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Posts Tagged ‘master gardener’

Answers from a Master Gardener – 3

To help myself through winter’s garden-free months, I talked to several master gardeners and got all kinds of ideas about gardening. Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State’s Master Gardener program was kind enough to answer a pile of my questions, many of which came from readers of Your Small Kitchen Garden blog, and from folks with whom I interact on Twitter.

In past posts, I’ve shared many of those questions along with Ginger’s answers. This post completes the series with more answers to questions concerning kitchen gardeners.

A Small Kitchen Garden on a Rooftop

The green roofs movement is growing (was that a pun?) quickly. This rooftop is on the ranger station in Vista Hermosa Park, Los Angeles. If your building is structurally sound, why not grow a kitchen garden on the roof? [I found this photo on the web site]

Twitter acquaintance @charlie43 had questions about rooftop gardening. He was concerned that the rooftop is very hot, and asked whether hydroponics was the best method to employ.

Ginger admitted she has no experience with rooftop gardening, but she suggested experimentation. First: find out whether the building is capable of supporting the weight of a planting bed… this is a crucial step! Then, build a raised bed, plant it, and see how things work out. One likely benefit of a rooftop raised bed garden is that it may rest above trees and buildings that would typically block sunlight.

We talked about emerging green roof technology that uses live plants to provide buildings with natural cooling… and reduces a building’s carbon footprint in the process. Penn State’s web site has dozens of articles about green roofs, and a dedicated section specifically about green roof research.

So, if the building can handle it, seems as though you should cover the whole thing with a kitchen garden.

We didn’t talk much about hydroponics. Proponents of hydroponics talk as though some day whole hydroponic farms will hide inside skyscrapers and provide garden fresh vegetables for urban dwellers. In my experience, growing hydroponically is pricier than traditional methods. I’d offer: if you…

  • …can afford it
  • …enjoy it
  • …are having good results

Then why not grow with hydroponics? If you want to take a more traditional approach, follow Ginger’s suggestion: experiment.

Have you heard the suggestion that you should plant peas on St Patrick’s day? A master gardener says it’s a good suggestion (at least for people in hardiness zone 5b).

What do all Gardeners get Wrong?

I asked Ginger whether she’s aware of gardening rules of thumb that are simply wrong. Not surprisingly, she said our ancestors knew their stuff: go ahead and follow the rules of thumb. When pressed, she observed that popular do-it-yourself guides encourage you to include soap as a bug-repellant in home-made plant sprays. This, she says, is bad advice; some ingredients used in soap can kill plants. If you’re mixing your own plant sprays, use insecticidal soap wherever a recipe calls for “soap.”

I asked, What is the most common error gardeners make? Ginger offered two suggestions:

1. People often start gardening without clear understanding of their own motivations. She feels it’s important to answer the question: Why are you gardening? Is it a spiritual back-to-the-earth experience? Are you trying to save money? Do you want bragging rights? Are you following tradition? Do you just want to eat great tomatoes? Understanding your motivation will guide your decisions, help with planning, and lead to desirable results.

2. People take their soil for granted. Planting in poor or inappropriate soil will likely lead to failure—or at least to inferior results. Get your soil tested, make appropriate amendments, and plant things that will like the soil you have.

Diagnose Problems in your Small Kitchen Garden

I asked Ginger questions about specific problems I’ve had with green beans over the years. While she offered several suggestions about the causes, she made a more general statement that everyone should be aware of: You can probably get a diagnosis of any plant disease at your local Cooperative Extension office.

Many offices sponsor hotlines manned by master gardeners, and some will invite you take samples of your diseased plants in for examination. Learn the schedule of your Extension office’s hotlines and office hours, and take advantage of them. (Ginger emphasized: find a local Cooperative Extension office; experts who don’t live in your part of the country may not be familiar with the types of problems you’ll face with your small kitchen garden.) Again, here’s a link to a web site that will help locate Extension offices in your area.

