times more sap to yield the same amount of finished product.

If I end up tapping any birch trees this year, I'll let you know how it turned out here on the blog.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

1000 Pound Challenge Update

I have come to the realization that I will not just fail to meet the 1000 pound for produce from my garden within 1 calendar year, but that it will be an epic fail.

As of yesterday, I have harvested 9.555 pounds of produce. While it's true that tomatoes and squash have barely started and that the cabbage will add some weight to my totals, I don't think I'll even make 200 pounds in total this year.

The reason is pretty simple. My garden is more of a traditional kitchen garden. Each day, I go out and pick something for use in the meal that I'm preparing. Since I cook a wide variety of dishes, I have a wide variety of items in the garden. Of the 450-ish square feet of garden space, about 75 square feet is dedicated to herbs, for example. Herbs weigh next to nothing, and although I might make 200 or more harvests of basil, oregano, thyme, dill, and the rest, during the season, they won't weigh-in very heavily compared to planting the same ground with, say, 9 zucchini plants.

We also had bad luck with the strwberries which occupy one complete terrace of my hillside garden this year. The fruits were eaten just before ripening by the animals that live in my yard. Primarily chipmunks, I believe, but quite possibly deer and other nocturnal visitors as well. That cost us a number of pounds of production.

It's true that we are only four months into a 12 month challenge. So there is time, yet. If I were to build cold frames to act as mini-greenhouses and use passive solar heating to keep them warm, I might yet pull out some late season harvests. The difficulty with that is that we are already losing daylight hours as autumn approaches. When the number of available hours of sunlight gets too low, many garden vegetables will stop producing or stop ripening. Others, like lettuce and leafy greens, greatly reduce their rates of growth.

So this year, we will experiment with exending the season as far into the New England autumn as we can, and we'll see how mcuh we can squeak out of the kitchen garden. Next year, though, we will plan for production. We'll plant much larger quantities of vegetables that we can not only eat as they ripen, but which can be effectively preserved.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shopping in the Backyard

Summer is one of my favorite seasons, because it's that time of year when you can simply walk outside and stroll through the garden with a produce bag and pick your groceries for the evening meal. Row markers become menu entries as I go shopping in the garden for the family dinner.

Most of the time, I pick only what I need for the day, washing and cooking it immediately after picking it. Sometimes, however, a particular plant or group of plants comes due for picking in larger quantities. With the herbs, for example, we'll pick them in large quantity when the plants get big and when they get ready to bolt. Then we'll dry them and crush them to fill our spice jars in the kitchen.

Other types of produce may be frozen, dried, canned, pickled or otherwise prepared and preserved for use during the winter.

It's still early in the season so many of the crops haven't ripened yet. Nevertheless, we have harvested more than 4.5 lbs of miscellaneous produce from our small garden. In a few more weeks, blueberries and blackberries will be ripening on the mountain on which we live and we'll pick pounds of them for both immediate use and freezing.

          Food Preservation Tip: When freezing blueberries, spread them out on flat baking sheets with space between each berry. Place the baking sheets into the freezer until the berries are frozen solid. Then remove them from the freezer, bag them up and put them back in the freezer. When you thaw them for use, they'll retain their shape and firmness much better than if they were initially frozen in a big lump.

Garden Produce Quality Guarantee

When we shop for produce in our backyard, we know that it has not been sprayed with whatever pesticides are legal in its country of origin, we are confident that it has not been exposed to a processing plant contaminated with salmonella or E. coli. With the prevalence of reports of widespread food-borne contagion these days, that's no small benefit.

The other thing we can be sure of when we pick produce from our garden is that it's fresh and packed full of nutrition, without the incredible amounts of sodium added to canned vegetables. With family members in the home on medically necessary low-sodium diets, that's no small benefit either.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

One Pound of Produce

Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2012.
It's May 19th. Our most recent threat of overnight frost passed on May17th with temperatures only getting down to about 34 degrees, here on Blue Job Mountain in New Hampshire. Meanwhile today, temperatures hit the high seventies or low eighties. That's a New England spring for you. Old Man Winter struggles fiercely to maintain control of the territory against the challenge laid down by the adolescent spring as it strengthens into its full adulthood of summer.

That's great for poets, but for gardeners it can take some getting used to. Its largely a question of knowing what to plant when, and how to prepare if things look like they aren't going to go as planned. To take advantage of the early season warmth and rains, very hardy plants like radishes, lettuce, spinach, peas, and broccoli can be planted for an early season harvest.

Even before these frost-tolerant plants will be close to ready to pick, however, I have made several harvests from plants that are able to overwinter through the sub-zero temperatures and snow cover of a New England winter. These include some perennial herbs such as chives and oregano, but also a more substantial perennial vegetable: asparagus.

Asparagus is always one of the first vegetables I harvest here each spring. It is on the strength of an early harvest of asparagus that I have already reach one-tenth of one percent of my goal in the 1000 Pound Challenge (the effort to grow 1000 pounds of food for the table on less than 500 square feet of garden space). That's one pound of food on the table already this year from our garden.
I also have one row of my terraced hillside garden planted with strawberries which are just beginning to shed their flower petals and to produce fruit in earnest. I am removing all the runners as they form so that the plants put more energy into fruiting than vegetative growth.

After another round of planting today, our garden now contains the following plants:
  1. Asparagus
  2. Garden Peas
  3. Mixed Lettuce
  4. Spinach
  5. Radishes
  6. Bok Choy
  7. Cucumbers (both full-sized and pickling cukes)
  8. Basil
  9. Red Cabbage
  10. Tomatoes (just a few planted outside as yet with row covers handy)
  11. Mustard Greens
  12. Garlic Chives
  13. Chives
  14. Lemon Thyme
  15. Thyme
  16. Sage
  17. Garlic
  18. Leeks
  19. Strawberries
  20. Wax beans (just planted as seeds)
  21. Sunflowers
  22. Cilantro (Coriander)
  23. Summer Squash
  24. Peppermint
  25. Chocolate Mint
We'll be adding a few more in the next few days as well...

