As I write this, we’ve had some substantial rain lately, with more forecast in the near future. This time of year, everyone is ready to put winter behind them, and turn the page to another growing season. One of the first activities in the spring is tilling the soil for spring planting. However, damage can be done rather quickly by getting into the fields when soil is too wet, causing soil compaction.
Soil compaction occurs when soil aggregates and particles are compressed into a smaller volume. As soil is compacted, the amount of open pore, or void space, decreases and the density, or weight of the soil increases considerably. Excessively compacted soil can result in problems such as poor root penetration, reduced internal soil drainage, reduced rainfall infiltration, and lack of soil aeration from larger macropores. Most soil compaction occurs from machinery being driven over a field when conditions are too wet, and may lead to reduced yields of 10-20%.
To determine whether your soil is dry enough to work, a simple test can be performed. Using a trowel or a spade, dig a small amount of soil and squeeze it in your hand. Does the soil stick together in a ball or crumble apart? Soil that crumbles through your fingers when squeezed is ready to till. If, however, the soil forms a muddy ball and will not fall apart, give the soil another few days to dry, and sample again later.
If you suspect you may have soil compaction, a tool called a penetrometer may be able to help you determine your depth of soil compaction. Based on the depth and severity of compaction, you will be able to identify corrective measures. Some of these measures include deep tillage, and more recently, the use of cover crops.
For more information on soil compaction, see http://extension.psu.edu/agronomy-guide
….be sure to grow with food safety in mind
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
It is hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. Though we in Connecticut were all teased with 35-degree temperatures, we are quickly back in the deep freeze, surrounded by ugly, dirty snow piles that are just not going away.
But go away, they will…and it won’t be long before many churches, schools, community organizations and day care centers are planning, digging and planting their vegetable garden. Gardens have become very popular. It seems like everyone has or wants one: to teach kids about where their food comes from, to grow food to donate to food pantries or community organizations, to save a little money on the ever increasing food budget, or simply for a little outdoor exercise. The locally grown movement has also helped to fuel the garden trend.
If you are working with a group of folks on a community/school/church garden, have you thought beyond the seed catalogues, watering schedules or how you are going to share your bounty? Will this bounty be grown, harvested and handled post-harvest in a way that will minimize the possibility of contamination with the microorganisms that might cause foodborne illness?
Did you know that fresh produce is the number one food source of foodborne illness in the US? The Centers for Disease Control found that 46% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 were attributed to produce and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness (meat and poultry contributed to more deaths-29%).
And yet, few think as they are growing produce to be shared with school children or those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they might want to consider the fact that there are microorganisms in the soil, in bird poop or on the hands of the harvesters that could, in fact, make someone sick—especially those that may have a compromised immune system such as those that have a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are malnourished.
So what should you do? By using good gardening and harvesting practices, you can help to reduce potential food safety risks from the food you grow.
When planning your garden…
Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, garbage cans, septic systems, run-off from any potential sources of contamination, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or pets roam. Test soil for contaminants, particularly lead, prior to planting. If lead levels are greater than 100 ppm, precautions should be taken as outlined in the document, Soil Lead Interpretation Sheet, available from the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory at 860-486-4274. Do you want to use compost? To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130°F. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Don’t use untreated manure in a garden that feeds a community group, school or neighborhood.
Know your water source and its potential for contamination. Irrigate using water from an approved public water system. You can be sure that water from a municipal or public water system is safe and potable (drinkable). However, water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry and is more risky. Even water from a rain barrel can be contaminated – best to save that for non-edible plants. If well water is used, be sure to test it at least annually to ensure its safety. During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden, as animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage other animals.
During harvest time…
People who are sick, particularly with vomiting or diarrhea should not work in the garden or harvest produce. Everyone should wash their hands with soap and water before and after harvesting fresh produce. Do you have hand-washing facilities nearby? Harvest into clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade. If children are helping out, be sure they are supervised by adults who understand safe harvesting practices. It is best not to let them eat fresh picked food before it is washed. If tools are used for harvesting (knives, clippers), make sure that they are cleaned regularly and designated only for garden use.