The Cash Crops

Want a great return on the investment you make in your small kitchen garden? Plant tomatoes. A flat of six seedlings may cost $3 and produce 120 to 600 pounds of tomatoes. At grocery store prices, that’s $240 to $1200 of produce!

A lot of readers ask the question: What should I plant? And, as Ginger explained in Part I of this series, the answer should depend on your sensibilities. I recast the question to reflect our economic times: What vegetables provide the greatest return on investment? Or, What plants give you the highest yield in the least space and with the least effort?

She suggested tomatoes, peppers, egg plant, and beans, and emphasized: absolutely not corn. I second her suggestions (well… I don’t care for eggplant, but if you like it, grow it), and offer as well: lettuce and spinach. But seriously: plant stuff you really want to eat.

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Answers from a Master Gardener – 2

My neighbor installed a garden shed near the property line. It provides a Four Seasons Hotel layover for marauding woodchucks who especially like peaches fresh off my trees.

If you’re growing a small kitchen garden, it’s helpful to know a master gardener who also has a kitchen garden. For those who don’t know a master gardener, I asked what questions you’d ask, if given the chance. Then, I asked those questions of Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program. In my last post (Answers from a Master Gardener – 1), I presented some of the insights Ginger shared. This post continues the presentation.

Grow Organic?

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked how to grow organic produce with the least possible effort; is growing organically worth the effort? Ginger’s immediate response was, “No.” To produce certifiably organic crops you must be quite intimate with your plants. Ginger agreed you can use many organic practices without working too hard, but you’re likely to face a crisis or two and turn to non-organic solutions for expediency.

Ginger says it’s a lot of work to grow commercially viable organic produce… if you’re a lazy gardener, you won’t be happy trying to maintain a completely organic garden.

Marauding Critters

@hardknocksmba asked the kind of open-ended question that draws stories from every gardener: How can I keep critters out of my garden? Ginger and I had quite a discussion about critters beginning with speculation about which critters might be causing problems.

Until you see an animal marauding among your growing produce, you can’t be sure what’s doing the damage. And, of course, gardens in different neighborhoods will have different challenges. For example, deer and voles threaten Ginger’s home kitchen garden, but rabbits and groundhogs harass plantings at the office where she works.

Ginger shared a story about a kids’ garden project in which some critter was eating only the young watermelon plants. It turned out that a skunk was choosing watermelons from among a variety of options.

I’m not a master gardener, but I have a suggestion for anyone whose small kitchen garden is getting eaten by sneaky, unseen critters: Install one of these. A live red-tailed hawk will strike terror in the hearts of small rodents; it might keep down the pocket dog population as well.

In a remote rural setting, Ginger is involved with a kitchen garden having an animal fence that extends five feet high, and one foot into the soil. Five feet is high enough that deer can’t jump the fence, and the underground reach keeps out burrowing animals. This is reasonable protection for a garden that gets attention only a few days a week. A small kitchen garden in an urban or suburban yard may not face threats that require such a high fence, though Ginger assured me a woodchuck will climb over a fence (and woodchucks thrive in many suburban neighborhoods).

More About Critters

I related my squirrel and pears story to Ginger (posted in Your Small Kitchen Garden back in September). I had left some pears on the tree when I harvested, but then watched a squirrel return to my tree day-after-day to make off with the ripening fruit. About that time, I’d learned from other gardeners that squirrels would rather drink water than eat fruit, so stealing pears indicated that the squirrel was thirsty; putting out a bowl of water might end its larcenous behavior.

Ginger couldn’t confirm whether this would work, but she did emphasize that it can take some heavy surveillance to identify whatever is damaging your crops. A variety of rodents might bite off emerging sprouts. Others might leave tooth-mark-scars in low-hanging fruits. Once you identify a culprit, it’s much easier to take appropriate steps to stop it.