 Outside of the gardens we have many other edible plants (or fungi):
  1. three apples trees (7 varieties thanks to the science of grafting),
  2. one peach tree (newly planted)
  3. one cherry tree (newly planted) (Note: I'm aware that I need another pollinator, but haven't yet gotten around to planting another)
  4.  three grape vines (one established, 2 newly planted)
  5. rhubarb
  6. blackberries (wild)
  7. blueberries (wild)
  8. wintergreen (wild)
  9. occasional edible wild mushrooms
  10. maple and birch trees (for sap which can be boiled down into syrup or sugar)
  11. and a number of other incidental wild edibles that can be found on our 5.25 acre plot of land.  
 I haven't added these to my garden yield totals page since they do not count toward the 1000 Pound Challenge, but I think I'll make a separate total for food plants harvested outside of the garden as well.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Audubon Society Call to Action to Save Loons

Bald eagles, loons and other aquatic birds are being poisoned
the unnecessary use of lead fishing tackle. Switching to steel
can preserve these birds without changing the fishing
Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2012.
I received an email from the NH Audubon Society this mornign and I wanted to repost it here in its entirety (as the text requests that it be redistributed as widely as possible). As you may know, I am an avid bird watcher and I enjoy recreational sport fishing. I have long been an advocate of using steel splitshot instead of lead and avoiding lead tackle of all kinds in order to protect aquatic birds.

Lead tackle ingested by ducks, loons, herons and other aquatic birds poisons and kills them. From a fisherman's viewpoint, I find no difference whatsoever in my ability to fish using steel instead of lead. Steel is roughly 68% of the density of lead. It is more than heavy enough to drag your line down in the water.Adding a tiny amount to the diameter of a steel sinker or heavy-headed jig gets you the same weight without any noticeable difference in size.

A distant loon calling late in the day, herons flying overhead, or a bald eagle sitting high in a tree overhanging the lake, and the other wildlife that can all be poisoned by the use of lead tackle are actually part of what makes fishing enjoyable and relaxing. Insisting on using lead makes no sense. Please take a moment to read the Audubon Society email below and take action to extend the current restrictions on lead tackle in New Hampshire (or your own state).

"Dear Friends of Loons,
Senate Bill 224, which would increase protection [for] aquatic birds, particularly loons, from toxic lead fishing jigs will be heard before the House Committee on Fish and Game and Marine Resources this coming Tuesday, April 24, at 1:00 p.m. in the Legislative Office Building in Concord. Your calls, emails and letters to every member of this committee (contact information below) between now and next Tuesday will be the most important thing you can do this year to assure a future for New Hampshire’s loons.
Senate Bill 224 as amended by the Senate would leave existing regulations (restricting the use and sale of lead sinkers 1 ounce or less and lead jigs less than 1 inch in length) in place through 2014, and would ban the use of lead-headed jigs less than 2.5 inches in length beginning in January of 2015.
Our loon population remains far below historic levels and the number of loon pairs on New Hampshire’s lakes decreased in 2011, after a record-high number of deaths from ingested lead tackle in 2010. This decrease occurred despite record levels of management and outreach in recent years, and continued declines are projected unless mortality from lead poisoning is addressed.
We know the toll lead tackle is taking on New Hampshire’s loons because biologists have been monitoring the State’s loon population very closely for many years. Although no specific numbers are available, biologists across North America have also documented lead fishing tackle ingested by Canada Geese, American Black Ducks, Wood Ducks, Great Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles, among other species.
It will not be easy to gain the support of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee in view of the concerted efforts of certain fishing groups and the lead tackle lobby. We need to work harder than ever to bring this bill out of committee with a convincing vote and then on to the final stage, a vote by the full House. Your help with the following actions will make all the difference in securing these critical protections for our loons and other water birds:
1. Please contact as many of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee members as you can between now and next Tuesday, April 24th to express your support for loons, waterfowl, and the important protections in SB 224.
2. If you can, please attend the hearing and sign in as supporting the bill, whether or not you choose to testify.
3. Please distribute this email as widely as you can to friends of loons and other wildlife in New Hampshire.
Numbers matter in the House; the more people committee members hear from, the more likely they will take our concerns to heart and vote to save loons and other wildlife from this needless cause of death.
Next Tuesday will be a critical day for loons in New Hampshire. I hope I will be able to report that loons won out over toxic lead fishing tackle. It’s in our power to make it so. Thank you for your continued support of our loons!
Note that the below are home phone numbers as representatives do not have offices.
House Fish & Game and Marine Resources Committee
Chairman: Clifford Newton- (603) 332-5643
V. Chairman: Dennis Reed-; (603) 934-6607
Clerk: Joe Duarte-; (603) 483-8454
Betsy McKinney-; (603) 432-5232
Michael; (603) 598-4966
Tyler Simpson-; (603) 968-9285
James Webb-; (603) 845-3454
Benjamin Lefebvre-; (603) 677-2722
Lyle Bulis- (603) 444-5024
Leo Pepino-; (603) 624-1476
Norman Tregenza-; (603) 733-6736
Daniel Carr-; (603) 239-6830
Dick Patten-; (603) 228-1803
Elisabeth Sanders- (603) 642-5070
Richard Okerman-; (603) 893-7705
Marc Tremblay-; (603) 752-1995
David Watters-; (603) 749-4539
Jenna Roberts-; (603) 868-7402"