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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Eat Like the Animals: Go for the Nuts!

An american red squirrel holding a nut in it’s paws.

Humans could take a tip from nut-loving animals like squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears! Somehow these animals know that nuts are good for them. Nuts are good for humans, too. They are a great source of plant protein, fiber, unsaturated fats, and important vitamins and minerals, thereby providing significant health benefits to both humans and animals. Besides, they taste good and make a great snack or addition to meals.

Here’s a quick look at the most common nuts available to us and their contributions to our health:

Almonds have more calcium than any other nut, plus an abundance of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, protein and fiber. A number of studies have shown that almonds may reduce LDL as well as risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

Brazil nuts are high in protein, fiber, thiamine, copper, and magnesium and an incredibly rich source of selenium. Selenium is a mineral that acts as an antioxidant. Only a small amount of selenium is needed in the diet so one needs to watch quantities as high levels of selenium can be toxic. A one-ounce serving of Brazil nuts will provide more than 100% of the RDI for selenium. They may also help reduce cholesterol levels, oxidative stress, and inflammation.

Cashews are packed with iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. While they low in fiber, they are a source of oleic acid and provide good monounsaturated fat and some polyunsaturated fat. Like other nuts, they contribute to good heart health, muscles, and nerves and reduce the risk of diabetes.

Macadamia nuts contain a wide range of nutrients and are a great source of monounsaturated fat; in fact, per serving, they contain the most heart-healthy monounsaturated fats of all nuts. This may explain their ability to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Macadamia nuts are the most caloric of all nuts averaging 240 calories per quarter-cup.

Pecans are nutrient dense containing more than 19 vitamins and minerals. They are also a good source of fiber, contain antioxidants, and may help lower LDL cholesterol.

Pistachios are especially high in vitamin B6, thiamine, and copper and offer high levels of other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eaten in high quantities (more than 28 grams per day), pistachios appear to reduce risk factors for heart disease.

Walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fats, particularly an omega-6 fatty acid called linoleic acid. They also contain a relatively high percentage of a healthy omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid which is important for skin health. Studies have found that eating walnuts significantly reduced total cholesterol and LDL while increasing HDL. They also contain the most antioxidants compared with other nuts. Overall, walnuts are a winner among nuts.

While nuts are one of the healthiest of snacks, they are also high in calories so limiting consumption to one ounce/, quarter-cup portions/, or a small handful/per day is recommended. To reduce the calorie load from nuts, choose raw or dry-roasted instead of oil-roasted nuts. Further, nut choices should be minimally processed and have no added ingredients; in addition to oil, many snack-packaged nuts are high in salt or added flavors. Nutritionists suggest eating different kinds of nuts on different days to maximize nutrition available from the various kinds.

Nuts make an exceptional addition to meals or dishes, too. Some ideas include adding them to trail mix, sprinkling on salads, cereal, oatmeal or yogurt or using them crushed as a coating for fish, chicken, or other meats. Roasting nuts brings out their special flavors. To do so, preheat oven to 300F. Place shelled nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for 7-10 minutes. They add nutrition and crunch to desserts and make great ravioli fillings and pesto.

Yes, the animals know—nuts are a very healthy food and pack a big bang for the bite in terms of their nutrients. Eat like the animals.

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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Tips for Conscientious Eating When Dining Out

 

 

If you are watching calories, have dietary restrictions or food intolerances/allergies, dining out can be a challenge.  The pros of dining out are that restaurants, casual dining (fast food) venues, and delis are convenient for fast meals and/or socialization.   The cons (calorie overload, mega portions, sky-high salt, food triggers) may make it hard to maintain a healthy, balanced, or safe diet.

Here are some ideas to help you make appropriate choices when you dine out without compromising calories or health:

  • Check the online menu before going to decide what will work. If necessary, call in advance to ask about dietary or health concerns you may have such as gluten-free options and cross contamination.
  • Don’t make assumptions if you have concerns. Politely ask the server or chef a few simple questions:  How are the vegetables prepared/seasoned? Is the fish/chicken/pork chop grilled, broiled, breaded, or fried?  What is in the sauce or dressing?  Is the soup base broth or cream?  Has the food been marinated in any sauce?  Has any food been coated or dusted with flour?  Are mashed potatoes made with real potatoes?
  • Pay attention to the nutritional information if it is provided. If it is not available but of concern, ask.  The healthiest sounding dish on the menu may not be.
  • Order water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or unsweetened tea to avoid high-calorie beverages.
  • Ask for salad dressings, sauces, sour cream, butter, etc on the side so you can control the amount.
  • Substitute fruit, vegetables, or a salad for a heavy or off-diet side dish.
  • If gluten is allowed, ask for whole-wheat bread for sandwiches.
  • Start with a veggie-packed side salad to help control hunger and feel satisfied sooner. Request no crackers, croutons, wontons, or cheese if any are of concern to your diet or health.
  • Avoid appetizers either from the menu or those presented at the table (chips, breads, etc).
  • Choose main dishes with lots of veggies, especially steamed veggies when possible.
  • Order steamed, grilled or broiled dishes. Avoid fried or sautéed foods as much as possible.
  • At a buffet, order an item from the menu instead going for the all-you-can-eat option.
  • Opt out of dessert or request fresh fruit.
  • Refrain from cleaning your plate if the portion is too much. Splitting with a companion or requesting a take-home box are always options.  Take a minute to look at the plate that is brought to you and decide before taking a bite what you intend to eat.   Another option is to ask the waiter to box half of your plate before bringing it to the table.