Still to Come

In the third installment of this series, Answers from a Master Gardener, Ginger shares thoughts on rooftop gardening, on solving plant disease problems, and on the most common mistakes kitchen gardeners make. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or check back again in a few days for the conclusion of Answers from a Master Gardener.

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Answers from a Master Gardener – 1

From the wisdom of a master gardener: Plant your small kitchen garden with foods you prefer to eat. If your family eats a lot of pasta, then tomatoes are a good choice. I second the thought: expecially when you have limited space, plant what will give you the most joy to eat.

Nearly a month ago, I invited readers of Your Small Kitchen Garden—and people on Twitter—to offer up questions they’d like to ask a Master Gardener. I was on my way to the Pennsylvania Farm Show where I had planned to meet with a Master Gardener and ask those questions. As I reported in several posts: I did meet with a Master Gardener. In fact, I met with several of them.

My activity at the Farm Show was rather hectic, and I failed to coordinate with any of the Master Gardeners until after the Show. However, last week Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program, generously took a chunk of a morning to answer the question you folks had asked.Our conversation resulted in more material than should reasonably go into a single blog post, so this is the first installment of Your Small Kitchen Garden’s Answers from a Master Gardener.

Small Kitchen Garden Indoors

Twitter acquaintance @nickfalvo asked about the best way to grow a kitchen garden indoors: What are the best plants? What are the best practices?

Ginger admitted that growing vegetables indoors isn’t her forte (each Master Gardener focuses on aspects of gardening of interest to them), but she acknowledged that growing food indoors is particularly challenging. She suggests that you choose cool-season plants that don’t fruit. She named parsley and chives in this category, and also suggested growing sprouts—pea sprouts, specifically. (Lettuces and spinach are short-season plants that do well in cool weather.)

Among the challenges of a full-bore indoor kitchen garden are

  1. providing adequate light
  2. providing adequate heat

If you’re serious about growing indoors, placing plants in a south-facing window won’t satisfy their need for sunlight; you’ll need to augment with artificial light. You’ll also need to keep the plants warmer than people typically keep their living spaces.

Ginger suggests that you use an indoor kitchen garden primarily to start seeds for later transplant outdoors. To help seeds get started in houses with thermostats set low, put your seed planters on heating pads.

Essential Small Kitchen Garden Tools

I’ve never used a soil knife, but Ginger Pryor, the master gardener who answered your questions, uses no other gardening tool.

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked which tools are must-haves for a kitchen gardener. Ginger’s reply: This is a matter of personal taste. She says the only gardening tool she uses is a soil knife; it’s especially useful for breaking up the clay-heavy soil common to central Pennsylvania. But each person’s gardening style determines the tools they’ll need—or prefer.

In view of this, Ginger answered the follow-on question, Which tools are a waste of money? with the same observation: it’s a matter of personal style.

Test Your Soil

@hardknockwmba asked, How should I test my soil? Ginger pointed to the Cooperative Extension soil testing service. In Pennsylvania, nine dollars buys testing on a soil sample. You fill out a form on which you list crops you plan to grow, and you provide the soil. Cooperative Extension reports on soil composition including pH level, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and sulfur. The report recommends lime and fertilizer amendments to optimize soil for the crops you want to grow.

You can request additional analyses, each adding cost to the initial $9 fee. For example, an additional $5 buys a measure of the organic component of your soil, and another $5 will tell you how much arsenic is in the soil. Ginger suggests the organic matter analysis for new planting sites. She insists that the greatest factor in your success is soil preparation, so get this right when you start. Most state Cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing services and other programs to help you succeed with your small kitchen garden. Follow this link to find an Extension office in your state: Cooperative Extension Office Locator.

If you’re into gourmet cooking, Ginger suggests, you might emphasize herbs in your small kitchen garden. When I plant tomatoes, I always plant basil nearby. To me, the combined flavors are nearly as good as candy. In my last post—Spring Planning for Your Small Kitchen Garden—I revealed the items I must plant to get satisfaction from a growing season.

