Spring: Time for Rhubarb!

rhubarb

A sure sign that spring is arriving is rhubarb starting to grow! Although it is technically a vegetable, it is used as a fruit since it is highly acidic which gives it the distinctive tart flavor. It is delicious combined with strawberries for a pie, made into bars or crisps, or a sauce poured over ice cream or cake. It also works well as a savory accompaniment for meats such as poultry, venison, salmon, and halibut. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg complement the tartness of rhubarb.

“Rhubarb is a rich source of nutrients providing 45% of Daily Value of Vitamin K in a serving size of 1 cup. In addition, rhubarb contains Vitamin C and A, along with Folate, Riboflavin, and Niacin. Rhubarb provides 32% of the Daily Value of manganese in a serving. Other nutrient/minerals include Iron, Potassium and Phosphorus. Rhubarb is also comprised of phytochemicals and phenols that provide the body with additional health benefits. The antioxidants present in the deep red stalks contain anthocyanin and lycopene, which have been shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease and have anti-carcinogenic effects towards the prevention of cancer. Over forty-two types of phytonutrients and chemicals are present in rhubarb,” (Purdue Extension). Rhubarb also provides fiber which is important for maintaining a healthy digestive system and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Although it can be eaten raw, rhubarb tends to be too tart so it is usually cooked with sugar or other sweeteners. There are any number of ways to prepare rhubarb. Purdue Extension cautions to always use a nonreactive pan (such as stainless steel or enamel-lined cast iron) when cooking with rhubarb. Using other types of pans can cause chemical reactions with the acidic content in rhubarb. “Recipes generally call for pounds, cups, or number of stalks. Three to five stalks make about 1 pound. One pound of rhubarb makes about 4 cups of raw chopped rhubarb. Four stalks of rhubarb equals approximately 2 cups of diced rhubarb. A 12 oz. package of frozen rhubarb equals approximately 1 1/2 cups,” (University of Wyoming Extension).

Rhubarb can produce more than can be used fresh. Fortunately, it is an excellent candidate for preservation by canning, freezing or making into jam or jelly to enjoy later in the summer or next winter. Use these links to successfully can or freeze rhubarb or turn it into delicious jelly or jam. It also makes excellent juice.
Canning rhubarb.
Freezing rhubarb.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Jelly.
Strawberry Rhubarb Jam (also available in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, 2006, p. 32 or 2020, p. 30.)
Sunshine Rhubarb Juice Concentrate. (also available in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, 2006, p. 193 or 2020, p. 191)

Spring weather can change quickly in the Midwest; fortunately, rhubarb is a sturdy plant that can withstand cold temperatures after it has started to grow. If a frost occurs, check your plant in a few days. If the leaves and the stalks are blackened and soft, remove them. Any new growth will be safe to eat. If the stalks do not show any sign of damage from the frost those stalks are safe to eat.

Rhubarb is easy to grow. Stalks should be selected from plants that are at least two years old to maintain the vigor of the plant. For more information on planting and growing rhubarb, check out Growing Rhubarb in Iowa and Growing Rhubarb in Home Gardens. An old wives tale we hear often is that rhubarb is poisonous if eaten later in the summer. Rhubarb does not become poisonous, but harvesting later in the summer may weaken the plant and make it less productive the following year.

Rhubarb, one of the first of spring’s jewels, offers endless opportunities to enjoy year round. Enjoy all that rhubarb has to offer and boost your health, too!

Sources:
Rhubarb, Love It for Its Taste; Eat It for Your Health, Purdue Extension
Enjoy This Nutritional Powerhouse’s Tartness Softened by Sweet, University of Wyoming Extension
Rhubarb, Purdue Extension Food Link
Michigan Fresh: Using, Storing and Preserving Rhubarb (HN148), Michigan State University Extension
Rhubarb Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits, VeryWellFit.com

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Spouting or Greening Potatoes . . . Keep or Toss?

“Should a potato with sprouts be used or tossed?” There is a great deal of conflicting advice on the question of use or toss. It comes down to the condition of the potato.

Sprouted potatoes in bag
Photo: MGeiger

As the warmer months approach, potatoes in storage may be showing signs of sprouting or even vigorously sprouting; shriveling may also accompany sprouting as the starch in the potato is converted to sugar to feed the new plants. Potatoes have an inherent natural dormancy maintained by endemic plant hormones. The concentration of the hormones in the tubers decreases over time resulting in sprouts forming at the eyes. When sprouting starts to occurs, this is a sign that the dormant period is over and nature is telling them it is time to reproduce. Even under ideal well ventilated, cool, dry, and dark storage conditions, this natural phenomenon occurs. Potatoes that are improperly stored in the home may exhibit the same sprouting and shriveling regardless of time of year as conditions may trick them into “thinking spring.”

Why the Concern?

