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 Q & A & Notes






ManyTracks Organic Gardening
 with Sue Robishaw

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Food and Fun"
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Questions &  Answers
& Notes

Four decades of Growing Good Food in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
~ ~ ~
Down to Earth Information, Experiences, Thoughts

     There is nothing like a question to get you thinking, and coming up with solutions. In spite of how it might seem at the time, there is never a dead end but always many options. Here I'll address some of the gardening questions that have come my way, as well as odds and ends of notes and ideas that come to mind.
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Starting Seeds - February 26, 2018

planted pots by stoveGardening has begun! It's a bit early, I know, but the temperatures are warming, almost making it above freezing, and I just felt like planting something. So I started some peppers, a little lettuce, a few cherry tomatoes for an extra early crop, some marigolds for the same reason (the main plantings will wait for a few more weeks), some herbs. It felt good to be messing about in the dirt. The pots have now joined the cuttings in the warm spot behind the wood stoves. We may still have a foot and half of snow outside but there is a taste of spring inside! Not even counting all the greenery in the greenhouse which is definitely perking up and growing more. I've even had a few early rising ladybugs to transplant out there which is nice. March is only a few days away - the inbetween month - neither winter nor spring but often both.

carrots garden Jan 21    Carrots! - January 21, 2018

Above freezing, no wind, no precipitation -- a perfect day to take care of some mid-winter outdoor chores. We were both in and out all day enjoying just being outside. The carrots in the root cellar were almost out so the timing was good to resupply. It's a bit messy but fun to be digging in the dirt mid winter.  Under the snow the mulch and down a few inches was frozen, especially at the edge of the plot, but the carrots were fine - fresh and crisp. The mulch and snow had done their job. There are more carrots still in the ground to be dug in the spring. So I hope we have good snow cover all winter this year. Meantime, we'll enjoy the "new crop" freshly dug.  


GROWING GRAINS -- I am interested if it is possible to grow and mill my own alternative grains (sorghum, millet, etc). Is it possible or worth it?

In our early years on our homestead I tried growing a number of grains for flour but found that it took a lot of space to grow enough to amount to much, and it was quite time consuming to thresh out even the easiest grains by hand and to winnow them clean. Grains in general aren't that hard to grow -- I think we grew, in addition to wheat -- rye, barley, naked oats, millet (the birds loved it), amaranth (didn't make it to maturity in our climate but it was beautiful). But it certainly can be done. For any quantity a good grass scythe is almost a must, though for small quantities grass shears work. Field corn is by far the easiest grain for the homestead (if you happen to be in a short season area Painted Mountain is a very good choice). I'd highly recommend Gene Logsdon's book -- "Small Scale Grain Raising -- An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing and using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers" -- which I see has been reissued (my well worn and falling apart copy is over thirty years old and still a wonderful resource). It's available from the Countryside Bookstore and other sources.

SEED SAVING -- It is the gathering of seed for next year's crop that is presenting me with problems. I find a lack of sources of information on how to tell when plants are "going to seed" and how to get the seed from the plant for things like Brussels sprouts, lettuces and other greens, onions, carrots and others.

I have been saving my own seed for many years and some vegetables are quite easy while others have more complex needs. The best source of information I have found on home seed saving, and one I highly recommend, is the book "Seed to Seed" by Suzanne Ashworth. I wish the book had been around when I first started! It is a great resource and should get you going the right direction. Some seed can be grown and saved in a small garden but many of the crops require more space and plants. It's fun to grow what you can though. Thankfully, good seed is available from many very good seed companies and is not very expensive so even if you can't grow your own you can obtain good seed.

CANNING HORSERADISH SAUCE -- Well, I can safely tell you never, ever can horseradish. I pressure cooked it, big mistake. I followed directions from a website I found that gave a simple recipe and then said pressure cook according to pressure cooker's manufacturing direcitons, which there were none specifically for horseradish. So I did as I would a simple relish. It made a nasty smelling mess of goo. Had to throw it away. Lost all of the heat it had and tasted terrible, like rotten radishes. Never again. And yes, you can pass this on.   -- Michael

Thanks for sharing your experience! I think I'll stick to the simpler method I use. You can also store the roots in a cool spot and make "fresh" batches now and then. The roots will store longer than the sauce.

