Moving Plants Indoors

With nighttime and daytime temperatures dropping and hard frosts in the near future, it is time for me to turn my attention to bringing in and acclimating my vacationing tender houseplants, tropicals, and geraniums.  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.  Like most years, I am already too late to give them the proper transitioning period so I will expect some yellowing and leaf dropping as they adapt to indoor light conditions.  I am fortunate to have several south-facing windows for wintering which helps give them as much light as possible.

As mentioned, I am already late in getting this project done and I do tend to put it off as long as possible.  I so hate to give up the lovely potted plants and arrangements on my patio as it means a time for downsizing, sharing, and pitching.   It is totally impractical for me to bring everything inside.  It begins step by step.

The houseplants and tropical will be the first to move indoors as they are the most easily hurt by cold temperature.  Before bringing inside, they must be inspected and treated for pests.  Aphids, mealybugs, white flies and other pests aren’t normally a problem when potted indoor plants are outside. But they can quickly turn into a major infestation during the winter if they are brought inside on the plants. Some experts recommend bathing or soaking plants before bringing them inside in a tub of water with a mild dishwashing soap.  Since most of my plants are too big for a tub, I first spray them with water which also removes outdoor dust from the leaves.  Next, I wash the top and undersides of the leaves as much as possible with water and dishwashing soap and then rinse with water. It is important that the soapy water also get into the soil as it will help to kill any pests residing there, too. Once inside, I check them with each watering for any sign of infestation and if spotted, treat religiously with an insecticidal soap until the problem is resolved.  I also wash the outside of the pots to remove dirt and to remove any unwanted pests that might be present.

The second step for my houseplants 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 even propagated to start a new plant. 

The geraniums get a complete make over before coming indoors. As the plants are removed from their outdoor containers, I spray their roots with water to remove the soil and then soak them in a tub of water and dishwashing detergent to remove any potential pests, followed by a rinse.  After their bath, one of three things happens to them. 1) Plants are pruned (both foliage and roots) and put into small pots using fresh potting soil. 2) Cuttings are taken for new starts. 3) Whole plants are tagged as to color or variety and placed bare root upside down in paper bags.  More information on how to do prepare geraniums for wintering can be found in this article by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturalists.

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. Depending upon the conditions of the home, some plants may need nearly as much water in the winter as they do in the summer.  My geraniums and tropicals winter in a cool part of the house so I find that watering them every other week is sufficient. I usually don’t fertilize them until late winter/early spring.

The geraniums do need additional tending.  The roots of the bare root plants are misted at the same time as watering the potted pants.  About every six weeks, I take time to remove spent blossoms and dried leaves, prune any plants that have become leggy, and remove any plants that did not survive their transplant or move indoors.  Successful cuttings are also transplanted to larger pots.

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

Marlene Geiger

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

Aronia berry picking 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.

Aronia berries are not new to Iowa; they are actually indigenous to the state and were 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.

Arona berries at Berry Hill Farms near Fertile, IA. Photo courtesy 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 last year 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

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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Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is here to HELP!

While AnswerLine has been providing information and resources for Iowa consumers with home and family questions for over 40 years, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has been serving Iowans since the early 1900s.  The Mission of ISU Extension and Outreach is to engage citizens through research‐based educational programs and extend the resources of Iowa State University across Iowa. AnswerLine is just one of the entities of extension outreach. Let me introduce you to some of the other resources available to help individuals and families navigate issues that may concern them. 

  1. Stay informed on general ISU Extension and Outreach resources and opportunities through the Extension home page and news feed.
  2. The Iowa 4-H team has at-home learning resources which are publicly available for members and families to use.
  3. Iowa Concern offers free and confidential calls and emails 24/7 to help with stress management, financial issues, legal aid, and crisis resources.
  4. The ISU Horticulture and Home Pest news page offers download publications, how to improve your garden videos, and a Hortline for answers to lawn and garden questions.
  5. Get help with meal planning and food budgeting through the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.
  6. Visit the Beginning Farmer, Women in Ag and Ag Decision Maker websites for updates on programs and helpful resources from the Farm Management team. You can also contact the farm management field specialists with your questions. 
  7. Preserve the Taste of Summer offers a number of publications and resources for safe food preservation techniques.
  8. For great information on home gardens, farmer’s markets and u-pick operations, plant sales, and more or how to become a Master Gardener, the Master Gardener Program site is a must.
  9. When Teens don’t know who to talk to, Teen Line can help with a variety of issues that affect Teens and their families.
  10. Use the ISU Extension Staff Directory when looking for a specific person or persons in a specific area of expertise.  The Contact page offers additional resources and provides a form to send an email with questions, concerns, or suggestions. Ask An Expert is always available for questions; those questions come to AnswerLine where we either answer the query or send it to someone in Extension (Iowa or elsewhere) that can better answer it.