Potatoes contain two kinds of glycoalkaloids called solanine and chaconine. Both are naturally occurring chemical compounds. Glycoalkaloids are found throughout potato tubers, but are in highest concentration in the leaves, flowers, sprouts, green skin and the area around the potato ‘eyes’. The lowest concentration is found in the flesh of the tuber.

In normal tubers, glycoalkaloids concentrations are small with a slightly higher concentration in a thin layer immediately under the skin and around the eyes. Peeling potatoes and removing the eyes reduces the presence of the compound. The concentration of glycoalkaloids in sprouts is much higher and can be high enough to be toxic to humans. The more potatoes sprout, the greater the presence of glycoalkaloids in both the sprout and potato itself. High concentrations of glycoalkaloid compounds give potatoes an unpleasant, bitter taste and can lead to headaches, vomiting and other digestive issues.

According to articles by Michigan State and North Carolina Extensions, removing the sprouts will allow safe consumption of the rest of the potato as long as the potatoes are firm, not soft or shriveled, and the sprouts are small. Further, most of the nutrients are still intact. But if the sprouts are long (1 inch or more) and the potato has shriveled, it should be tossed.

The same is nearly true for potatoes exhibiting greening. Green skinned potatoes have been exposed to too much light. Light causes the potato to produce chlorophyll and activate the skin cells to produce solanine which has a bitter taste and is an irritant to the digestive system. Because of the bitter taste, most people do not eat enough to get sick. Despite that, always use caution when greening is found on the tubers as this indicates elevated levels of solanine. Peeling the potato and removing the green portions by simply cutting them out will eliminate most of the toxin. However, if more extensive greening occurs into the tuber, throw the tuber away. Never eat tubers that are green beneath the skin. 

Cooking does not destroy glycoalkaloid compounds; therefore, potatoes exhibiting sprouts and shriveling or deep green parts should not used. Potatoes that are firm and exhibiting only small sprouts at the eye and/or skin-deep greening can be eaten if the entire sprout and any green-tinged parts of the potato are cut away.

Storing Potatoes to Prevent Sprouting and Greening

Storing potatoes the right way will prevent sprouting and greening. As mentioned earlier, potatoes should be stored in a cool (45-50 degrees), dark, dry, and well ventilated location for maximum freshness.  Kept in these conditions, potatoes will likely last up to three months or longer. At room temperature, potatoes will usually last about 2 weeks. Storing potatoes in a cellar or cool basement is ideal. Storage areas should always be away from appliances that give off heat or any area that allows light. If potato tubers will be consumed soon, they can be stored in a cupboard/pantry in a paper bag.

Don’t store potatoes in the fridge. Cold temperatures turn the starches in potatoes into sugars. This makes potatoes sweeter and cook dark. Also, potatoes should not be stored with onions. Storing them together shortens their shelf life. Onions produce ethylene gas which causes potatoes to spoil prematurely. The high moisture content of potatoes can cause onions to turn brown and rot.

In conclusion, sprouted or green potatoes are not necessarily destined for the landfill or compost pile.  With certain precautions, the potato may be safe to eat as long as sprouts and green spots can be cut away. If there is extensive sprout growth, shriveling, and deep green within the tuber, potatoes should be tossed to prevent risk of potential toxicity from solanine and chaconine, the two natural glycoalkaloid compounds found in potatoes.

For other questions about food safety and storage advice that will help keep food safe after purchase or harvest, The Food Keeper is an excellent resource. This handy reference tool was produced by the Food Marketing Institute at Cornell University in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It contains useful guidelines for storing food safely. The app is just a finger touch away for IOS and Android smartphones users by visiting the App Store or Google Play and searching for “FoodKeeper Mobile App.” The same app is also available for computer or pads at FoodSafety.gov.

Sources:
Toxic Glycoalkaloids in Potatoes, Centre for Food Safety
Glycoalkaloids in Potato Tubers, Oregon State University Extension
Food Safety of Potatoes, Michigan State University Extension 
Is It Safe to Eat a Potato That Has Sprouted?, North Carolina Extension
Is It Safe to Eat Sprouted Potatoes? Here’s What the Experts Say, EatingWell
Are Sprouted Potatoes Safe to Eat?, Poison Control

Reviewed and updated 3-2024, mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tis the Season to PLAN Your Garden

With the arrival of seed catalogs, the next garden season begins. Before you place an order from catalogs or online sources featuring beautiful photos and enticing descriptions or purchase plants in the spring from garden centers, get your garden PLAN in place.

Flower and shrub garden on left; vegetable garden on right
Two Garden Types. Left – flower and shrub garden planned to attract butterflies and pollinators.
Right – small vegetable garden with tomato and pepper plants. Photo: M Geiger.