SEED SOURCE -- We have 15 or so seed catalogues, heirloom and otherwise, but we cannot find the lettuce, tomato and pepper seeds you mention in your article. Could you tell us where you got those seeds?   --Nancy from Canada

Seed companies change their line-up regularly so it's often hard to find a particular variety -- this is why I save seed of my favorites, though I've found that there are so many other good varieties available that it's not  much of a problem. Many of the varieties I grow came originally from growers listed in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook and are often not available commercially. I don't now recall exactly what I mentioned but you might try Kathleen Pluncket-Black's "Plum Creek Seeds" -- she sells a number of varieties not generally available. I've also had good luck with Fedco. In the past I've ordered from many of the companies listed on my Seed Sources page (see above left menu for link) and been happy with them. I don't order many seeds now since I grow most of my own.

PLANTING FLATS -- What is the bottom of your planter? Plywood? Do you drill holes? Maybe a screen bottom?     --Beverly
What you use to make the bottom of the flats. If it is wood as I assume it is, is it all one piece such as plywood (which I would think would rot quickly) or is it several boards that are adjoined??--Bob

Yes, the flats are homemade, and I've used both solid wood and plywood for the bottoms. I drill maybe 8 holes for drainage but they are as likely to drain out the edges as out the holes. They both work and do rot out eventually. If the sides are still good, I just replace the bottoms. I usually put a layer of newspaper on the bottom before adding the dirt which I think helps them last longer. Here is a description from the Greenhouse article in the March 2010 issue of "Countryside Magazine":

Flats are easily made of scrap wood of whatever type is available (not painted or stained with toxic coatings, of course). My basic flat is about 11" x l6" x 3 1/2" (inside measurement) made of 3/4" boards with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. Bottoms set in grooves in the lower edge of the side pieces are strongest (particularly if you use plywood for your bottom), but you can also fit the bottom boards flush inside the box or in rabbets and nail or screw in from the sides. Pine is my favorite and lasts longer than poplar, but if that is what you have it works fine. Hardwood is OK too, but it is heavier.  Drywall screws work well for fasteners if your wood is apt to warp but nails are usually quite adequate. The flats can be as plain or fancy as you want, the plants won’t care. It’s nice to make them a size that best utilizes the bench space you have. I’ve made smaller and larger flats. But larger ones (15” x 18” x 5”) filled with dirt are heavy and hard to move around and haul out to the garden, and smaller ones aren’t quite as useful.

POTATO SEED -- I have been planting certified seed potatoes in containers for about three years. I have a couple of plants with some seed-bearing fruit. I would like to try planting these seeds to see what varieties turn up. How and when do I harvest the seeds? And how do Ikeep them until next spring when they will be planted?   --Jan from Alaska

It's fairly easy to harvest and save potato seed. Let the seed balls ripen -- they will turn from green to a pale tan or whitish, from hard to soft, not unlike tomatoes. Mash them up together in a container such as a glass to ferment. you may have to add a little water since they tend to be quite dry. Let them ferment about three days, stirring once or twice a day. They will develop a mold and probably smell (I don't remember on the potato seed but I know tomatoe seeds fermenting do). The fermenting apparently destroys some possible diseases and it breaks down the sac around the seed.
     The seed is small so you'll need a tea strainer (or a cloth would do). To clean, fill your glass with water, let the seeds settle, then pour off the water and remnants on top. Do this as many times as necessary till you have clean seed. Then strain and spread out on a saucer to dry. This is the same process as for tomato seed. when the seed is dry, put in an envelope and store in a cook, dry place. It's nice to keep track of the ancestry -- both the type potatoe the seed came from and any other varieties grown that year since potatoes cross pollinate. But even if you only grew one variety, the seed will likely not come true to the parent. which is one reason it's not done commercially.
     In the spring you need to start your potatoes inside early just as you would tomatoes. Plant the seedlings outside after danger of frost, then let them grow. The first year you will probably harvest only tiny tubers, and each plant will be different. Save the tubers from the most promising plants (health, yield and taste) and plant them next year just as you do regular potatos. In another year or two they will be growing regular full size tubers. If you find a good one, keep growing and saving tubers. If it continues to be a worthwhile variety, name it and keep it going!
     Out of 24 plants I planted two different years, after many years of selection, I only continued to grow two. They were particularly free of  blight which was great and the somewhat scab resistant which is important to me. But the taste never came around (they tended to be bitter) and I finally gave them up. But I'll do it again one of these days -- it was fun and there is always that possibility of finding a great variety!

TOMATO SUPPORTS -- The picture shows some kind of wood rack over your -- what is the reason for these?   --Dale from West Virginia

tomato rack1The wooden racks in the photo are for tomatoes. The variety I grow are semi-determinate so they don't grow tall enough to need tall poles or stakes, but they do appreciate something to keep them off the ground in a wet year (which we often have). though I mulch with hay there is some loss to rot when the tomatoes are allowed to sprawl on the ground. I've tried manytomato rack2 different solutions and this simple wooden support made from scrap wood has worked the best. It supports the plants without my having to do anything other than direct a branch or shoot into place. Becasue of our cold and hsort growing season, I transplant the tomato plants into cold frames. when the weather warms up the frames are taken off and the support rack is put on.

