Spring Beekeeping Workshop

Spring Beekeeping Workshop
Demonstration Hive

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Disaster Strikes - Again!

OK - so I can't always be upbeat but I'm turning lemons into lemonade by learning - every failure is a chance for education, right?!

This time my garden has been hit by Bacterial Soft Rot. This disease attacks many different types of vegetables and has shown up in a large bed of garlic. The first indication that something was wrong appeared in mid-June when I noticed that a lot of the stalks were turning yellow and brown and flopping over. Garlic will do that later in the season and that's when you know the bulbs are ready to pull up. This was much too early.

I tugged on those affected stems and the bulbs came right out of the ground with no resistance whatsoever. The bulbs had no roots and were soft, mushy and very stinky! A sure sign of a bacterial disease.

This disease is caused by an organism called Erwinia carotovora and may occur where soils are wet. My soil is very well-drained, bordering on droughty so I was surprised to see this problem. I have gardened here for 30 years and haven't had any problems before last year - remember the late blight on the tomatoes?

I quickly pulled up all the garlic, separating the unaffected bulbs from the diseased ones. The latter went in plastic bags and into the trash. I did not want to put them in the compost pile for fear of spreading the disease around, in case the compost does not get hot enough to kill off the bacteria. It's not worth taking a chance.

The salvageable bulbs were cleaned off and left to dry spread out on a wire mesh bench in a hot greenhouse for about a week. Then I brushed off any remaining soil on the bulbs and put them in mesh onion bags to keep.

Because the garlic is not mature, I don't think the bulbs will store through the winter so I plan on making lots of pesto, sauces, and chopping and freezing the raw garlic for later use.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In the interests of staying positive and being part of the solution to the problems of the world, and as an antidote to my despair in the last post, I offer the following little piece about how to grow vegetables in containers. Growing your own vegetables is among the healthiest of activities - nutritious food, physical output of energy (i.e. exercise), reduce household bills.

Recently, I taught a workshop at Westmoor Park in West Hartford, CT, on container gardening. The City of West Hartford was giving away an excess of recycling bins (the typical blue rectangular bins used by cities for this purpose) that could be used for growing vegetables.

Here is the gist of what I taught the workshop attendees.

Almost anyone can grow vegetables of some kind even living in an urban apartment. If you have a balcony, a window box, a fire escape, a roof top, a front stoop, you can have a container garden.

TYPES OF CONTAINERS: Boxes, bushel baskets, plastic bags, clay pots, half-barrels, wire cages and plastic pails, are just some of the useful objects that can be turned into gardens. Regardless of the type, all containers must have holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. Punch or drill holes into containers that do not already have them. At least three holes approximately 1/2 inch in diameter are needed in a container the size of a 5-gallon pail. More if the container is bigger.

Containers no bigger than 6 inches across are fine for chives and most other small herbs. A 12 inch pot (diameter) will grow lettuce, radishes, onions, miniature tomatoes and even carrots, depending on the variety. A large tub, 18-24 inches in diameter is adequate for tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes or even sweet corn. It may be possible to grow 2 or more types of vegetables in a tub that size.

Hanging baskets are easily used for vining plants such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, squash etc. In this case, the plants hang down instead of climbing up.

SOIL: Successful container growing requires soil with certain characteristics. The soil must be lightweight, well-drained and well-aerated - i.e. able to retain moisture and nutrients, and be free from diseases, weed seeds, and insect pests. Ordinary soil from the garden is too heavy and tends to get compacted in a pot causing poor root growth and stunted plants.

An easy option is to purchase a soilless mix from a garden center or hardware store. There are several brands available. Or, you can mix your own potting mixture by using 1/3 garden soil that has been pasteurized (see below), 1/3 clean sand - like sand box sand, not road sand that may have salt included, and 1/3 well-rotted compost - purchased or home-made.

To pasteurize garden soil, spread the soil 2-3 inches deep in a roasting pan and heat in an oven at 180 degrees for 1 hour.

Mix the soil ingredients together with 2 tablespoons of ground limestone per batch of soil for a 5 gallon tub size.

LIGHT: Take a good look at the place where your container garden will be located. Is it a patio where the sun shines most of the day? Or, is it a balcony receiving only a few hours of full sun? Vegetables can be grouped according to their light needs:

Shade Tolerant - lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, Swiss chard, cabbage, Chinese greens, etc.
Partial Shade - 2-3 hours of sun per day - carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, onions etc.
Full Sun - 6 or more hours of sun per day - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, squash
(all fruiting crops).

Where space is limited, it is fun to grow a shade tolerant plant in the same pot with a sun-thirsty one. Choose a tall, sun-loving plant like tomatoes that can be staked in the center of the pot. Around the edge, plant a circle of leafy greens. Also, a vining, sun-lover such as cucumber could be grown under the tomato since the plant will drape over the side of the pot and away from the shade cast by the upright, staked tomato.

WATERING: All plants need water to live and grow and container plants have special needs in this regard. Potted plants have only the volume of the container from which to draw water. Moisture in the pot is used quickly by rapidly growing plants, especially in full sun and in the heat of summer. High temperature, wind and bright light accelerates the plants' use of water.