It may seem that gardening is merely picking out some seed or plants, putting them in the ground, and watching them grow. Seasoned gardeners will tell you that growing a successful garden is also an investment of time, patience, and hard work and begins with a PLAN, whether it be flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables. There is no need to be a master gardener to create a PLAN that brings joy or an abundant harvest.  Here are a few tips to help get your garden PLAN started or improved upon. 

P – Ponder your project.

Before getting carried away with ordering or buying seeds, plants, or stock, ask yourself some important questions.  What kind of garden do I want?  What do I like?  What piques my interest?  How much space do I have?  How much space is needed for the individual plants?  How much time can I commit to seed starting, planting, weeding, mulching, watering, maintaining, pruning, or harvesting?  What will I do with the produce?  Which plants will thrive in my plant hardiness zone? Will I plant from seed or transplants? Is there a location where a garden can be placed or would containers be a better option? How will I control weeds? Answers to these questions will help develop a plan for your location and lifestyle. 

L – Location and layout.  

Once you have decided what you want to grow, consider the location of the garden. How will it fit into your outdoor space? Do the plants require sun or shade? Most vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowering plants grow best with at least six hours of sun so a sunny location is needed unless you are considering a shade garden. How level is the ground? Should the beds be raised? How close is a convenient water source? Avoid locations near trees or shrubs, north-facing slopes, and low areas. These locations pose potential problems with shading and roots robbing nutrients and moisture, cooler temperatures and less sun, and extended periods of wetness nurturing disease and rot, respectively.

Once the location has been determined, sketch a layout of the garden site on graph paper or use a computer program. If growing a vegetable garden for your own food, calculate how much to plant per person using this K-State guide. Determine the distance needed between rows and plants. The recommended spacing is usually given on the seed packet or plant tag; it is also important to allow enough space between the rows or plantings for cultivation and access. A north to south layout is ideal according to Michigan State University. If a garden has been previously grown in the location, plan to rotate the plant families by moving them to a different location within the garden to increase soil fertility and crop yield as well as to cut down on common plant diseases that overwinter in soil.

A – Analyze the soil.

A soil test is the only way to determine soil pH (acid or alkaline) and what nutrients are needed to amend the soil to maximize plant potential. Most garden plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.8. Once the analysis has been made, you will know what is needed to amend your soil and prevent over fertilization and some plant diseases. To get an accurate soil test, sample collection needs to be done carefully. University of Minnesota has an excellent ‘how to’ YouTube video to correctly collect a soil sample. Soil testing is done by private and state laboratories. A list of certified labs in Iowa can be found on the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website. Most labs do not test for nitrogen because nitrogen is not retained in soil making it necessary to replenish it annually. After getting the results, you may want to contact your local Extension Office for help in understanding the results.

N – Notes.

Keeping good records, notes or a garden journal is imperative to learning from previous garden experiences. Notes should include sources of seeds or plants, where and how planted, time of planting, yields or outcomes. One should also record the layout, number of plants, spacing, soil test results, inputs added prior to planting and during the growing season along with any chemicals that were applied during the season for insect control, fungus, or disease. At the end of the season, notes should include “to dos” for the next growing season such as pruning, transplanting, or anything else that would improve the health and wellbeing of plants in the next garden. Pictures, seed packets or plant tags, and chemical labels are also great keepers. And it doesn’t hurt to add a “wish list” for the next growing season as well—books, tools, plants to try, resources, tours, workshops or webinars, podcasts, etc.

Along with notes, one should also take stock of any seed that may have been left from planting a previous garden or collected. When stored in cool, dry, and dark conditions, seed may remain viable for one to five years or longer. Charts indicating the average viability of properly stored seed can be found on several internet sites; some seed catalogs also have charts. Clear Creek Seed is one source for vegetables, flowers, and herbs; UNL Extension has a more extensive guide for vegetables. If you are uncertain about whether seeds will germinate, an easy germination test will be beneficial to determine viability.

Let the season begin! Make your PLAN now and put it into action to achieve your best garden yet. 

Happy Gardening!

________________________________

Sources:

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Sweet Corn – A Summertime Treasure

The long-awaited summer treasure, sweet corn, will be available from local growers very soon.  Getting a likeable variety and biting into an ear of plump kernels bursting with that sweet, corn flavor is well worth the wait. 

Bi-color sweet corn
Three ears of bi-color sweet corn partially husked. Photo: mrgeiger

Sweet corn is an old food. The specific time when sweet corn originated cannot be pin-pointed.  However, Spanish explorers in the early 1500s found Indians growing corn in East Texas, and the Spanish carried on corn culture in the Rio Grande valley settlements and Texas missions. They ate the grain as a basic ingredient in tortillas, tamales, posole, and atole.  The first known variety, Papoon, was acquired from the Iroquois Indians in 1779 by European settlers. Sweet corn has been ever evolving. Over time, plant breeders have developed sweeter cultivars as well as cultivars with better keeping qualities, flavor, tenderness, vigor, and other characteristics. Sweet corn now comes in several hundred varieties of five genetic types and is available in three different colors: yellow, white and bi-colored (yellow and white).