Besides these resources, one can always find help at the ISU Extension and Outreach extension offices located in each of Iowa’s counties, on social media outlets, and the many blogs written by Extension staff on current topics.  At the present time, most ISU Extension and Outreach in-person events throughout the state have been canceled through May 31 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, ISU Extension and Outreach staff remain committed to serving Iowans during this difficult time; phones and emails are being answered by Extension staff at the county and state levels.  Please check out the resources available that may provide the help you seek and watch for updates on how ISU Extension and Outreach will proceed to serve Iowans after May 31.

Marlene Geiger

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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Winter Protection of Trees and Shrubs from Wildlife

Protecting trees and shrubs from wildlife is an ongoing battle. At the present moment I am on a mission to protect several young shrubs in my yard from wildlife during the winter.  Earlier this fall, I planted new shrubs in an unprotected area.  They have established themselves well with all the fall rainfall.  However, with all the wildlife in the area, protecting these young, small plants from damage or worse before winter sets in is a must and the timing on this task is running short so I need to act soon. 

The two biggest culprits to my plants are likely to be deer and rabbits.  Deer can cause damage to plants by either rubbing or by browsing.  Male deer rub their antlers against young trees or stems to remove the dried velvet from their antlers and to mark their territory. Rubbing against stems and young trunks can cause girdling and dieback as it removes the thin layer of bark. Browsing may occur throughout the entire year but becomes more noticeable during late fall and winter, when other foods are less available. A hungry deer in a cold winter will eat anything and one adult deer can consume up to four pounds of woody twigs a day. 

Rabbit nibbling is also of concern.  Rabbits damage plants by eating small twigs and buds or chewing bark at the base of plants. The clipped twigs exhibit a clean, 45֯ slant or knife-like cut. Trunk damage is often scarred with paired gouges from the rabbit’s front teeth. Rabbits generally feed no more than two feet above the ground or at snow level. Clipping or gouging can severely alter or reduce the size of small plants.

Rabbit damage may be the easy part of the prevention equation as the most effective recommended method to prevent rabbit damage is to place and anchor chicken wire or hardware cloth fencing around the plants.  The recommended height of fencing is 24-36 inches–high enough that rabbits won’t be able to climb or reach over the fence after a heavy snowfall.  However, that will not prevent deer browsing.  I have had no luck in the past with spooking or repellents.  Deer fencing is the best option but I don’t find 8-foot fences aesthetically pleasing.  Therefore, I must come up with something else and hope that it works.   I’m giving thought to covering the top with additional wire or reducing the size of the top opening by gathering the fence top or stringing several wires crisscross across the fence opening.  I’m accepting additional ideas for my dilemma. 

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturists provided more information on how to protect trees and shrubs in the home landscape in a recent news release, Prevent Wildlife Damage to Trees and Shrubs.  For specific questions or concerns, they can be contacted at hortline@iastate.edu or 515-294-3108.

Marlene Geiger

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

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

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

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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Lettuce!

 

This year, it seems like winter has a grip on us and just will not let go. One thing that does make me feel like spring is coming is looking at the lettuce at the grocery store and dreaming about planting some out in my garden.

When I look at the variety of lettuce available at the store, it seems like there must be almost endless number of different types. Actually, there are really only five different types of lettuce.

    • Leaf lettuce (sometimes called loose-leaf lettuce)
    • Romaine (sometimes called Cos lettuce)
    • Crisphead lettuce
    • Butterhead Lettuce
    • Stem lettuce (sometimes called Asparagus lettuce)

Leaf lettuce has crisp leaves arranged loosely on a stalk.   Most home gardeners that grow lettuce have leaf lettuce in their gardens. It is the most widely planted salad vegetable.

