Trash into Treasure

Recycling is hard. Maybe that’s just me, but in all seriousness, trying to remember not to use plastic, making sure to put paper and disposable garbage in two separate bins, and all that other stuff is just too much to think about. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite passionate about saving this environment and I really try the best I can, as we all do.  But for some of us, it’s a hard change to make after getting so used to living in a world of plastic. Being in the garden all summer, I came upon a process known as composting. I’ve heard that term quite a few times in my life and so have many of you. It’s that process that magically changes garbage in to soil, right? Not necessarily. There is a lot more to this natural way of recycling than meets the eye.

Let’s start with what exactly composting is. Imagine being able to get rid of most of that garbage that is just piling up in those landfills and still be able to have a use for it.  Composting is a process that can essentially turn trash into an environmental treasure, and who doesn’t want that?  Composting breaks down dead plants’ tissues turning it into beautiful, healthy soil for new plants to grow. In this process, organisms, such as redworms, act like Mother Nature’s personal workers, eating all that good food that we call garbage, speeding along the composting process. It sounds yucky, but if you think about it, it’s like us getting to eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  I know I would kill for a job like that! You can pile up your orange peels and eggshells in a corner of your backyard and wait for it to turn to dirt. Even with the help of those earthworms, this process will take a while. There is a much faster and organized way to get that process moving. It’s the farmer’s way.

Your first step to making amazing soil is to get a bin to put all your compost in. It’ll make your pile much neater and the process work faster. The bonus is you can totally mask that nasty odor that you may start smelling later on. No one wants his or her house smelling like manure. Now to make the perfect compost that’s going to turn into the soil perfection, there’s a little recipe. The best compost has two main things: green stuff (nitrogen) and brown stuff (carbon). The green stuff is all the grass you cut last week, the lettuce that may have been in the fridge too long, and any other type of plant waste. The green stuff is important because it carries high amounts of nitrogen, which helps the microorganisms work their jobs more properly.  The brown stuff consists of things like dead leaves and pine needles. This is important to have because they contain carbon, which gives all of Mother Nature’s personal workers energy to get the job done. In addition to all the greens and browns, you can put other things, like newspapers, because they are biodegradable, or in other words, they can decompose. Try not to put any meat, bones, or dairy products into your compost. All those things do are make your compost stink even more along with calling a couple of rodent friends over to find a new home.  Turn the compost every few weeks to give the decomposers fresh oxygen to speed up the process.

If you follow these simple guidelines to make some amazing compost in up to 2 months at the least, you’ll have some dark, earthy smelling soil that is super healthy and ready to be used in your garden. The amazing thing is you’ll be recycling the Mother Nature way. It might not be the same as trying to stop the use of plastic and sorting all your garbage, but it is an amazing way to see with your own eyes the magic that is nature, turning trash into an environmental treasure!

written by Roua Eltayeib, a Sprout Farms summer intern and graduate of the Brooklyn Latin School.

Cucumber Taste Test

The abundance of late summer has fallen on Sprout and our volunteers.  Recently a few volunteers got together to taste test two types of cucumbers, both grown in Brooklyn NY.  The first cucumber is a Persian-style variety while the second is a more traditional, slicing variety called Marketmore.  The cucumbers were unpeeled, sliced and eaten raw.

The volunteers described the first variety as sweet, smooth, grassy, with flavors of celery and watermelon.  The second variety tasted was described as very mild, thick skin with lots of flesh, peppery and having a grainy texture.  Not surprisingly, the first Persian style cucumber was more popular and won the taste test.

Marketmore cucumber growing on a trellis.

Marketmore cucumber growing on a trellis.

Blanching Greens

Mastering the skill of blanching is a versatile tool in the kitchen.  It can be used to quickly cook or partially cook a variety of vegetables: kale, collards, string beans, potatoes, peas, carrots and more.

Thanks to @thope1, we made this video showing how to blanch kale.  Take a few minutes to watch and learn this useful trick!

blanchedkale

For those of you who like to read, here are the step by step instructions:

1.  Put large pot of water on to boil.

2.  Wash kale (or other vegetable) and cut into small pieces.

3.  Prepare large bowl for ice water bath.

4.  Once water boils, put kale (or other vegetable) in boiling water and stir.

5.  Place ice cubes in cold water in large bowl.

6.  After 90 seconds, remove kale with large slotted spoon and immediately place in ice water bath, stir.

7.  Drain kale using colander.  Enjoy!

Here’s a helpful website for blanching times for other vegetables.

The “Mosquito” of Plant Life

written by Roua Eltayeib*

mosquitoaphid

One of the most notorious pests of any garden is the aphid. The aphid in some ways is like plant lice in that they reproduce quickly and they are unwelcome little creatures that drive the gardener nuts. However, I find the aphid to be more similar to an insect that we humans truly dislike: the mosquito. Both these pests do very similar things and act in similar ways especially when it comes to how they fill their appetite.