Genetic Types and Characteristics

The long-grown or older varieties of sweet corn are known as Standards (su).  These cultivars have the traditional sweet corn flavor and texture with sugar levels generally between 10 and 15 percent at harvest. Unfortunately, standard cultivars retain their high quality for only one or two days and don’t generally store well as sugars quickly convert to starch after harvest [1]. Honey and Cream, Silver Queen, Sterling Silver, Jubilee, and Merit are some well-known names.

The first breeding improvement was the introduction of Sugar Enhanced (se) cultivars. Sugar enhanced cultivars contain the sugar enhancer (se) gene that produces ears with sweet, tender kernels. Sugar levels are slightly higher than standard sugary cultivars. The harvest and storage life of se types are slightly longer than standard sweet corn [1].  Well-known SE varieties include Bodacious, Ambrosia, Sweet Temptation, Delectable, and Miracle.  SE varieties are typically used for freezing.

Then along came the Supersweet (sh2) corn varieties.  These cultivars contain the shrunken-2 (sh2) gene. Supersweet varieties have smaller, crisper kernels with high sugar levels and convert sugar to starch slowly, allowing for a longer harvest period and storage life [1] of about three days1. Candy Store, Florida Staysweet, Sugar Loaf, Sweet Time, and Sweetie are some of the Supersweet varieties.

With further development, the Synergistic (syn) cultivars possessing the su, se, and sh2 genes entered the sweet corn scene. These cultivars are sweet, creamy, and tender and have an excellent storage life [1] remaining at their peak for five days before converting to starch1. Allure, Inferno, Providence, and Sweetness are examples of Synergistic varieties.

Lastly, an improvement on the Supersweets are the Augmented Supersweets (shA). They are sweet, tender, and have an even longer storage life [1] offering a ten day window where sugars are at their peak before converting to starch1. Anthem, Obsession, and Patriarch are examples in this group.

Of course, when you’re buying corn, you often only have one choice and it’s frequently not labeled as anything but fresh corn. If you really want a particular variety or want to know the characteristics of what you are buying, talk with the producer at a farmer’s market; they will likely be able to fill you in on the variety or other details.  A seller at a local stand may or may not know the variety and simply sell the corn by a popular or recognized name.  One that I often see used for bi-color corn is ‘peaches and cream,’ a sugar enhanced (se) bicolor that has been around for some time. For a short listing of suggested cultivars of each each gene type, see Sweet Corn by Iowa State University Extension horticulturalists.

Get It Fresh – Keep It FreshEnjoy It Fresh

Despite all the genetic improvements, the trick to getting good corn for eating is to get it as fresh as you can and cook and eat it promptly. When choosing corn, look for ears with moist, fresh-looking husks free of insect damage. Feel the ears to assess the plumpness of the kernels and whether the rows of kernels are fully formed. (Quick fact:  the average ear of corn has 800 kernels, arranged in 16 rows. There is one piece of silk for each kernel.)  Refrain from pulling the husks back to check out the kernels as it is not only bad manners, but spoils the corn for others; opened corn dries out quickly. Once home, store sweet corn in the refrigerator with the husks on or off in a plastic bag; husk on is best but shucked corn may fit in the fridge better. Remember, depending on cultivar, the sugars in corn begin to convert to starch so purchase only what you can use in a few days.

Fresh sweet corn can be prepared in a variety of ways—boiled, steamed, microwaved, grilled—and even raw. The key thing to remember is that today’s sweeter and fresher varieties do not require the cooking time of yesteryear.  Sweet corn can be cooked anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on how “done” you like it.  Once cooked, it can be eaten directly off the cob or sliced off and used in recipes.

Fresh corn kernels are also great to keep on hand for tossing into salads or other side dishes. Raw corn cut off the ear will last only a day or two in the refrigerator before turning sour. To preserve the freshness, cut the kernels off the cobs and blanch them in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain, let cool, and store in a covered container in the fridge for up to five days. Another option is to blanch, cool, and freeze the kernels in a single layer on a baking sheet until hard, and then store in an airtight container in the freezer where they will retain best quality for up to three months.

Lastly, when sweet corn is in season, it is a great time to freeze or can it for eating throughout the year. Corn is one of the best vegetables to freeze because the quality of home-frozen corn is superior to commercial products. Purdue Extension says most sweet corn varieties are acceptable for canning and freezing but recommends the following varieties:
Yellow -Bodacious and Incredible
Bicolor – Temptation, Delectable, and Providence
White – Silver King, Silver Princess, and Whiteout.

