vegetable garden

Can I Water Vegetables with my Rain Barrel Water?

By Joan Allen

Originally published by the UConn Home & Garden Education Center

rain barrel against side of house in with shrubs
Photo credit: CT DEEP

Collection of rain water from roofs using rain barrels is growing in popularity because of its many environmental and practical benefits. It can help the environment by diverting water that might contain contaminants away from storm drains and the natural bodies of water that those empty into.  Depletion of well water can be a benefit when this non-potable water is used instead of the tap for things like washing cars, irrigation of plants, and flushing toilets. If you’re on a city/public water system, it can save money to use rain water where you can, too. But is using rain water to irrigate vegetables and fruits safe? Are there contaminants in it that could make people sick? Let’s take a look at what’s been studied.

A few universities in the U.S and abroad have done some work to look at potential contaminants in roof run-off water including heavy metals like zinc, copper, lead and others as well as bacteria such as E. coli and other pathogens. Testing done so far has shown low risk from these, but there is some. And of course, it depends on the type of roofing material, the environment (ie acid rain, urban vs. rural, etc) and possibly other factors. In one study, most of the metals tested the same in rain barrel water as in rain water before it hit the roofs, so little to no concern there. One exception was zinc, and elevated levels could lead to build up of this element in soils. At high enough levels, this can cause injury to plants and those plants should not be consumed (1). Monitor for this by having the soil tested.

While risk appears to be low, there were a few samples in studies (1, 2) where E. coli or total coliform bacterial levels exceeded official standards for some uses. Rain barrel water should NEVER be used for potable purposes such as drinking water, cooking or washing. Where do the bacteria in run-off come from? The main sources would be fecal matter from animals such as squirrels and birds that land and move around on the roof.

But if you’d like to water your vegetable garden with rain barrel water, are there ways to do it safely?

Dr. Mike Dietz, Assistant Extension Educator at UConn with expertise in water management recommends “not using roof water on anything leafy that you are going to eat directly. It would be OK to water soil/plants where there is no direct contact”. This is consistent with recommendations from other experts who suggest applying the water directly to the soil and avoiding contact with above-ground plant parts. An ideal set-up would be to hook up a drip irrigation system to your rain barrel(s). Pressure will be improved when they are full and if they are elevated. A full rain barrel can be pretty heavy, at about 500 lbs. for a 55 gallon unit, so make sure they are on a solid and stable base such as concrete blocks.

If possible, and this is done in larger collection systems automatically, don’t collect the ‘first flush’ of water off the roof. This would be the first few gallons. In a ¼” rainfall as much as 150 gallons can be collected from a 1000 ft2 roof surface (3). The first water to run off tends to have higher concentrations of any contaminants because of them building up on the roof since the previous rainfall event.

Another more practical way to minimize risk of pathogen/bacterial contamination is to treat the collected water with bleach. Rutgers University recommends treating 55 gallons of water by adding one ounce of unscented household chlorine bleach to the barrel once a month (or more often if rain is frequent). Allow this to stand for 24 hours before using the water for irrigation so the bleach can dissipate.

Apply collected water in the morning. Wait until leaves dry in the sun before harvesting. Ultraviolet light from the sun will have some disinfecting effect.

It is recommended to have the rain barrel water tested for E. coli. Be sure to follow the testing lab’s instructions for collection, storage and time sensitivity of the samples.

Thoroughly wash all harvested produce. In addition, you should always thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water after they are in contact with collected water.

In summary, there are risks to using collected rain water for irrigation of food crops. In most cases, the risk appears to be low, and using the above sanitation practices can reduce risk.

References:

  1. DeBusk, K., W. Hunt, D. Osmond and G. Cope. 2009. Water quality of rooftop runoff: implications for residential water harvesting systems. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.
  2. Bakacs, M., M. Haberland and S. Yergeau. 2017. Rain barrels part IV: testing and applying harvested water to irrigate a vegetable garden. Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Fact Sheet FS1218.
  3. Rainfall as a resource. A resident’s guide to rain barrels in Connecticut. CT DEEP.

Save Summer Flavor: Freeze Fruits and Vegetables

blueberries-MNHow to save summer flavor for winter: freezing fruits and vegetables

By Diane Wright Hirsch

UConn Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

It has been a wonderful year for growing fruits and vegetables in Connecticut. A trip to your backyard vegetable garden, local farmers’ market or maybe the nearby pick-your-own orchard, even late in the season, will attest to this: bins and shelves are still overflowing with beautiful tomatoes, raspberries, green beans and corn. But, soon it will all be gone and we will be wishing that we had stashed some away for the long winter.

 

There is a way to fix this–without turning to imports from China or Chile or even the well-traveled produce from California, which begins to lose nutritional value as soon as it is picked. Freeze your local produce, whether it is from your garden or the farmer down the road. If done right, freezing can preserve the flavor and health-giving benefits of summer fresh fruits and vegetables. IF DONE RIGHT.