If you choose to wash fruits and vegetables before storing, be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean paper towel. (NEVER wash berries until you are ready to eat them). If you choose to store without washing, shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Store unwashed produce in plastic bags or containers. Keep fruit and vegetable bins clean.
When washing produce fresh from the warm outdoors, the rinse water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than the produce. If you are washing refrigerated produce, use cold water. Fresh fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored below 41° F. Those that are safe to store at room temperature (onions, potatoes, whole, uncut tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.
By Karen Filchak – Extension Educator – Residential Environmental & Water Quality
Water for farms and gardens can come from several possible sources, including wells, municipal sources, ponds and rain barrels. Some water sources are more likely than others to be harboring harmful pathogens that might contaminate your garden goodies with salmonella and E. Coli and other creepy things. Public water supplies are monitored and treated for contaminants, so city dwelling gardeners are usually pretty safe. But it’s up to the home gardener to have the garden’s water source tested (private well, rain barrel or pond) before watering the garden’s edibles.
Can You Wash Away Those Garden Worries?
Is your watering hose attached to a well, a pond or your local public water supply? You may think that this is not a question that needs to be asked this year, when we have been deluged with ample water from the sky for months now. Things can change quickly enough, though. I am currently sitting on my sister’s porch in Virginia looking out on a lawn that is golden brown. They had a wet spring too. You may be turning on the spigot soon enough. August could be dry as a bone.
Several foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have been attributed to irrigation water that is contaminated with a variety of pathogens. In 2003, green onions from Mexico sickened 500 and killed 3 people. Irrigation water was thought to be the source of the hepatitis A virus that caused the illnesses. Remember the E. coli outbreak attributed to spinach a few years ago? While a definitive cause has never been identified, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers contamination of surface/ground water by manure from a nearby ranch as one possible source. And, more recently a salmonella outbreak tied to Serrano peppers may also have been the result of contaminated irrigation water.
Water can be the source of a variety of pathogens or microorganisms that cause food or water borne illness, including E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Cyclospora cayetanensis, and the Norwalk and hepatitis A viruses. A lot of research is going on right now to figure out if these microorganisms are simply hanging out on the surface of crops (which means you can wash them off) or if they are actually finding their way INTO the plant from contaminated soil or irrigation water. This is why commercial farmers are being asked to pay attention to the source of their water.
We always think that these outbreaks are only going to happen on big factory farms. But, the bugs that cause foodborne illness are just as likely to be in your compost, your soil, on your hands or in the bird poop that lands on your very own lettuce crop. And, they can also turn up in well water or pond water you use to water your garden. Or, maybe in the rain barrel that is catching the rain off your roof (that same roof where pigeons, squirrels and other wildlife like to frolic and perch).
Just like commercial farmers, home gardeners use water for irrigation (we call it watering), sometimes to apply pesticides and to clean produce of the major dirt before we bring it inside.
Water for farms and gardens can come from three possible sources (not counting rain). Municipal or public water systems are the best source of water for use on fruits and vegetables. They have the lowest risk of contamination. Public water supplies are monitored and treated for contaminants. Private wells that are tested annually and found to be safe are also unlikely to contaminate produce. Ground water is less likely to have microbial contaminants than surface water. Surface water (ponds and streams) is most likely to be affected by watershed activities and season and, therefore, present the greatest risk of contamination from harmful pathogens. Rain barrels have become quite popular, but there is not a lot of research out there addressing the risk of microbiological contamination from this water source. So…If you use a public water supply there is no issue, really.
- If you have a well, test your well water at least once per year.