For specifics on canning and freezing corn, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website:
Freezing Corn,
Canning – Whole Kernel Corn,
Canning – Cream Style Corn.  
Or
Let’s Preserve Sweet Corn by Perdue Extension
Freezing Sweet Corn:  Whole Kernels by University of Minnesota Extension.

Enjoy and make the most of one of summer’s treasurers.  It’s only a matter of days!
_____________________________________
1
Rupp Seed Inc, 2021 Vegetable Resource Guide:  Sweet Corn Genetic Types

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Cashews, Not Really a Nut

Cashews are not really nuts in the true sense, but rather a drupe seed–a seed from a fruit.  Even though cashews are not technically nuts, we use and enjoy them as such. 

Cashew nut fruits growing on tree
Cashew nut fruits growing on tree

Cashews grow on the cashew tree (genus Anacardium Anacardium) a tropical evergreen tree native to South America. The tree produces a “false fruit” known as the cashew apple. The fruit resembles a small bell pepper being yellow to red in color.  At the base of the fruit is a kidney-bean-shaped hard shell with a single seed inside–the cashew nut.

Cashews are gown in many parts of the world with origin in Brazil.  However, Vietnam is the largest producer of cashew nuts followed by India; cashews are a valuable agricultural commodity for both counties.  The cashew nut industry in these countries (and other producing countries) provide vital year-round employment to millions of people, especially women.  Extracting the nut from its shell is labor intense and requires a skilled workforce of which 90% are women who are paid meager wages. 

Following harvest, the shells are roasted and dried to make extracting the nut easier.  Removing the nut from the shell is the most difficult step in processing.  It is either done by hand or machine, but in either case, it is one shell at a time.  When done by hand, the workers beat the shell with a mallet in just the right way to release the nut unscathed.  If mechanical shelling machines are used, the shells are feed into the machines one at a time to split the shells; however, since the shells vary in size and shape, there is breakage so machines are not a perfect solution.  As a result manual processing is generally favored for nut perfection.  However, Vietnam has been successful at mechanizing the process and, thereby, have increased production rates and decreased the labor force.

Another concern in cracking the shell, is the reddish-brown oil that oozes from the shell composed of various phenolic lipids.  It is an irritant like that found in poison ivy causing skin burns and sores and other health issues if workers come in contact with it.  Following splitting, the nuts require tedious peeling and cleaning before moving along to grading, quality control, fumigation, and packaging.

And what about the cashew apple?  The apple has a sweet flavor but a limited shelf life so it is not a marketable commodity in its fresh state.  However, it is available in local markets and has value as a fresh food, cooked in curries, fermented into vinegar and used to make preserves, chutneys, and jams.  In India, it is fermented and distilled to make an alcoholic drink known as feni.  The apples are also used for medicinal purposes.

Cashews are rich in nutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, plant protein, and fiber; they may be used interchangeably with other nuts in a variety of culinary applications, including trail mix, stir-fries, granola, nut butter, and nut dairy products.  Like most nuts, cashews may also help improve overall health. They’ve been linked to benefits like weight loss by boosting metabolism, improving blood sugar control, strengthening the immune system, and contributing to heart health.

Cashews are generally a safe addition to most diets.  One should keep in mind that roasted or salted cashews contain added oils or salt. For this reason, it may be best to opt for unsalted, dry roasted instead.  People with tree nut allergies should avoid them as they are classified as tree nuts along with Brazil nuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and hazelnuts.  Some people have trouble with bloating; soaking nuts overnight will help with nutrient absorption and digestibility.  When eaten in large quantities, cashews can cause kidney damage due to a relatively high oxalate content.  However, in moderation (true of all nuts), such is not likely.  One serving of cashews is 1 ounce and contains about 18 nuts, 157 calories, and about 9 grams of carbohydrate largely in the form of starch1.

Enjoy cashews with a new appreciation to those who grow, harvest, and process the drupes; it is a laborious farm-to-table process. And maybe after knowing a little about cashews and how they come to us, they don’t seem so expensive after all.

Source:
1The Health Benefits of Nuts. Cleveland Clinic.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Moving Plants Indoors in the Fall

Person transplating flowers in a pot
Person transplanting flowers into a pot.

With nighttime and daytime temperatures dropping and hard frosts in the near future, it is time to turn our attention to bringing in and acclimating houseplants that have been outdoors during the summer. Most experts recommend transitioning plants from their present light conditions to lower light conditions over a period of several days when temperatures drop below 50-60 degrees which is typically in latter September in the midwest.  When time does not permit this transitioning time, plants will likely show signs stress with yellowing and leaf dropping as they adapt to indoor light conditions.