Cos or Romaine

Cos or Romaine lettuce can be easily recognized as it has an upright rather elongated head. It is great as an addition to tossed salads.

Butterhead lettuce

Butterhead lettuce may be less familiar but are typically smaller, loose headed, and have soft and tender leaves. This too makes an excellent addition to tossed salads.

Stem lettuce is not always available at our local grocery stores. It is actually an enlarged seed stalk often used in Chinese dishes. Sometimes it is stewed or creamed.

The lettuce that everyone seems to be familiar with is the Crisphead lettuce. This type is found in nearly every grocery store—think iceberg lettuce. It seems odd to me that this most common lettuce is actually one of the most difficult to grow. Start this in the garden very early in the spring, as it is very sensitive to heat. If the lettuce is not mature before the hot weather arrives, the lettuce will often die.

Sometimes callers want to know why the lettuce they grew in the garden is bitter. This often happens when the weather turns warmer and stalks for seeds begin to grow. If you wash the lettuce and store it in the refrigerator for a couple of days, the bitterness will dissipate.

Store your lettuce in the coolest part of your refrigerator. The first shelf near the back wall of the refrigerator is usually the coolest spot. Avoid placing the lettuce near pears, bananas, or apples. These fruits give off ethylene gas, which can cause the lettuce to develop brown spots and decay. Discard any lettuce that has black spots or seems slimy.

Due to the composition of lettuce, (94.9% water) there is no way to successfully preserve it. Enjoy lettuce fresh and often.  And remember that spring will be here eventually.

 

Liz Meimann

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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Gardening for Food Pantries

Food insecurity exists to some extent in nearly every community.  People who are food insecure not only experience food shortage, but they usually are unable to include fresh fruits and vegetables for a healthy diet because they are out of reach.  Either produce costs too much or is not available.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  By sharing our garden or orchard surplus or planting a dedicated giving garden, home, community, and school gardeners can help food banks, pantries, and community food distribution programs provide fresh produce to ease this problem.

A giving garden can be a whole garden, a row or two as championed by the Garden Writers Association’s Plant a Row for the Hungry, or even one container dedicated to growing healthy (organic if possible) vegetables or fruits for those in need. Or it can be a planned effort such as a Master Gardener garden program done alone or in conjunction with another organization. Every donation, no matter how big or small, makes a difference to someone in need.  Besides helping to fill food banks, pantries, and programs, raising vegetables and/or fruits to donate is rewarding for everyone involved, including children, so it can be a family affair.

Before planting, you will want to do a little research.  Contact local food banks, pantries, or distribution programs to find out if they will accept local produce, what fruits and vegetables they prefer, and when and where to drop off donations.  Once you know the details of donating, purchase seeds or plants for the preferred produce, plant, and tend your garden.  Often the most sought after produce is some of the easiest to grow.

Harvest your produce at its prime as you would for yourself and practice safe-handling.  Many who are served by food banks and pantries are at a higher risk for foodborne illness as they include children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.   Here are a few tips from Michigan State University Extension to minimize food safety risks when donating produce:

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water before handling produce.
  • If pesticides were used on the product, be absolutely certain that you have followed the instructions on the pesticide label for application and safe harvest times. If you are unsure, discard the produce in the garbage—do not compost, eat or donate it.
  • Inspect each item of produce carefully. Discard any items that have signs of insects, bruising, mold, or spoilage. If you wouldn’t buy it, toss it!
  • Brush off as much mud and soil as possible from the produce.
  • Only use clean, food-grade containers or bags to store and transport produce.
  • Keep different types of produce separate.

If you have to wait a day or two to deliver your produce, refrigerate the produce so that it will stay as fresh as possible.

Some food banks offer donation receipts that you can use at tax time so remember to ask for a receipt if that is something you want. Gardeners who donate produce from their gardens or orchards to nonprofit organizations for distribution to people in need are protected from criminal and civil liability by the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. Under terms of the act, donors are protected from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient.

For additional help on donating and handling produce, download these free fact sheets from Michigan State University: Donating Produce  and Safe Handling of Fruits and Vegetables. If you are interested in a Master Gardener program, contact your county extension office.