 

Freezing is easy, requires no special equipment and is often the home food preservation method of choice. Many people do not want to use a canner or pressure canner. It can be a little scary if you do not know what you are doing. Keep in mind, though, that freezing can be a more costly way of preserving than canning. It requires that you have a freezer that can hold all of the food you want to freeze at 0°F and, if you choose single use plastic freezer bags, they can be expensive. But, it is less time consuming and most folks prefer the flavor and texture of frozen foods.

 

Another thing to keep in mind is that you may not be able to reproduce the commercially frozen products that you are used to. Unless you have a blast freezer in the basement! The frozen foods you buy in the grocery store is often picked and processed the same day. This is always best, though not always possible when you are waiting for your garden to produce enough green beans to make the job worth it. Also, they are freezing food very fast at very low temperatures that create very small crystals and prevent mushiness and texture changes that may occur during home freezing.

 

Freezing produce at home

You can’t just wash your produce, cut it up and throw it in the freezer without much thought. Well you can, but the result will be just as tasteless as a January tomato. People need to know that while the temperature of a freezer keeps food safe, it will not preserve the quality of your produce without some help.

 

After harvest, fruits and vegetables undergo chemical changes which can cause spoilage and deterioration of the product. This is why these products should be frozen as soon after harvest as possible and at their peak degree of ripeness. Fresh produce contains chemical compounds called enzymes which can cause flavor, color and texture changes, and the loss of vitamins and minerals even while stored in the freezer. These enzymes must be inactivated to prevent these reactions.

 

When freezing vegetables, you can inactivate the enzymes by blanching—or dropping them into boiling water or steaming for a short time. Cool the vegetable quickly in ice water to keep it from cooking. Even though blanching can be a bother, in most cases it is absolutely essential for producing quality frozen vegetables. The exceptions to this rule are peppers, onions and herbs, which do not need to be blanched.

 

Fruits are a bit different. The major problem associated with enzymes in fruits is the development of brown colors and loss of vitamin C. Because fruits are usually served raw, they cannot be blanched like vegetables. Instead, home food preservers control the browning and loss of vitamins with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), an anti-oxidant. Ascorbic acid may be used in its pure form or in commercial mixtures (such as “Fruit Fresh”). This is more effective than the use of lemon juice.

 

Often you will see recipes that suggest that you freeze fruits with sugar or in a light sugar syrup. Though many folks today are sugar phobic, keep in mind that the quality of many fruits (peaches, apples) is not as good when packed without sugar. Sugar helps to preserve both the flavor and texture of frozen fruits. If you are planning to use the fruits to make jams or preserves later on, or, if there are health concerns such as diabetes, then, of course, freeze in plain water or dry.

 

Frozen fruits and vegetables can also suffer a variety of changes—flavor and texture—when the product is not well protected from the air. You might have heard it referred to as freezer burn. You can control this problem by using materials for packaging that are made specifically for the freezer—plastic wraps, plastic bags, hard sided plastic containers or even glass. You should not consider this an opportunity to re-use plastic containers that may have once held cottage cheese, yogurt or other non-frozen foods. Economically and environmentally speaking, you may want to invest in re-usable freezer containers that may be found in grocery, farm supply or department stores next to the home canning supplies. Glass works well, too, but special care must be taken to avoid breakage, including leaving enough space for the food to expand while freezing.

 

Keep in mind also that while freezing preserves safety and quality, there are some foods that will simply be different after you freeze them. Some fruits and vegetables are naturally high in moisture. When frozen, the moisture freezes and causes the cells of the plant to burst. Once thawed, these products will be softer than when fresh—no matter how careful you are. So, tomatoes, many fruits, summer squash and greens once frozen will be better suited to mixed dishes, sauces or soups. It doesn’t make much sense to freeze cabbage (develops off flavors), celery, cucumbers, endive, lettuce, or radishes.

 

Frozen fruits and vegetables will maintain good quality for one year if packed well and kept in a freezer at 0°F.

 

Freezing Green or Yellow Beans

Pick young tender beans that snap when broken. Harvest while seeds are small and tender. Wash, snip off tips and sort for size. Cut or break into suitable pieces or freeze small beans whole. Blanch 3½ minutes. Chill in ice water. Drain, pack in freezer container.

 

Peaches

Choose well ripened fruit of good quality. Wash in cold water and sort. Dip 3 or 4 peaches into boiling water until skins loosen—15-20 seconds. Peel and slice peaches into containers one-third full of syrup (3 cups sugar to 1 quart water with 1⁄2 teaspoon ascorbic acid). Make sure to leave a head-space of at least ½ inch to allow for expansion of the liquid during freezing.