Dining out doesn’t mean your healthy eating plan has to stay at home.  Nor does it mean that you have to stay home if you have dietary restrictions or food issues.  Ask a few questions, make some smart choices, and your meal-out can be as healthy and safe as if you made it yourself.

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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Got “Coconut” Milk?

When a recipe calls for coconut milk, who knew that getting the right “coconut milk” could be so confusing?  It should not be but with grocers offering so many different incarnations of this tropical nut that go by the same or very similar names, confusion abounds.  And to make selecting even more daunting, the different products really aren’t interchangeable.  Touted as the ultimate non-dairy beverage, bursting with health benefits that run the gamut from aiding with weight loss to preventing heart disease to balancing cholesterol levels, one needs to know which to use for what.  So what is coconut milk and all of its incarnations?  Which should we use for what?

Coconut milk is the real deal and the one you want for cooking.  True coconut milk comes in a can and is  found in the international aisle usually near the Asian food items.  It is a thick, fatty liquid made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water at a 1:1 ratio resulting in a thick, pourable product.  Good brands will have a thick cream that separates and rises to the top.  The more separation and thicker the cream, the better the product.  It has a coconut-y flavor making it a key ingredient in many Asian and Indian dishes.

Light coconut milk is merely a watered down version (1:2 ratio) of full-fat coconut milk.  Light coconut milk does not separate to give coconut cream.  It may be substituted for half-and-half in recipes with approximately half the fat of half-and-half.

Coconut water is a hip new drink made from the liquid that is naturally inside the wild, immature coconut nut.  Drink it, but do not cook with it.  Being high in potassium, it is a popular post-workout beverage due to its nutritional value.  It is also an excellent substitute for liquids used in sorbets.  Coconut water is blended with coconut cream to create coconut milk.

Carton of coconut milk is a beverage usually found in the dairy section of the store next to the other non-dairy milks.  It may be unsweetened or sweetened (with sugar) and is used as you would dairy milk for sipping, splashing on to cereal, with coffee, or in recipes.  Coconut milk beverage can be used as a substitute for low fat or whole milk in a 1:1 ration for general cooking and baking.  However, it should not be substituted for canned coconut milk when a recipe calls for such; they are simply different products.  The difference is mainly lots of water. To make the refrigerated version more drinkable, palatable, and comparable as a beverage alternative, manufacturers add water. So much so that it dilutes the calories from about 450 calories per cup to about 45. Some varieties also have added sugars, gums, and thickeners.

Coconut cream is the most concentrated version of coconut milk.  With a high fat content and low water density, it is incredibly rich and will make any recipe creamier.  It can be used to thicken soups or to make vegan whipped cream.  Sold in cans, it is also found in the international aisle near the Asian food items.

Sweetened cream of coconut is coconut cream that has been sweetened.  It is incredibly sweet and intended for cocktails like a Pina Colada or to be used in a frozen dessert.

Coconut milk has erroneously gotten a bad rap because it is high in saturated fats.  Research reveals that coconut milk has unique fatty acids which provide a healthy source of fat, thereby contributing to the fore mentioned health benefits.  Further, new research finds that people who include healthy fats in their diet, like those found in coconut milk (medium-chain triglycerides), eat less than those who do not.

In a ‘coconut’ shell—with a little coconut milk knowledge, choosing the right milk for the job does not have to be confusing nor do you need to be overly concerned about the saturated fat found in coconut milk.

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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Slow cooker tips

There is something special about coming home after a long day of work and smelling something delicious in the slow cooker. Without a lot of effort, supper will be ready in only a few minutes. I blogged about using a slow cooker a couple of years ago. It is surprising how many people have discovered that blog post and asked questions. I have done a bit of research recently and thought that I could share just a bit more information about cooking with a slow cooker.

We blogged recently about fire safety so it is good to know that while a slow cooker will get hot while in use, it is considered safe to use on the counter top. A well-maintained slow cooker is not a fire hazard due to the low wattage of the appliance.