QUEEN ANNES LACE FLOWERS -- Is the Queen Anne`s Lace you speak of the same as the dried version they use in flower arrangements? I love the smell, and have been trying to find some to grow and dry for my own use. None of the seed catalogs I get have it listed. Maybe it is not a good thing to have around.   --Ila from central Idaho

I assume it would be the same though I don't really know. Queen Anne's Lace is a wild plant but there might likely be a tamed version that is grown for the cut flower/dried flower trade. But you could just grow carrot flowers and dry them the same way (they are basically the same plant) if you can't find wild plants around to harvest seed from. It may be considered an "invasive plant" in some areas, but if you cut the flowers you won't have to worry about them reseeding. You could check with your local cooperative extension office. If you are in zone 4 you shouldn’t have trouble growing carrot seed (I'm actually in zone 3 -- last frost often middle of June, first one first to mid September, though individual years vary a lot). They are a beautiful flower whether called carrots or Queen Anne's Lace, wild or dried.

CAT GRASS SAVER --  When I mentioned in an article my cats lounging in (and flattening) the flat of grass I plant for them for winter grazing, Dave from Michigan sent his solution which works great:

He staples a piece of hardware cloth on the top of the flat; the grass grows up through but when the cats walk and lay down on the grass the plants are somewhat protected and survive much better. I happened to have a piece of hardware cloth in a frame (which is usually used on the vent between greenhouse and house when I want to keep the cats out of the greenhouse). I set it on the cat-grass-flat and the cats were able to graze at will but weren't inclined to lounge on it, thereby making the grass (actually mixed grains) much happier and healthier.

TOMATO RACKS -- Are the tomato supports in the photo permanent or do they move with your tomatoes?   -- Heather in New Windsor

I do usually plant my tomatoes in the same plot each year but the wooden racks are portable. I often change my mind about what I want where, plus the tomatoes start the season in cold frames. When the frosts seem to be over (or the tomatoes are outgrowing the cold frames) they come off and the rack goes on. It's a simple affair made of wood we had on hand and suits the semi-determinant tomatoes I grow. [see photos above]

ROTATING CROPS -- I've always read that you should rotate crops but in your article you indicate you don't. Why not?   -- Karen

As in so many cases, I think there is some truth to the idea of rotating in some cases but it got repeated again and again until it became a hard rule for all with little questioning of why. It's been my experience that insects are very capable of moving from one row to another to get to their favorites! Nature only "rotates" occasionally and the trees, plants, bushes generally live a healthy life, building up their own balanced ecosystems and that is what I strive to imitate in my garden. There ARE times when I rotate, usually for convenience of fitting the pieces of my plantings together (I'm always changing something), sometimes for weed control (putting thickly mulched crops such as potatoes or tomatoes in a weedy spot to clean up that area), and occasionally for a problem such as root maggots in carrots. Though I'm not sure location matters as much as timing. My tomatoes the last few years have died rather early of blight (though the tomatoes also ripened early because of that so this may not be a "problem" in my very short season!) so I'm thinking of changing the tomato and bean plots. Maybe that will help.
    The one pest I consistently have is potato bugs, and blight, and after 30 years of growing potatoes, rotating and not, I have to say it makes not any difference. Some years there are a lot, and some years there are few with no reason that I can see (though I'm sure they understand it). This year I planted potatoes in the same spot and had the fewest potato bugs ever. Our neighbor (next 80 over) also planted in the same potato area and he had more potato bugs than he'd ever seen before. Gardening is ever changing even if one never changes what and where you plant.
    As always, I fall back on experiment and experience -- my own that is. Rules are never ever the same for all, but there are enough similarities that it makes sharing fun and gives one a place to start.

POTATO HARVEST -- I planted potatoes in my garden and they are growing but when do I harvest them?   -- Mary

Potatoes can be dug to eat whenever they are a size you want to eat them. If you are  careful you can dig around with your hand to pull out a few of the larger ones and leave the smaller ones to continue growing, usually about the time the plant is flowering. For storage they are dug after frost in fall after the plants have died down and the skins on the potatoes have firmed up (can't be easily rubbed off).