What Should I Plant?

@hardknocksmba also asked what he should plant in a 120 square foot space. As you might guess, Ginger insisted she can’t answer this question for anyone without knowing them better. She proposed that you answer the following question to help decide what to plant: Why are you planting a garden? She followed it up with a few broad suggestions: If there is a lot of pasta in your diet, plant accordingly: tomatoes and peppers might dominate. If you’re into gourmet cooking, then emphasize herbs.

Ginger pointed out that some vegetables—corn, for example—take so much space to produce even a modest harvest that they have no place in a small kitchen garden. In contrast, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, and many other vegetable plants produce food for a sustained period during the growing season.

Beyond these thoughts, Ginger emphasized: Grow what you want to eat.

More Gardening Insights

Ginger and I talked through many more questions, and I’ll report on them soon. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or revisit in the next few days for the second installment of Answers from a Master Gardener.


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The 2009 PA Farm Show – 3

If your garden tractor looks like this, why are you visiting a web site called Your Small Kitchen Garden? One large hall at the Pennsylvania Farm Show features all kinds of lawn, garden, and farming equipment.

I’ll get off of this Farm Show kick and back into purely small kitchen garden topics in the next few days. This is the last post I’ll do this year that’s about the Pennsylvania Farm Show in general. I have several topics to cover that arose from my time at the Farm Show, and several will become themes in this and my Home Kitchen Garden blog in the coming months.

I owe you answers to questions you suggested you’d ask of a master gardener, so I’ll try to get that post together soon. As well, I attended several presentations by certified master gardeners at the Farm Show, and each deserves at least one blog post.

But First, Escape

Before I dig back into topics that will be more relevant in late winter and early spring, here’s one more encouragement for small kitchen gardeners to escape the winter. I’m sorry if you can’t head to tropical or sub-tropical climes, but at least find a farm show, a garden show, or home & garden show, and immerse yourself in it for a day or two or three. I’ve added a page to list upcoming shows in various cold places—Garden Shows—perhaps there’s one you can attend. And, if I’ve missed one you’re planning to attend, please share the details and I’ll add it.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is the only conference I’ve attended that has a stand in the food court spcifically to sell mushrooms. There are also stands selling dairy products, vegetable dishes, potato dishes, and maple syrup products. The maple sugar cotton candy is unexpected and delicious.

I spent four days of the last week enjoying the Pennsylvania Farm Show. I’ve reported on my activities in several posts, and have prepared two videos to help tell the story. The second video appears below and covers events and exhibits that I visited on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week.

Flag Racing

While the Farm Show is all about agriculture in Pennsylvania, exhibits tend toward big-time agriculture. At the same time, the Farm Show is a state fair to which people take their crafts, baked goods, canned goods, and livestock for competition.

Having raised horses as a child, I particularly enjoyed equestrian events at the show. This was my first exposure to flag racing. In this sport, a contestant rides a horse past a barrel, grabbing a flag that sits in a bucket of sand on top of the barrel. The horse must continue down the length of the arena, around a second barrel, and then back past the first barrel where the contestant deposits the flag back in the bucket of sand. All this takes place in about ten seconds.

Here’s a simple project for a small kitchen garden. Find a nice basket and a pan to fit in it. Plant several small flower pots with a variety of herbs and set them in the pan. Distribute moss around the pots to help hold them in place (and to conceal them). Set in a warm, well-lighted place in or near your kitchen.

As simple and silly as it sounds, I found flag racing exciting, and laughed when one of the mounts kicked dirt from the arena up into my face.

Team Cattle Penning

This equestrian event features a herd of 30 young cattle pitted against teams of three horses and riders. Each cattle has a number—zero through nine—painted on its side. There are three cattle numbered zero, three number 1, and so on.

