Thursday, January 20, 2011

Grow Your Own

It seems that interest in growing more of your own food continues to gain steam. It’s hard to say what is fueling this phenomenon. Concerns about food quality? Trying to save a buck or two? Fretting over the environment? I don’t know. There must be a survey out there somewhere that sheds light on this.

For many years, gardening has been identified as America’s leading hobby. Add to this the growing interest in food and you’ve got something special. Farmers markets are springing up everywhere. Locally grown food is automatically gourmet. Suddenly, every other person you meet wants to keep honey bees…. my introduction to beekeeping course is sold out.

The good news is that Penn State Extension is ready, willing and able to help. We’ve been teaching people how to grow food for about 100 years. Publications are a good example of this. This fall, a brand new guide to vegetable gardening, authored by Elsa Sanchez, Associate Professor of Horticulture and her co-horts at Penn State was published. Fifty eight pages of research-based, (but user-friendly) information on the vegetable crops we love. It is cleverly titled Vegetable Gardening. Hey, if you want the sizzle rather than the steak your local Land Grant University is not the place to go… but we do have the goods.

An equally good publication for fruit growers, Fruit Production for the Home Gardner is 186 pages of powerful information on strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and other fruit culture.
These two are good examples but just the tip of the iceberg. Go to the College of Ag Sciences web site and dig for more. We can teach you how to grow just about anything. Livestock, too.

Some folks learn better with a bit classroom instruction. In Bucks County, we’ve been conducting a short course called Living on A Few Acres for about 25 years. Now it is being offered throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. In this course you not only learn how to pick a ripe watermelon, you’ll find out how to tell if that hen is laying eggs, too! Call us at 215-345-3283 for registration information on the Bucks County course or this site in other counties.

Some folks have an urge to go to the next level. Start farming. That’s a big step up from gardening. But it happens all of the time. Penn State recognized this need and is now engaged in a major effort to help those who want to grow food for profit. You can check out the extensive list of course offerings and more at the Start Farming website.

Got kids? Are they between the ages of 8 and 18? If so, they can get a real fine, agricultural, hands-on experience through our 4-H youth program. Sheep, chickens, beef, turkeys, tomatoes, you name it. Ask for Bob Brown when you call our office. Hit this site for a directory of counties in Pennsylvania and their local program. I’m a bit biased, I’ll admit, but observing the impact 4-H has on kids for more than 30 years has convinced me that it is one of the best youth programs available... and about the only one that will get your kid involved in agriculture. Learn by doing… what a concept!

Want to grow your own… just a little or enough to live on? Penn State Extension is a great place to get started.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cold your garden

There’s nothing like eating stuff from your own garden. This pleasure is usually confined to the growing season. Juicy tomatoes, salad ingredients that were alive minutes before you ate them, ripe melons…

But some crops maintain good quality after harvest... if given proper storage conditions. Cold and moist is usually what is required . Root crops may be the best example of garden produce with excellent storage life …if they are kept cold and moist. Beets, carrots and parsnips, are good candidates. The cabbage family works well this way, too. The text book says 32 degrees F and 95-100 percent humidity is ideal. Cold but not frozen. Very high humidity.

This can be tricky to achieve in most homes, cellars and garages. The simplest way to hold these crops is to plant them so they mature at the end of the growing season and then just mulch them heavily, in place, with something like straw. In our mild winters the soil does not freeze too deeply, and if given some protection, you can continue the harvest thru winter. But you’ve got to literally dig them up.

While visiting my pal Graham in Rhode Island this December, I see that he has taken the next step in “in-ground’ storage. He simply dug holes to accommodate two five-gallon pails. The pail tops are about level with the surrounding ground. Drilled some holes in the bottom of the buckets to allow any surface water to exit. He filled the pails with carrots and beets after the fall harvest in late October, lidded the pails and covered them with a bale of straw. You can see the results.

You’ll have to trust me that the carrots were very tasty. Roasted. With some nice salmon. And a crisp white wine. Didn’t get around to the beets but they were solid as a rock. Sure, some sprouting had occurred but it did not seem to have influenced quality.
Something to think about as you plan for next year’s garden. The virtues of planning for a fall harvest can be extended into the shortest days of winter.

The picture at the top shows rutabaga or swedes, as my friend Graham calls them. Very tasty.

For a list of storage conditions and some more ideas about vegetable storage, see this from Cornell University.