Typically, a slow cooker takes about 7 or 8 hours to reach 200°F on low or 4 to 5 hours to reach that same temperature on high. This temperature should be enough to kill any bacteria that might be present. As the food reaches that temperature, the meat will become done enough for meat to fall off the bones and for the flavors of the foods in the slow cooker to meld together. Remember not to open the lid of the cooker as that allows heat to escape. Removing the lid later in the process has less effect than removing it during the first hour or two. Use an instant read thermometer to know if meat has cooked long enough.

Your recipe may call for some special ingredients. Here are some tips for using those special ingredients.

  • Pasta: If your recipe calls for pasta, pre-cook the pasta until it is just slightly tender. You can then add it to the slow cooker during the last hour or two of cooking.
  • Rice: Simply add the rice and an equal amount of water to the slow cooker when you are adding ingredients at the beginning of the cooking time.
  • Dry beans: Dry beans must be softened completely. Once the beans contact sugar or an acid, they will remain hard. If you must put all the ingredients into the cooker at once, consider using canned beans.
  • Vegetables: Root vegetables (things like potatoes and carrots) require a longer cooking time than some meats. Be sure to place them at the bottom of the cooker when adding food.
  • Liquid: your recipe must include some liquid. At the very least your need ½ to 1 cup of liquid. The foods in the cooker will contribute additional liquid during the cooking time. This liquid aids in transfer of heat from the cooker to the food.
  • Thickeners: You can add a thickener at the beginning or the end of the cooking time. Not all thickeners work equally well. Flour can be added at the end of the cooking time but will require additional cooking time to thicken the food. It can take up to 15 minutes of cooking on high to remove the uncooked flour taste from the dish. Cornstarch works in a similar way, but will thicken after the food returns to a boil. Cornstarch, too, must be added at the end of the cooking time or it will break down. Tapioca is the only cooking starch that you can add at the beginning of the cooking time. Typically, you would use the same amount of tapioca as flour to thicken a dish.
  • Milk, cream, sour cream: These foods will break down over a long cooking time. Add these during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking.
  • Fish: This delicate food should also be added during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time.

Use these tips to convert any favorite recipes that you have into a slow cooker recipe. Enjoy a healthy, fast dinner tonight.

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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Beyond Pumpkin Spice and all Things Nice

If your love for “pumpkin spice” and all things pumpkin nice is beginning to wane or you were never a fan to begin, perhaps it is time to pigeon-hole those sweets and lattes and look at different ways to use the vitamin rich pumpkin (or squash).  The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with beta-carotene, a plant carotenoid which converts to Vitamin A in the body.  Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene reduces the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and some degenerative diseases.  Besides beta-carotene, pumpkin is also packed with Vitamins C and K, fiber, and other important nutrients while being low in calories.

Pumpkin is a surprisingly versatile product with a smooth, warming quality that lends itself well to creamy textures.  Squash, such as butternut, can be substituted for pumpkin.  Since all recipes do not use a whole can of pumpkin or the flesh of a whole pumpkin or squash, you may need to think of multiple uses for it.  Pumpkin/squash puree is good for 5-7 days in the refrigerator or 2-3 months in the freezer. Here are a few of the ways I use pumpkin/squash puree or a can of pumpkin that are an alternative to pumpkin spice and traditional desserts along with some recipes from my recipe box.

Drinks, smoothies, and yogurt parfaits

Hummus

Thickening for chili soup, marinara sauce, or curries

Yeast breads and rolls

Soup

Pancakes or waffles

Vegetarian burgers (can also be used in meat burgers)

Risotto

Ravioli or lasagna filling

Crackers

Pumpkin Orange Smoothie
½ cup Greek yogurt (or substitute)
¼ cup milk or substitute
3 tablespoons pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
1 tablespoon honey
Blend until smooth; serve cold.

Black Bean Pumpkin Burgers
½ cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 14-oz can black beans, drained, rinsed or 2 cups cooked black beans
Place all ingredients and half of the beans in a food processor.  Pulse until smooth.  Add remaining beans and pulse until just slightly chopped.  Form into patties.  Place patties on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 325F for 40-45 minutes.  Makes 4 burgers.

Pumpkin Hummus
2 cloves garlic
1 can (15 oz) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin or 1 ¾ cups puree
2 tablespoons almond or peanut butter
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon olive oil
Dash cayenne pepper or smoked paprika
Ice water
Pumpkin seeds (optional)
Puree all ingredients in a food processor.  Add ice water until desired consistency is achieved.  Garnish with pumpkin seeds.

Cheesy Pumpkin Crackers
1 cup gluten-free flour blend
½ t salt
½ t pepper
3 tablespoons coconut oil (melted)
½ cup pumpkin puree
½ cup grated cheese
1 tablespoon water
Mix all ingredients together.  Roll 1/8” thick on parchment paper.  Cut into squares or designs with a cookie cutter.  Use a fork to poke holes in top.  Bake on parchment lined baking sheet for 15 minutes at 400F.