As the horses and riders approach the herd, an announcer calls out a number. The three-person team then chases the three corresponding cattle from the herd and into a paddock at the opposite end of the arena. If too many cattle head toward the other end of the arena, the team fails. And, if the team doesn’t pen at least one of the specified cattle within 76 seconds, they fail.

This event is action-packed. Cattle having minds of their own (and preferring to be with their herds), it takes quick reflexes, excellent teamwork, and a little luck to pen all three cattle. My daughter and I sat in the front row, and we both busted out laughing when we were hit in the faces with dirt kicked up by a charging horse.

Sheep to Shawl

At the opposite extreme from a high-speed running-horse event, the sheep to shawl competition’s liveliest moments came as the handlers guided their freshly-sheared sheep out of the arena. Teams set up spinning wheels and looms before the competition started, and each led its chosen sheep into the arena. Then, on the announcer’s “go,” the shearers harvested wool from their sheep.

After shearing, team members carded wool and spinners started drawing it into yarn. With enough yarn made, a team’s weaver worked the loom, eventually producing a shawl. The whole thing happens in two and a half hours. While the teams work at a furious pace, to a spectator the whole thing looks quite tame. Still, it draws a crowd.

After judges award the grand champion, contestants auction off the shawls. This year’s grand champion (the team’s weaver is from Lewisburg) drew a winning bid of $900. Amazingly, the 6th place finisher went for $3,400 at auction, setting a new sheep-to-shawl auction record.

Here’s a compelling off-season project for the small kitchen gardener: build a mini garden in a box. These were on display at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. The attention to detail makes them compelling, but a kitchen gardener might substitute herbs, vegetables, and dwarf citrus trees in place of the house plants.

For Gardeners

As I said earlier: I attended several talks by certified master gardeners, and all were informative and enjoyable. The topics: Pollinators, Rain Gardens, and Worm Composting. I’ll write blog posts about these in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out the later photos on this page for projects you could undertake to ward off the winter gardening blues.

Here’s my latest video from the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Please enjoy it:


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The 2009 PA Farm Show – 2

Pennsylvania Farm Show poultry judge Paul Kroll holds a superior specimen.

Extreme cold has settled onto my small kitchen garden; cold to make me wonder whether my perennial herbs will survive through winter. We’re supposed to see temperatures below 10F degrees through the week, so I’m very glad I’ve scheduled two more days to attend the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

I went to the Show on both Saturday and Sunday—Saturday to get acquainted with a certified master gardener and learn about chickens, and Sunday for pure escape with my kids. Yep: yesterday my three kids and I drove to Harrisburg to lose ourselves in the unlikely winter elixir that is the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Pure Winter Escape

The poultry room at the Farm Show features a pen where chickens eat from a trough at (their) head level, and eggs roll into another trough below them. Nearby, chicks hatch out in a larg incubator. The hatching chicks draw large crowds.

I’ve been encouraging readers of this blog to attend the Pennsylvania Farm Show or some more accessible indoor garden show. Every steward of a small kitchen garden deserves a mid-winter boost. Sure, you can get a lift from growing produce indoors, but unless indoor gardening is your only option year-round, you’re probably growing some anticipation for warmer days of spring. An indoor garden show or farm show provides some relief, and the kids and I got our fill on Sunday.

We went directly to the Main Hall where there was a demonstration of beekeeping methods underway. Unfortunately, the demo was on a raised stage, and we were too challenged to get close, so we wandered among the exhibitor booths. Exhibitors selling prepared foods at the PA Farm Show give out samples—ice cream; slushies; barbeque sauces, relishes, cheeses, and crackers and breads to hold them; maple syrup; soups; bologna and other sausages; candies; and more. You’d have to work hard to kill your appetite, but tasting is fun.