Mother Teresa said it best, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”  Donating garden surplus or harvesting from a giving garden can do just that.

Marlene Geiger

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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Up with Strawberries!

During the spring, summer, and fall months, I repeatedly hear,  “ What do you have in your front yard—those white columns inside of a black fence?”  What these curiosity seekers are asking about are my strawberry towers—strawberry plants grown UP or vertically instead of in a bed.  And the fence????  “You know how strawberries run!”  Not, it’s to protect the plants from the deer and rabbits that enjoy the plants and fruits as much as I do.

Several years ago, we were traveling through Minnesota and came upon a pick-your-own strawberry farm in August.  Out of curiosity, we stopped.  Inside of a green house, we found pots atop pots of strawberries being grown vertically, not in the typical low-grow patch.  And hanging on those plants, were a plethora of huge, red, succulent strawberries.  It didn’t take me long to decide that this was a much better way to grow strawberries than in the garden bed we had.  I became almost giddy with excitement as I imagined not fighting weeds, rodents, bugs, and rotting strawberries.  And best of all, no “strawberry stance” back-bending or down-on-your-knees work looking under every leaf or reaching to the middle for another berry.

My husband spent considerable time researching where to purchase the strawberry towers we had seen in Minnesota and found them at  Agro-Tower.  We initially ordered one set of six to try them out. To keep the pots together and sturdy, my husband attached a metal pipe to the center of a tractor wheel weight.  The metal pipe slips through the center of each strawberry pot with the first pot resting on the weight; the tractor weight made a very sturdy anchor.  Each pot has six open cups to hold a single strawberry plant.  When stacked on top of each other, the openings are alternated so the plants receive adequate light and water and allow the fruit to hang out of for easy picking.  With success our first year, we ordered three additional sets.

However, it is not necessary to purchase containers as they can be an investment.  All kinds of containers can be used for growing strawberries.  In the process of searching for the towers, we came across numerous DIY web articles and u-tube videos showing different styles of towers and containers. The University of California’s master gardener’s page shows how to make bucket planters.  Strawberry plants easily adapt to small spaces so containers are perfect as long as the plants get sun and plenty of moisture and nutrients. Depending on the tower height and configuration, you can have dozens of plants in less than one square foot making them ideal for the patio or deck or as a piece of “art” in the flower garden.

Growing strawberries in tower containers is different than growing in a garden so you’ll want to keep the following tips in mind. (For additional information, check out Growing Strawberries in Containers.)

  1. Ever-bearing strawberry varieties are best for containers.  They bear some fruit in mid-June and occasionally through the summer; they give a good harvest late summer and into the fall right up to frost if the plants are carefully cared for.
  2. Potting soil is a must to provide good drainage and nutrient distribution.
  3. Purchase new plants and potting soil each season to avoid disease from the previous crop.
  4. Add a good vegetable and flower fertilizer to each container before planting. Fertilize frequently throughout the season to keep the plants healthy and productive.
  5. Trim the runners off when they start to appear. However, if you have a missing plant in your containers, you can lay a close runner on the missing area and let it take root.  Trimming the runners promotes growth and more berries in the fall.
  6. Keep the fruit picked off as the berries mature. This is definitely not hard to do!!

I find that the fruit quality is better when grown in containers.   Strawberries that sit on damp ground start to rot or seem to bring the potential for rot with them even after harvest so their shelf life is really short.  By keeping them up in the air, they dry quickly and are not in contact with diseases and funguses in the soil that cause rot.  Nearly every berry is perfect when plucked from the plant and have a longer shelf life in the refrig.  I store them unwashed in an open container in the refrigerator fruit drawer.  When I get too many to eat fresh, I wash, stem, place them on a cookie sheet, and pop them into the freezer for a couple of hours before I bag and return them to the freezer to use for smoothies, jams and other recipes throughout the winter months.

So if you enjoy red, ripe, juicy, sweet strawberries (high in vitamins and antioxidants, too) from the garden but detest the effort it takes to grow or pick them in a bed, consider going “up with strawberries!” I think you’ll be glad you did!

PS – Vertical gardens are good for some vegetables and herbs, too.

Marlene Geiger

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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