Thursday, February 26, 2015

Finding Bee-Friendly Plants

At the end of last season, our closest local nursery went out of business after over 20 years. Even though their plants were slightly more expensive than the big-box stores, I was able to get a great variety of healthy, pesticide free flowers and veggies. They also had a wonderful selection of trees and shrubs that were well suited to our area.

With their closing, the nearest local nursery is now about 20 miles away from us. For me, it's well worth the extra miles to buy from a reputable grower. Many others, however, aren't going to travel- they're going to head over to the nearest Lowes, Home Depot or Walmart to get their plants. Here's the catch- many of the plants sold at big box retailers are treated with neonicotinoid pesticides long before they arrive at the store. Neonics are the pesticides linked to the bee colony collapse problems, and plants treated with them are not required to be labeled as such.

So what's a responsible gardener to do? Not everything is easy to start from seed, and let's face it, not everyone has the time, either. But, if you can start from seed, I highly recommend it. Here are some other tips:

  • Buddy up. Talk to your gardening friends and neighbors and organize a plant swap. It's much less intimidating starting one or two kinds of seeds, and then trading the starts with your friends.
  • Buy local. Farmer's Markets and Farm Stores often sell plant starts. You can talk to the farmer about their plants, and find out if the starts have been treated with anything.
  • Support your small garden centers. Take a moment and run a quick Google search on nurseries in your area. You might be surprised at how many there are! Once you're there, you can talk with the growers and see what chemicals they do or don't use. 
  • Plant wildflower seeds. Most bee and butterfly mixes require little more than sprinkling the seeds on the ground, raking them in, and watering. The more bee friendly plants we can grow, the better off they'll be. Plus, many wildflowers will attract other pollinators and beneficial bugs to your garden.
  • Vote with your dollars. It's not just about signing petitions and sending letters to corporations. If you don't like what's being sold at the big stores, don't buy it. Every time you do or don't make a purchase, you're telling companies what you want. If we stop buying questionable pesticides and/or plants grown using those products, they will eventually get the message.
  • Check your local extension office or community college for plant sales. Garden clubs also frequently have fund-raiser sales in the spring and summer. Not only will you know what you're getting, but you may also find a group of like-minded folks to connect with.
  • Health food stores and Feed Stores. Our local Co-Op grocery brings in loads of local, organically grown plant starts each year. Same thing goes for my feed store, and yet the prices are comparable to the larger stores. 
What about you? Can you suggest any other ways to bring plants into your garden that you know are safe?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Apple and Pear Scab

I'm almost to a point where I think that our nice weather is going to stick around for a while. The Old Farmer's Almanac winter forecast for our area has been spot-on, and their long range outlook is equally favorable. My peas are in the ground, and although I haven't seen any sprouts yet, it's still a little bit early for that.

UC IPM Illustration of the scab life cycle.
So now, in addition to getting my seeds organized and started, I need to be mindful of the fruit trees and their needs. The bees are out and about already, and they're absolutely loving our plum tree which is now in full bloom. I don't recall it ever being so fragrant in February before!

One of the problems we have here is scab on our apple and pear trees. It's common everywhere, but our cool, wet springs are absolutely perfect growing conditions for the fungi that cause these ailments. Apple scab is an infection caused by a fungus called Venturia inequalis, whereas the Pear scab is an infection caused by a close relative, V. pirina. The infections, even though they appear symptomatically similar and are also managed in essentially the same ways, are different and cannot spread interchangeably between the two types of trees.

The fungi overwinter on the ground in the leaf and fruit debris from the trees until the following spring rains come and spread the spores. If the temperatures are right (between 55 and 75 degrees F) the spores will germinate quickly in the spring. Cleaning up and removing the fallen leaves and fruit is one of the most important things you can do to manage scab in existing orchards, and in many cases can significantly reduce the severity of an infection, year over year. If you are putting in new trees, planting resistant varieties will also help.

We have a couple of trees this year where there are some dead leaves and fruit are still stubbornly stuck to the branches on which they grew. I'm going to need to figure out a way to knock those down so I can get rid of them before the new leaves start to open. Once an infection takes hold, you cannot get rid of it- you can only do damage control for the rest of the season. It can cause a significant loss of fruit if the infection is severe, so catching it early and being vigilant in your management program is key.

I'm also researching spray options this year, which I don't normally do. Historically, warm and wet conditions here in the Spring means we're going to have all sorts of fungal issues to contend with, so I'm definitely interested in preventing whatever I possibly can.There are a lot of choices out there, from hard-hitting chemical concoctions, to more gentle "home remedies" that may or may not work. Keep an eye out for that, in the next couple of weeks.

What about you? Have you had any experience with apple or pear scab?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thar She Blows...

If you stopped by the Facebook page or over on Instagram last week, you might have noticed I had a bit of a debacle with the Cider Experiment. I was wrapping up some work in my office when all of a sudden I heard a loud noise, somewhere between a pop and a bang, that seemed to come from our storage room.

When I opened the door, the pleasant yeasty apple smell of hard cider hung in the air. There was a tiny puddle seeping out from one of the cases that we had stored on the floor, and was creeping its way to the floor drain. By some stroke of luck, it happened to be the one case that we'd closed the cardboard lid on. Cautiously, I opened the box, to find that one of the bottles of cider had, in fact, over pressurized and exploded. I chuckled to myself about how lucky I was that it was a self contained mess, snapped a quick picture, and started cleaning up.

I picked up a couple of the intact bottles, and brought them out to our bar area. I knew I needed to get them into colder storage, so I rinsed and dried the bottles and put them in the fridge. When I went back to get more, I thought it was silly to make a bunch of trips back and forth, so I slid the case out of the puddle and picked it up. This, friends, is where everything went wrong.

The soggy cardboard bottom gave out. I could feel it start to happen, but the only thing I could do was squeeze my eyes shut and try to put the box back down. That didn't work. Six more highly pressurized glass bottles hit the concrete floor at my feet. They, too, exploded. This time, however, there was no cardboard to contain anything. Shards of glass flew out in every direction, even bouncing off the wall behind me, some 15 feet away. My shins took a direct hit: pieces of glass went through my pants and actually cut me. Cider went everywhere.

After some much grumbling and cleaning up, all is well. I got the rest of the bottles cleaned off and packed away in the fridge. I also learned the valuable lesson that all of the warnings you see about exploding ferments are quite real. Next year, all of our cider will be packaged in well ventilated boxes with lids while they rest before being refrigerated.

On the plus side, no one was seriously hurt, and that batch of cider is really quite good. Explosions and mess notwithstanding, I'm pleased with how it turned out and am looking forward to making more next year.

Have you ever had a ferment get out of control like this? I've heard from a few folks already who have had similar experiences. What about you?