At the same time, it is always a good idea to check the condition of your well, well cap, and the area around your well. If there are any signs of a maintenance problem or indications of access by mice or other wild life, have it professionally evaluated and fixed. Also, if you notice changes in your water quality, such as cloudiness after a storm, this may indicate that surface water is contaminating your well. Have it checked and test the water.
- If you use surface water, do a baseline test.
It might not be a bad idea to do a baseline test to determine the quality of that water. Surface water is the source MOST likely to be contaminated with microorganisms that can cause illness. So, water that is heavily contaminated may not be a good choice for watering edible crops.
- If you use a rain barrel, keep in mind that the jury is still out on this one.
Some dismiss the notion that there is risk from salmonella from bird or squirrel poop or other microbial contamination. But, if you do have the option, it might be best to save rain barrel water for use on non-edible plants.
- Where should you test, what does it all mean?
If you need to test your water source (well or surface), how do you do this and what to the tests mean? Water testing can be useful tool, providing you with information about the quality and safety of your water supply. First, you can go to Connecticut’s Department of Public Health website to find a list of licensed environmental laboratories in Connecticut or contact your local health department.
Standard/conventional water tests will tell you if your water supply contains “fecal coliforms” or “generic” E.coli. The presence of these organisms shows that your well is contaminated with bacteria, but does not tell you about the presence of pathogens (bacteria, viruses or parasites that can make you sick) like E. coli O157:H7. Only a small portion of E. coli strains are pathogenic. If you are concerned about possible contamination by specific bacteria or other pathogens, you should request that your water sample be tested for these.
While standards do exist for drinking or potable water (find them at the EPA website), there are no universally accepted standards for irrigation water used on fruits or vegetables. In California, current recommendations follow a guidance level of 1000 fecal coliform or 126 generic E. coli per 100 ml of water. You might consider using this level to guide your own use of surface water on the home garden.
Paying attention to the source of the water used in your garden is a good idea. And it doesn’t take much time or money. The lucky recipient of your extra zucchini will surely appreciate it. It doesn’t take too much time to do things right.
Photo and article by Carol Quish for UConn Extension
The basics of keeping a worm farm are easy. Explaining why you would want to have one is a little harder to justify to people, particularly family members. Having been a worm farmer for over twenty years, my family finally just accepts and then ignores the fact there is a bin in the laundry room holding more than dirty laundry.
Reasons I keep worms:
– Composting indoors in the winter and all year round. (No smell)
– For the rich castings they produce for plants.
– They are a very low input pet.
– Free fish bait.
– No yard needed.
To get started, a container, bedding and food are needed. For one pound of worms, a plastic bin, two feet by two feet and at least eight inches high will work. Any size will really do, as the worms are not that picky. Choose one with light blocking sides as clear ones let in light. Worms do not like light.
Drill air and drainage holes through the plastic top, sides and bottom. The vegetable scraps will be of high water content, releasing moisture as they decompose to the point that the worms can digest it. This liquid can and will drain out of the bottom. Place a catch tray of any type under the bin to protect floor and surfaces. This drained water can be diluted in a watering can to be used on plants as a fertilizer.
Fill the bin with shredded newspaper, no glossy sections, colored and black and white print is okay. The worms will live in and eat this paper. Moisten the paper with water so it is as wet as a wrung out sponge. Worms breathe through their skin, which must be kept moist. Feed the worms by pulling back some of the newspaper to bury the food scraps. The worms will find it. One pound of worms will eat one pound of food wastes each day! The food will not disappear right away. It will need to decompose a bit first. All food scrapes can be used except meat, dairy, oils, bones or pet waste.
The type of worm to use is not native to the Northeast, nor can you dig up worms from the yard and expect them to live in this confined environment. Red Wigglers is the common name of the composting worm best suited to life in a bin. Their Latin name is Eisenia foetida. They are available at bait shops and online. Ask for them by the Latin name to be sure of their identity. The Worm Ladies of Charleston, Rhode Island is a reputable seller of the correct composting worms.www.wormladies.com
Not all worms are alike. Nightcrawlers prefer to live a solitary life, alone in a long tube going several feet deep. They only come out at night to feed and mate, retreating back alone into its hole by daybreak. Several other worms live in our soils, but they feed at different levels and move to different areas to find food. These mobile worms will not like living in a confined space either.