Plants should be inspected and treated for pests before bringing inside.  Aphids, mealybugs, white flies and other pests usually aren’t a problem when potted indoor plants are outside, but can quickly turn into a major infestation during the winter if they highjack their way inside. Some experts recommend bathing or soaking plants before bringing them inside in a tub of water with a mild dishwashing soap.  If plants are too big for a tub, spray them with water and wash the top and undersides of the leaves as much as possible with water and dishwashing detergent rinsing with water; in addition to removing potential insects, it also removes outdoor dust from the leaves.  It is important that the soapy water also get into the soil as it will help to kill any pests residing there, too. Wash the outside of the pots to remove dirt and any unwanted pests. It may also be a good practice to report the plants with fresh potting soil providing them with new nutrients and minimize the risk of insects residing in the soil. Once inside, plants should be checked with each watering for any sign of infestation and if spotted, treat religiously with an insecticidal soap until the problem is resolved. 

Houseplants may put on a lot of new growth over the summer and may get very large. After cleaning, the second step is to determine if they need pruning, separating, or repotting.  Some plants may have outgrown their pot and need something larger.  Others may be too large for the indoor space and need to be pruned, separated, or propagated to start a new plant. 

While geraniums are typically an annual plant, they can be successfully wintered indoors in different ways–left in their pot, pruned and repotted, propogated from cuttings, or stored as dry-root plants in a cool, dry location. University of Minnesota provides information on these methods.

Plants should be placed in the brightest locations possible in the home with a southern exposure if possible. Once the plants are inside a new kind of care begins–watching for pests, watering appropriately, cleaning up dropped leaves and petals, and fertilizing as needed. To prevent overwatering, that means letting the soil dry to the touch before watering. When houseplants need to be watered depends on many environmental conditions including light, humidity, and temperature. Depending upon the conditions of the home, some plants may need nearly as much water in the winter as they do in the summer.  Iowa State University Extension horticulturalists recommend reducing or stopping fertilizing plants in the fall and winter months, as abundant fertilizer will only promote growth that cannot be supported by the slower-growing houseplant leading to pale or spindly growth. 

Bringing houseplants, tropicals, and geraniums indoors for fall and winter is a great way to preserve special plants and save money by not repeatedly buying new plants each spring.  It does take considerable time in the fall, but in doing so, one may be able to enjoy the same plants and collections for many years and use the money saved to purchase new or interesting plants.

Updated 10-12-2023 mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Aronia Berries – Old Fruit with a New Name

Stained hands after picking aronia berries
Stained hands after picking aronia berries at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy of Jaci Thorson.

Its aronia berry picking time in Iowa!  And if you are lucky enough to live near a pick-your-own aronia berry orchard, you are in for a day of fun and stained hands!  Fresh berries, juice and other aronia products may also be available now in some local grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Aronia harvest happens during the last week of August and the first week of September.

Aronia berries are not new to Iowa; they are actually indigenous to the state and were once used by the Potawatomi Native Americans to cure colds. Formerly known as black chokeberries, rebranding of the less appetizing name of “chokeberry” has helped the native berry catch on and develop into what is now a big industry.  The berry’s new name comes from its genus, Aronia melancorpa. While grown throughout North America, the first US commercial cultivation of the berry bushes can be traced to the Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, where Andrew Pittz and his family planted about 200 bushes in 1997.   Since then, aronia production has grown and bushes have been planted in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.  Presently there are 300-400 growers in Iowa with small to large operations.  80 of these operations have been organic certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Aronia berry plants
Arona berries at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy of Jaci Thorson.

These purple, pea-sized berries boast one of the highest antioxidant values ever recorded for fruits, superseding blueberries, elderberries, acai berries and goji berries, according to research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.  Also rich in vitamins and minerals, they have high levels of polyphenols, anthocyanins, and flavanols–antioxidants needed to fight free radicals–making them good at fighting inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and urinary tract infections.

While aronia berries are more astringent than blueberries, they can be eaten fresh or frozen.  Not many people eat them fresh. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth when eaten. They are a little less astringent after freezing but usually best processed into jam, juice or baked products where the aronia takes on a whole new taste of its own. To eat them raw, they are best used in smoothies, yogurt, ice cream or oatmeal. Berries, either fresh or frozen, can be used in any recipe as a substitute for cranberries, blueberries, or chokecherries.  They are also good added to pancakes or mixed with other fruits in a crisp or pie.  Other ideas include salsa, salads, beverages, cereal, pizza, chili, and soups.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides information on making jam from all berries.

So if you haven’t had an opportunity to try aronia berries fresh, frozen, or in another product, perhaps it is time to venture out and give these tart little berries a try!  They might make you pucker, but this superfruit will definitely add some health benefits to your diet.  And, chances are, this Iowa crop will grow on you!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Collecting and Fall Planting Milkweed for Monarchs

In recent years, we have heard and read much about the declining monarch butterfly population due to eradication of milkweed in agricultural and urban areas.  Milkweed is critical for the survival of monarchs.  It is the only host plant for the monarch caterpillars which feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed.  And besides providing food for caterpillars, the leaves of the milkweed plant are the only place that the female monarchs lay their eggs.  As milkweed plants gradually disappeared from the landscape, the monarch populations gradually declined.  With the decline, there is urging to plant milkweed to support and increase the monarch population.