Water as often as necessary to keep the soil moist and the plants from wilting. A rule of thumb is to water whenever the soil is dry a finger-length down from the top. Containers may have to be watered every day or sometimes twice a day if the weather is very hot and the plant very large.

Water slowly and use enough to soak the pot - water should run out of the holes at the bottom of the pot. Stop watering and allow the pot to drain freely. Do not let the water collect in a tray under the pot as this will cause the soil in the pot to become waterlogged and poorly aerated. It is important that air circulates through the soil to provide oxygen for the roots.

Use a watering can or small spray nozzle on a hose to water your pots. Put the spout or nozzle over the top of the pot at the soil surface so as not to wet the foliage. This conserves water and puts the water into the root zone where it is needed.


As with watering, potted plants have only a small reservoir of soil from which to draw essential nutrients. Also, watering washes (leaches) nutrients out of the soil. Rapidly growing plants have a constant need for nutrients. On the other hand, container grown vegetables are sensitive to excess ferilizer or salt build-up.

To provide the nutrients your plants need, follow these guidelines:

Fertilize regularly with soluble fertilizer such as a chemical product (the blue stuff that comes in little boxes!) or a natural product such as seaweed or fish emulsion. I recommend mixing the fertilizer at half the dose stated on the packet and using that mixture 4-5 times a week. Once each week water with clear water and make sure to use plenty of water to flush out excess nutrients that might create a salt build-up in the soil.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What is the solution to the wholesale attack on our environment? I don't mean only this one oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I mean THE WHOLE ENVIRONMENT! All over the world are environmental catastrophes at least as gigantic as the Gulf oil spill.

I am complicit in the oil spill. We all are. If we drive a car, get on airplanes, eat supermarket food, and turn on electricity, we are complicit. We have created the demand that the oil and power companies fill. Our demand gives license for the corporations to press Congress to allow our economy to muddle along without necessary changes. Our elected representatives can't make the difficult decision to move us towards a different model.Why?

Because we are too complacent.

I can't describe the pain I feel when looking at the pictures of the damage from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So I won't try. I've stopped looking at them. I can't stop the insult to wildlife and wetlands and people's lives. Looking at the pictures won't help me to feel more angry or help me to figure out a solution. I'm not there. I can't be there. And, there are people there, more qualified and skilled than I, who are trying to intervene and save ecosystems. If a general call goes out for volunteers, then I may go and lend my efforts. In the meantime, anguishing over photographs of oil coated mammals and birds and oil-slicked coastlines is making me ill and not helping anything.

Are we at a tipping point, at least, where enough people and governments will wake up and start to say, Enough? I think we are close, at any rate. I have to be optimistic that it is not too late to save our planet in a recognizable form. Probably too late for climate change deaths to keep happening. We already saw thousands die in France a few summers ago from unusually high summer temperatures, New Orleans almost wiped out from unusually severe Hurricane Katrina, severe droughts in several tropical countries, etc. These things are not coincidental.

I get discouraged when friends and relatives continue to live in a way that seems oblivious to the problems. Mired in personal struggles for economic security, or hanging on to privileged lives, people don't want to face up to the fact that the oil era is coming to an end. What will that mean? If I bring the subject up, I get blank stares or pat answers. Science and technology will find a solution, they say. I hope that happens but perhaps we cannot wait around for that to happen.

Similarly the subject of toxins in our water, food chain and households has not caused an outcry from the masses, for new standards. Most people must have read that we are literally living in a chemical soup - with industrial and agricultural chemicals, synthetic medicines, antibiotics and hormones all around us in what we eat, drink and breathe. But people carry on as usual.

I speak to relatives and find out too often that someone else has cancer or has died from cancer, at younger and younger ages. Alzheimers disease (possibly connected to our food and chemicals such as aluminum), childhood autism and asthma, food allergies, attention deficit disorder, etc. have increased so much as to be almost epidemic. Young girls reaching puberty at younger and younger ages because of reproductive hormones in our food supply. Young boys with enlarged breasts, for the same reason. You can see these things if you look around.

Many people I know don't want to talk about it or face up to it. Instead, lulled into a false sense of plenty by the shiny, artificially ripened and pumped up fruits and vegetables in supermarkets, we go on and pretend everything is alright.

It is not alright..

We have to make a change.

We need leadership and help to figure out how to live without the oil. How to make a living without oil. How to eat without oil.

It won't change until we each take the responsibility to look this 4-eyed monster in the face and change ourselves.

I know that the change we need starts with me. Right here inside me I must change my own dependency on oil and all the products that come from the oil-dependent industrial model we currently have. And I must find a way to pass this change on to other people in a way that helps them see what we all need to do. Not in an ego way. Not telling people. That doesn't work.

We all have to come to know for ourselves that we all can make change happen if we take the time to look inside ourselves and ask honestly, How am I responsible for what is happening? How can I take responsibility, me, myself, not someone else.

I know I am making the change. It is hard. It is very hard when people you love, scoff, make jokes, or roll their eyes and change the subject. But I can't take this personally. All movements in history were unpopular in their time before they took on an energy of their own. I think we are close to this energy taking off. We who are involved in trying to change from the inside-out must keep on quietly showing the way, teaching and demonstrating a new way and speaking out, asking for help from those who do have answers and asking for government to help us do this.