Harvest the castings after most of the bedding food has been transformed into dark brown, crumbly material. Dump the bin on a tarp outside on a bright day. Worms do not like the light and will move downward into the dark. Scrape off the top inch or so of castings to watch the worms move further down. Pretty soon you will have a pile of wormless castings and a pile of worms. Put the ball of squiggling worms back into the bin with new strips of newspaper moistened with water and begin the process again. The harvested casting can be used in the garden around the plants and worked into the soil. Your plants will thank you for it.
I will admit, planting zinnias (or any flowers for that matter) in between corn plants is not something I had considered until admiring the attractive combination in the vegetable garden at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, home of the Worcester County Horticultural Society.
Last Thursday the MNLA Summer Field Day was held at this 132 acre botanic garden in Boylston, MA and afterwards I had time to tour some of the inspirational gardens and plantings.
Tower Hill boasts a number of gorgeous gardens and intriguing plant collections including a charming Cottage Garden, the Secret Garden with its fountain and pergola, a great Lawn Garden framed with unique cultivars of trees and shrubs underplanted with perennials, groundcovers and bulb, the Systemic Garden with its Italianate design and interesting garden ornaments and the Winter Garden with its wonderful turtle fountains. There is much more to see if you find the time to visit Tower Hill and stroll through the grounds. Read more…
Ten Tips for the July Gardener:
- Inspect garden plants regularly for insect and disease problems.
- Sanitation practices, insecticidal soaps, and insect traps are alternatives to pesticides.
- Properly placed shade trees will reduce air conditioning costs.
- Try shade tolerant ground covers in areas where lack of sunlight limits grass growth.
- Yellow leaves of cucurbits and tomatoes may indicate waterlogged conditions or the need for nitrogen because of all the rain we have received last month. Fertilize if necessary.
- Raise your mowing height to 3 inches during hot weather.
- Cucumbers get bitter if water is lacking during ripening.
- Tomato hornworms are large green caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomatoes and related plants. Hand-pick or control with B.t.
- Cut back mums, tall asters, Montauk daisies and helianthus by about one-quarter for bushy, more floriferous plants.
- Hummingbirds are attracted to red salvia, coral bells and bee balm.
Mary Concklin, UConn Extension Educator for Fruit Production and IPM offers this quick tip on dealing with Japanese Beetles:
Using the Japanese beetle traps will actually attract the beetles to your planting. Instead, if you have the traps, place them at least 100 feet from the planting to try to draw them away from the plants.
1) One 14 by 20 inch or so dark plastic (not clear plastic) storage bin with lid
2) Another storage container that this first plastic storage bin will fit into or a foil turkey cooking pan that your bin can be set in.
3) Newspapers to shred for bedding (no glossy sections but the comics are okay!)
The first storage bin, which will contain the worms and their bedding, needs to have drainage holes drilled into it. We will have a couple of drills on hand if you are not able to make about 15 to 20 one-quarter inch holes on the bottom of the container for drainage (worm tea) and about the same on the sides for air.
Located at the Tolland County Agricultural Center is the Daffodil Labyrinth, a spring labyrinth made from flowers. When the yellow daffodils of spring appear in late March so does the labyrinth. As the daffodils fade in April violet grape hyacinths appear to hold the pattern into May. As summer arrives the labyrinth is mowed and vanishes until the following spring.
The labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness and has been found in all cultures and religions. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering, but purposeful, path representing a journey to our own center and back again out into the world. Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools.
This labyrinth was planted in the Fall of 2008 with 800 daffodils, each accompanied by a grape hyacinth.