Back in the 1990s, I began an initial planting of the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) along our creek banks with seeds from a single pod that I found along the road side. In the 20 some years since, those few seeds have fostered a nice habitat for monarchs as they not only spread along the creek bank, but also into the surrounding pasture.  This year I am once again on a mission to collect some pods, harvest the seeds, and eventually plant them.  However, this time I have a partner; my 9-year old granddaughter loves monarchs and wants to do her part in helping their survival.

Fall is the perfect time to collect and plant milkweed.  The first step is to acquire seed.  Most milkweed species grow particularly well in undisturbed areas, so start by checking out roadsides, pastures, creek and river banks, railroad track beds, bike paths, highway medians, agricultural field margins, vacant land, cultivated gardens, and parks.  In September the seed pods begin to turn brown, split, and open.  The seed pod looks like a spiny, bumpy fruit. They begin light green in color and gradually over the summer turn yellow-green and eventually sage green to sage grey-brown.  As they get to this later stage, they will start to split.  This is the stage that you want for harvesting seeds. When the pod is opened, the seeds inside should be dark brown. If they’re green or light brown, they’re not mature yet and won’t sprout when planted.  If you don’t see the split or aren’t sure about the color, you can gently push on the pod; if it splits easily and the seeds are brown, it is ready; if it won’t pop open easily, leave it for another time.

Remove the entire seed pod from the plant and place it in a paper or organza bag.  Attached to the seeds is the coma, (white, hairy fluff also known as floss, silk, or plume) that is essential to the natural propagation of milkweed in the wild.  The fluff enables the wind to scatter and disperse the seed over a wide area.  Whether the seed is saved to share or use later or planted this fall, the fluff should be removed and it is best to do this before the pod fully opens and explodes.  When the seeds are all compact inside the pod, it is easy to do by carefully removing the spine holding the fluff and running your fingers down it; as you do, the seeds fall out easily.  Check out the Monarch Butterfly Garden website for a great video on how to do this.  If the pod is more mature and already opening with the fluff beginning to take flight, place the pod in a paper bag and shake it vigorously; sometimes it helps to add some coins or washers to the bag to aid this process.

Milkweed needs a period of cold stratification to germinate so that is what makes fall an ideal time to plant milkweed as Mother Nature will do the work during the winter months. November is the best time in the Midwest to plant.  The soil needs to be cold enough that the seeds won’t germinate, but not yet frozen.  The location chosen should be sunny and an area where you can allow the milkweeds to spread naturally over time as they can become invasive in a perfectly manicured yard or flower garden.  A bare patch of moist soil is best.  Poke a shallow hole and drop in a seed or two.  Cover, water, and lightly mulch for winter protection, and wait for spring.  For more tips on planting, see Fall Planting Milkweed Seeds – 10 Simple Steps from the Monarch Butterfly Garden website.  Another method of planting  is by making and throwing out seed balls.  To learn more about this method, see the article by the Iowa DNR.

If you miss the window for fall planting, the seeds can be planted in the spring, too.  For additional information on keeping seeds over the winter and planting in the spring or other times, check out the Michigan State University publication, How to Collect and Grow Milkweeds to Help Monarchs and Other Pollinators.

Lastly, I would be amiss to not suggest that this would make a great 4-H project for any young person interested in monarch habitat.  And for crafters, there are any number of ways to use the dried pods.  In all cases, please be advised to wear gloves or wash hands frequently when working with milkweed or pods.  Milkweed sap (looks like milk) can be an eye irritant, so take appropriate precautions to avoid this kind of discomfort.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Asparagus and Rhubarb tips

When should I stop cutting my asparagus?  How long can I harvest my rhubarb?  Is rhubarb that I pull in the summer poisonous?  We will be getting these questions from callers very soon.

Allow a new planting of asparagus to grow for a year at least, before the first cutting.  During the second spring, it is safe to cut asparagus for three to four weeks.  After that time has passed, allow the plant to grow.  During year three, it is safe to harvest asparagus until mid-June.  The safety factor we mention is safety for the plant.  Overharvesting will weaken the plant and may cause plants to be less productive in the future.  Harvest asparagus by cutting or snapping the spears when they reach a height of 6 to 8 inches.  An asparagus bed that has been cared for well can last 15 years or even longer.  Mine has been productive for 38 years and is still going strong.