Let’s spread the word. Pumpkins are not just for baking into pies, bread, or bars, displaying on your stoop, or carving into jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkin is a delicious addition to many kinds of food.

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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Kiwi Berries

When I was in the grocery store recently I ran across kiwi berries in the produce section. I had not seen them before and was interested in finding out more about them. They are at their peak in the Fall, mostly September and October.

Kiwi berries are grape-sized with a flavor similar to grocery store kiwifruit though somewhat sweeter. The berries have a thin, smooth skin that is edible and typically they are emerald green in color. The shape can vary from round to elongate. They are higher in vitamin C than oranges and provide other antioxidants, fiber, and essential minerals.

Kiwi berries are grown in areas of the United States with cooler climates. They are the kind of fruit that can withstand very cold temperatures. Once you get them home, you should store kiwi berries in the refrigerator.

I think they would be a nice addition to a lunchbox, salad, or anytime as a snack.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Battling the Slump with Energy Boosting Snacks

You know that mid-morning or mid-afternoon slump—your mind is wandering and your productivity just isn’t happening.  An energy burst is needed so you grab a cup of coffee, a soft drink, or a sweet treat for a quick solution.  News alert!!!!  A quick fix of sugar or caffeine isn’t a fix at all.  While you may beg to differ, they actually drain your energy rather than give you more.  Foods with a high glycemic index flood the body with insulin causing a brief boost of energy, but it is quickly followed by feelings of drowsiness and hunger.

Having healthy snacks on hand is key to staying fueled and focused when you need it most.  They will keep your energy up and your blood sugar stable when a slump looms.  When looking to grab a snack to battle the slump, consider these foods:

Bananas or Apples.  Loaded with good carbs, vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, fruit is portable, doesn’t require refrigeration, and provides quick energy.  Dried fruit is a great alternative to fresh.

Almonds or Walnuts.  These morsels are a wonderful, portable snack. They’re packed with good fats, which help you stay full, along with fiber, selenium, vitamin E, and omega-3s. Because it’s easy to overeat on nuts, portion an ounce serving to a small container or snack bag.

Carrots.  Just like sugary snacks, carrots increase blood sugar quickly.  But unlike sweets, these treats provide vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium and fiber.  Keep a bag of baby carrots on hand for your next snack attack.  If carrots aren’t your thing, consider red peppers, celery, zucchini, mushrooms, sugar or snap peas, or raw asparagus for a boost.

Hummus or Peanut Butter.  Add a source of protein like hummus or peanut or nut butter to fruits and vegetables for a satisfying snack. Just a tablespoon or two will be enough to keep you feeling full for hours.

Popcorn.  Popcorn is a great snack because you get a lot of volume and fiber making you feel full.  And, because it’s a whole grain, it’s healthier than a snack like pretzels. However, watch the calories and salt. Consider preparing low-fat microwave popcorn to curb butter calories and salt.

String cheese.   While a good source of protein and calcium, cheese also packs calories and saturated fat so you have to be careful.  The nice thing about individual packaging is that you know exactly how many calories you are going to inhale; and fortunately, there are several good options to choose from.

Water.  Water fights off food cravings, increases metabolism, and also provides energy without any calories, salt, fat, or sugar.

These foods are also great after-school snacks for children, too.

Did I miss an easy-to-grab, healthy, energy-boosting snack that you like to eat? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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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Grocery Delivery Services

It seems that the common denominator in our society these days is that everyone is pressed for time. The AnswerLine staff sampled a meal delivery system last winter. We all enjoyed trying new foods and some new ways to prepare food. Another popular option these days is ordering groceries on-line. A co-worker is considering starting to get her groceries by ordering on-line.

She and I have been evaluating both the cost and convenience of using this type of service. We have been thinking through some of the ways to utilize this service while keeping the time invested to a minimum. In order to take full advantage of this service you really need to be organized. A meal plan for at least the next week would be helpful when making out a grocery order. It may seem daunting to start planning meals if it is not something that you typically do. Of course it is possible to start slowly and plan only a few meals a week at first.

The service we investigated requires a $100 minimum purchase and you have the choice of either picking the groceries up at the store or having them delivered at your home. You also can make a list with foods that you always buy at the grocery store or items that you need for specific circumstances.

My co-worker thought that she may actually pay more attention to the cost of the food while buying on-line and she may make fewer impulse purchases. Sometimes seeing the food in person or touching it caused her to buy things she had not planned on purchasing before she arrived at the store. We also noticed that items that were on sale were marked making it easier to notice sale foods.

I plan to check with her again after she enrolls in the on-line delivery site later this fall. I will have more questions about the real convenience and any additional work this method of grocery shopping requires. Please comment on questions you would like to have answered. We may be able to work together to simplify all our lives.

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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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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