 

For specific instructions for freezing fruits and vegetables, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center by phone at (877) 486-6271 or by email to ladybug@uconn.eduor contact the National Center for Home Food Preparation at: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp.

10 Tips for the August Gardener

Bishop tomatoes1.      Fertilize container plantings.

2.      Pick summer squash and zucchini every day or two to keep the plants in production.

3.      Pick up and destroy any fallen summer fruits/vegetables to reduce pests and disease for next year.

4.      Continue to stake tomatoes and allow them to ripen on the plants for the best flavor. The exception is cherry tomatoes, which are prone to splitting. Pick any ripe or almost ripe tomatoes before a rain.

5.      Renovate strawberry beds in late August.

6.      Make note of where vegetables are planted in the garden so that crops can be rotated next year.

7.      Do not add weeds with mature seed heads to the compost pile.

8.      Water fruiting shrubs such as hollies and firethorn to ensure that berries mature and don’t drop.

9.      Check hanging plants and containers daily. The wind and sun can dry them out.

10.  Reseed the lawn in late August. Be sure to keep the seed moist until germination.

For more information please visit the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or UConn Extension.

Photo: Jude Boucher for UConn Extension

Barnum 4-H School Garden

This was originally posted by Organic Gardening 365. Read the entire blog post here.

barnum sign

Question: What do you get when you cross the savvy leadership training skills of 4-H with a Bridgeport, CT school that wants to teach kids responsibility through gardening?

Answer: The Barnum School 4-H Garden.

The Barnum School 4-H Garden is a display of hard work and great pride. They grow a wonderful variety of fresh vegetables and have a couple of apple trees.

These kids are learning the basic gardening skills of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, etc. The kids are learning about growing and eating healthy food, and developing some wonderful life skills in the process.They also learn how to correct their mistakes. When they pick the tomatillos, for example, they have learned to look for the ones that were ripe by examining the papery shells. They also realized that the carrots had been planted a little too close together and hadn’t been thinned out. That’s why some of them were so small. They are learning the things we all have learned as we try new things and new ideas in the garden.

When asked what they liked best about gardening. The replies included – “Planting, watering, harvesting.” “Watching everything grow!” “Eating what you grow yourself.”

One of the lessons of the day was: Insects in the garden. Did you know that a ladybug’s wings beat 85 times a second?

barnum vegetablesThere are 25 kids in the Barnum School Garden Club. The program runs most of the school year, except the dead of winter, and part of the summer, is now two years old. Half the kids come on Mondays and Wednesdays. The others come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Debbi Forgette, who is a Special Ed Para for pre-K to 2nd grade during the school year, is the teacher.

Debbi explained how important this program has been to all the kids involved:

“It has a calming effect on them. We all work together as a team. We learn how to cook and it gives them opportunities to grow in various ways and helps develop their leadership skills.”

But it’s not just about gardening. One guest speaker taught them how to make a video presentation. Another class focused on how marketers package and place their products in stores to get more people to buy them. We are talking about life lessons here which are the cornerstone of 4-H

There were many helping hands involved all along the way to make the Barnum School Garden productive. Ede Valiquette, 4-H Director for Fairfield County, CT visited several schools in the area looking for the right fit and Barnum School Principal, Dr. Ralph Paladino, caught the vision. Many volunteer hours were racked up in constructing the numerous raised beds and Grillo Services, an organic landscape supply company in Milford, CT contributed multiple bags of organic soil for the garden. Kerry Karlson, a Master Gardener, designed and helped the kids plant the garden. The Site Coordinator, Veronica Swain, helps in every phase of the project including teaching the classes.

If you are interested in starting a garden project at your kids’ school, a good place to start is with your local 4-H office. 4-H is well connected with each state’s Extension Service and can offer ideas and perhaps support to get you started.

James Early

Organic Gardening 365

Helping you get the most out of your garden

Double Duty – A Vegetable Garden That Looks as Good as it Tastes!

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.

corn-zinnias
Corn interplanted with zinnias.

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

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Ten Tips for the July Gardener:

  1. Inspect garden plants regularly for insect and disease problems.
  2. Sanitation practices, insecticidal soaps, and insect traps are alternatives to pesticides.
  3. Properly placed shade trees will reduce air conditioning costs.
  4. Try shade tolerant ground covers in areas where lack of sunlight limits grass growth.
  5. 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.
  6. Raise your mowing height to 3 inches during hot weather.
  7. Cucumbers get bitter if water is lacking during ripening.
  8. Tomato hornworms are large green caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomatoes and related plants. Hand-pick or control with B.t.
  9. Cut back mums, tall asters, Montauk daisies and helianthus by about one-quarter for bushy, more floriferous plants.
  10. Hummingbirds are attracted to red salvia, coral bells and bee balm.