Harvest rhubarb when the stalks are between 10 and 15 inches tall.  Simply hold a stalk near the base and pull it up and to one side. Another option would be to cut the stalks off level with the ground using a sharp knife.  Remove the leaves from the stalk right away.  After that, rhubarb can be stored in a plastic bag for at least two weeks.  Remember that over harvesting rhubarb can damage the plant; never remover more than half the fully developed stalks at one time.

Start a new rhubarb patch by dividing an older, existing patch. It is best to delay harvesting the new patch for the first two years.  During the third year, harvest only for four to six weeks; stopping harvest in mid-June.  If your rhubarb sends up flower stalks, remove them as allowing the plants to flower will reduce production the next year.  Stopping harvest in mid-June also allows the plant to feed the roots and keep the plant strong. You may fertilize the planting with some all-purpose fertilizer in the spring. Use about ½ cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer early in the spring. Remembering to water the rhubarb during long dry summers will help the planting have a long life.

Callers often ask if they can harvest a bit of rhubarb later in the summer. We tell them that if the patch is an older, well-established one then they could pull enough small, tender stalks to make a pie or a crisp. Harvesting more than that can damage the planting. And, no, the rhubarb is not poisonous if pulled mid-summer.

Enjoy those first foods from the garden.

 

 

 

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Edible Landscaping – Landscaping with Taste

Creative landscape made with assorted organic vegetables.

The modern trend is to no longer banish the vegetable garden to the far corner of the back yard.  Rather, homeowners are now putting vegetables and fruit trees or bushes on display as part of an elegant, edible, landscape design.  So while this is a modern trend, an edible landscape is really an ancient practice dating back to medieval monks and ancient Persians growing a rich array of vegetables, flowers, fruits, and herbs for edible, medicinal, and ornamental virtues.  It was also a long practice of English gardens which was reinstated in 2009 by Queen Elizabeth when she had an organic edible landscape installed within the Buckingham Palace Garden which includes heirloom species of beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and other edibles.

While an edible landscape doesn’t need to be as elaborate as the Queen’s, an edible landscape does use attractive, food-producing plants in a well-designed garden plan around the home and/or living area in the same way that ornamental plants are used.  It may also incorporate ornamental plants. As a result, the edible landscape offers fresh, affordable food, a variety of foliage and colors, and sustenance for bees, butterflies, and birds.  As this trend grows, there are a growing number of professional landscape companies getting into the business of helping homeowners plan their landscape to include edibles, courses for certification as agriscaping educators and professionals, and any number of books and online articles providing information.  Interestingly enough, some subdivision developers now offer buyers a choice of either traditional landscaping or agriscaping for their new home.

Design is what separates edible landscaping from traditional vegetable gardening.  Whether ornamental or edible, design should be pleasing to the eye and draw one into the garden to experience it.  Instead of rows of vegetables which lead one away like a highway, the same space can be made very attractive (and edible) by incorporating basic landscaping principles  starting with a center of interest and then curving other plants around it—the same way one would plan an ornamental garden.  Add a few flowers, a trellis for beans/peas or cucumbers, an arbor for grapes, a bench, a bird bath, a fruit or nut tree, garden ornaments and voila!  It’s an ornamental edible landscape!

Planning an edible landscape incorporates the same design values of traditional landscapes. Carol Venolia writing for Mother Earth Living, says start small, choose plants appropriate for your climate zone, and offers the following design tips:

  • Create primary and secondary focal points.
  • Use plantings and hardscaping (such as paths and patios) to define spaces for various uses and experiences.
  • Work consciously with color, texture and seasons of blooming and fruiting when choosing your garden’s palette.
  • Pay attention to how you lead the eye from one part of the garden to another.
  • Except for featured specimen plants, create groupings of plants to avoid a busy, random appearance.
  • Explore the aesthetic potential of plants: Grow vines on arbors; create edible landscape walls with vines and shrubs; espalier fruit trees; use containers as accents; grow decorative borders of edibles.
  • Make plants do double duty by shading your house in summer and admitting sunshine in winter, reducing your home’s energy use.

For inspiration, one need not look far.  Following recent trends, many public gardens have incorporated edible gardens into their landscapes.  One of the best can be found at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

So whether to save money, provide better-quality food for the family, know what you eat, reduce carbon footprint, involve family, or simply to try something different, edible landscaping is a trend that provides environmental benefits and returns a bit of sanity and security to chaotic times.  However you do it, Happy Gardening!

A few resources for further reading or to help get you started:

Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik

Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn by Fritz Haeg et al.

Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat it Too by Rosalind Creasy

Edible Landscapes (The Seed) by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension et al.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

The Incredible Edible Landscape by Carrie Wolfe, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Landscaping with Fruit: Strawberry ground covers, blueberry hedges, grape arbors, and 39 other luscious fruits to make your yard an edible paradise by Lee Reich

Landscaping with Fruits and Vegetables by Fred Hagy

 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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