Clydesdale draft horses have the second-most attractive legs in the animal kingdom. This pair was on display at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

My daughter’s interest in horses had us attending a performance by the State Police Mounted Drill Team, a popular show in an impressive arena. My sons had unspecific goals; they were there, I think, simply to experience the Farm Show. We visited all the critters: poultry, rabbits, horses, goats, cows, pigs, sheep, and goats.

Among the most memorable:

  • We petted an alpaca: indescribably soft wool, dense beyond description
  • We saw an angora rabbit: hair triples the size of the animal; the rabbit’s owner was wearing a scarf she’d knitted from the rabbit’s wool
  • We watched teams of gorgeous draft horses pull wagons
  • We reviewed dozens of homemade crafts and food products: furniture, picture frames, shawls, blankets, flower arrangements, canned goods, baked goods, gingerbread houses, needlepoint tapestries, and more.
  • Did you know that Pennsylvania produces the most mushrooms of any state in the US? Speaking of mushrooms, here’s a thought for a small kitchen garden: how about starting a mushroom farm in your basement? Click here to buy a starter kit.

  • We ate lunches of foods that originated in Pennsylvania.
  • We toured horse trailers that would make fine homes away from home for horse owners as well as their horses.
  • We saw a Farm Show livestock handler napping with pigs.
  • We watched chicks hatch from eggs, and duckies splashing in a pond.
  • We reviewed display upon display of homegrown vegetables, fruit, and fungus.

Interview a Master Gardener

I’m looking forward to two more days at the Farm Show. Tomorrow, I’ll watch some horse racing, some of the sheep-to-shawl competition (shave a sheep, spin the wool, and weave a shawl in 2.5 hours), and I’ll visit with a master gardener. If you have questions you’d like me to ask, leave them in a comment before 7:00 AM tomorrow (Wed, Jan 14), and I’ll add them to my list. In the meantime, please enjoy the video I’ve assembled for people who don’t have a farm show near them:


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Master Gardener for Your Small Kitchen Garden

Baskets of home-grown vegetables will be on display, as well as Christmas trees, nuts, fruits, honey, maple syrup, and, for those who confuse combine raising poutlry with gardening, chickens.

If you have a small kitchen garden, and you’re not a certified master gardener, here’s an opportunity to advance your skills: Penn State Master Gardeners will attend the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg from January 10 through January 17. Get to the Farm Show, and you can probably bend the ear of at least one Certified Master Gardener. I’m planning to do just that.

If you can’t get to the Farm Show, but you’d still like to ask questions of a Certified Master Gardener, I offer my assistance: Toss me your questions in a comment, and I’ll take them with me to the Farm Show.

Small Kitchen Garden Doldrums

There’s nothing to do in the small kitchen garden I manage in my yard; it’s nearly a skating rink because of two days of freezing rain. My next outdoor gardening task will be to prune fruit trees in March, and to graft from my red apple tree onto my green apple tree. As well, I have my eye on a neighbor’s pear tree from which I hope to swipe a few tiny branches; I’ll graft those onto my own pear tree.

So, facing nearly two more months of indoor-only gardening, I seek gardening-related activities. As I explained in my last post, next up is The Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

This show celebrates all things agricultural in Pennsylvania. Because Pennsylvania is primarily rural, it hosts a huge variety of agricultural activity. The Farm Show presents many entertainment events such as rodeo competitions, livestock judging, cooking shows, sheep shearing and weaving, and honey and maple syrup production. As well, the show boasts several exhibition halls filled with vendors and displays having to do with agriculture.

The Penn State Master Gardeners appear on the Farm Show schedule every day of the show. I don’t know what they present, but I’ll attend on Saturday and find out. With a list of my own questions, questions gathered from this blog, and questions received on Twitter, I’ll respectfully request an interview with one or more of the master gardeners on-hand, and report back to you during or after the show (I’m attending 4 days of the 8 that the show is open to the public).

So, leave your questions. Let’s get enlightened by a master—or see whether we can stump one—and get a little gardening adrenalin flowing.


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