PUMPKIN SEED DRYING -- I'm interested in drying/saving pumpkin seeds for next years planting. Is this covered in your web site? Unable to locate it there and wish you might suggest a procedure.     --Tom from Michigan

For squash/pumpkin seeds I just cut the fruit and scoop out the inner pulp when I'm ready to cook the squash, pick out the seeds and dry them on a plate. They are one of the easier seeds to harvest. A great book on seed saving is Suzanne Ashworth's "Seed to Seed" if you want to do more in that area. For summer squash let the fruit grow to mature size in the garden then hold for at least a few weeks after frost. I have a half dozen hunker mature zucchini sitting in our entryway that I need to get the seed out soon and the fruit to the compost pile (and off the entry floor) before they rot. They make a pretty odd looking 'welcome' to visitors! But since they're not food they tend to get left to last. 

CANNING HORSERADISH SAUCE -- Could you tell me how to can horseradish sauce?   --Donna,     and  --Cindy

Although you can buy "canned" horseradish sauce in the stores, none of the preserving books I've seen talk about canning it. Years ago, when I first grew and grated my own, I asked a long time homesteader and horseradish lover about canning it and he said you shouldn't because the heat would ruin the flavor. But it turns out it lasts a long time anyway without canning so that isn't a problem.
    In the fall I dig a bucketful of roots and store them in the root cellar (any place cool would do). Then I process a batch of sauce (which is mainly horseradish and vinegar) which fills four or five half-pints, and I keep the jars in the cool cellar (our equivalent of a refrigerator). That lasts us for 2 to 3 months. When we run out, I do another batch from the stored roots. I've never had any horseradish sauce spoil so I can say it will last at last 3 months in cool conditions. A friend stores his in the refrigerator. Neither of us have tried keeping it any longer. I do find that it mellows as it ages however (which I like!).
    I'm just ready to make the last batch from the stored roots which are starting to sprout but are still good. That will be the last I'll make until the fall harvest. You can dig the roots in the summer, too, but I prefer to leave them to grow until fall.

GARDEN SIZE -- My husband and I are selling our home in NH and looking for a few acres and a small house in Maine where we plan to raise as much of our food as possible. I have previously grown, canned and frozen food for winter consumption, but that was some many years ago and really wasn't enough to be considered self-sufficient. Is there a simple way to size a vegetable garden for two people other than actually trying to figure yield per plant, etc.,? If there is a general rule of thumb, i'd love to hear it. --Linda, moving from New Hampshire to Maine

I'm afraid I don't have any quick and easy way to plan the size of your garden. It so much depends on individual likes and dislikes, crops and varieties grown, weather, environment, etc. Our garden has changed many, many times over the years, adjusting and adapting to our changing interests, and I'm sure will continue to change as we do. We've progressed to eating direct as much as possible out of the garden, or out of the root cellar in the winter, which saves a lot of time. And I like that. Our meals change as the crops do. One of the biggest differences over the years in how much I needed to grow, or buy, was how much one or the other of us was home (or gone -- working out). I raise a lot of what we eat, but also buy grains and raisins and oil and such. And apples in the fall when our trees are on their off years. In the early years we bought more and now we buy less.

A garden seems to naturally grow as you do and you’ll learn what you like to eat and what you don’t and how much. But no matter how much you plan and organize nature does what nature does, and each year I find I have more of this, less of that. We adapt our eating to the harvest and make use of the Food Coop for big differences (such as the coons getting all the corn, or an unexpected summer freeze wiping out the tomatoes). The biggest help for me over the years has been a garden notebook and a food inventory notebook.

COMFREY FLOWERS, LEAVES -- Should I cut the flower stalks of my comfrey plants (which are growing very well!), and how can I use the leaves?   --Sandy

You don't have to cut the flowers off the plants -- they are quite hardy and you really don't have to pamper them at all. You can use the leaves for whatever you want to -- tea, animal feed, healing, mulch. It's a wonderfully versatile plant.


I only grew Vinedale a few years as I found another that did better in my garden (Georgescu -- a vigorous plant, large blocky yellow from NJ CA J), and I didn't maintain the Vinedale.   Meantime, I've tried a number of peppers since as I continually had some rot in the Geogescu's (but they did well other than that). I found two that were more reliable here -- Sunshine (large green variable bell and non-bell with a thinner wall, turns yellow-orange early) (IN BL S '00); and Red Belgium (earliest, thick walled, mild, light yellow non-bell, smaller plant, turns bright red) (MI FL J '00). Getting some rot in Sunshine as well, so I've decided to stick with Red Belgium. I also occasionally grow a hot pepper that came originally from Johnny's many years ago, since dropped -- Caliente Hot Pepper. You have reminded me how much I enjoy the "other part" -- experimenting with varieties, searching out the histories and stories behind them, and the sharing.


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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.

updated 01/16/2017

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