One major similarity between these two creatures is how they get their food. Mosquitoes have an appetite for the blood of mammals, like us. They land on skin and pierce it with their proboscis, which is a very sharp and thin tube that you will not likely at all feel being inserted. Aphids, on the other hand, definitely are not after blood, but are after something equivalent to that. They love sugar and they are able to satisfy their appetite with the sweet taste of plant (phloem) sap. Like to the mosquito, the aphid pierces and sucks the plant. It uses a mouth-part known as a long stylet, which contains a saliva and food canal. It uses it to suck out the sap from the phloem of the plant.

The technique of piercing for both insects serves another purpose as well. Both insects are mechanically engineered to counteract the defenses that organisms put up. The mosquito and the aphid both pierce in, but before taking in a delicious meal, they inject their saliva. When a mosquito injects its saliva, the proteins (anticoagulants) contained in the saliva prevent the blood from clotting. This insures that the mosquito can keep sucking until it is completely satisfied. A similar thing happens with the aphid. In the aphid’s case, it uses its saliva not to stop the plant’s defenses, but rather to overcome the plant’s protein defense response. When damage is done to the phloem cell of a plant, the plant sends out calcium to block the damage. This is similar to our bodies’ way of defenses. The aphid, able to take care of the defenses of the plant, can suck the sap in peace.

Another big similarity between these two insects is that they can quite easily bring harm to the organism. Because both these insects both take from the organism and inject, they can spread diseases faster than you know. As you probably already know, one of the diseases that are spread quickly through mosquitoes is malaria. Mosquitoes are able to carry the disease in the blood they ingest and easily inject the disease during their next meal. In the same way, aphids are harmful to plants because they can so easily spread viral diseases. They take in sap and inject their saliva. In both situations, the host really has no way of defending itself.

However, there are steps to prevent these aphids from harming your beloved garden. Aphids tend to harm fruit and vegetable plants. By planting flowers nearby, like sunflowers, daisies, and marigolds, you can attract insects that kill aphids and prevent them from doing any harm. Dosing the plants with water also helps, knocking the aphids right off their feet. Aphids are annoying pests, but they can be prevented from doing harm. Those pesky mosquitoes however, you might just need some bug repellent to solve that issue!

*Roua is a Sprout Farms summer intern and graduate of the Brooklyn Latin School.

Two Types of Bee Balm

In any food producing space it’s useful to have a few pollinator-attracting flowers.  A variety of plants serve this purpose: coneflower, bee balm, borage and phlox (to name a few).  Find out more about pollinator attracting plants in your area with this site.  Gaynor Campus and Southside Community Gardens use scarlet bee balm as one of their pollinator-attracting plants.

Scarlet bee balm growing at Gaynor Campus Garden

Scarlet bee balm growing behind a fence at Gaynor Campus Garden

A native plant to northeast United States, scarlet bee balm has noteworthy square stems and opposite leaves.

Purple bee balm growing near Rensselaerville, NY.

Purple bee balm growing near Rensselaerville, NY

Purple bee balm, another native plant to North America, grows in upstate New York in a newly cleared section of 80 year old forest.  A cousin to scarlet bee balm, both plants attract a variety of bees, butterflies and other pollinators with their bright blossoms and tube shaped petals.

Purple bee balm

Purple bee balm

Since bee balm reproduces with thin creeping rhizomes, it can be divided after three years of healthy growth; basically producing free, beneficial plants.

Great Volunteer Day

On Saturday, May 10th we had a fun volunteer day.  A big thanks to our organizers who brought out so many people and provided tasty snacks and warm coffee.

Volunteers transplant parsley and repair the herb bed.

The volunteers spread netting over a handful of raised beds, repaired two raised beds, painted the remaining raised beds, sifted and distributed compost, and transplanted parsley, dill, mint and anise.  Ten Eyck Garden was kind enough to share some of their wild violets, which were planted all along the south facing wall of the school building.

Volunteers clear the planting area for wild violets.

Volunteers clear the planting area for wild violets.

The weather was kind enough to hold out on its thundershowers until all the supplies were packed back up in the shed, thank goodness.

So many volunteers!

So many volunteers!

Last Frost

Whether you are new to gardening or have been gardening for decades, you’ve probably heard the term last frost.  It’s an important date to understand especially if you’re interested in growing typical warm weather crops: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants.  Each of these will not survive if put in the ground before the weather and soil are warm enough.  These foods are often grown by seedlings planted a few weeks after the last frost date.

So when is the last frost?  An easy way to find out:  go to the Old Farmer’s Almanac and input your zipcode.  If you live in New York State you can visit Cornell University’s gardening resource page to find out your county’s last frost in Spring.  Here in Brooklyn the last frost is early April; which is why kale, spinach, lettuce, radish and other cool weather crops were planted in the first week of the month.  The downside here is that occasionally there will be a snowfall after the last frost date, just as we had last night.  Floating row covers and cloches were put on the newly sprouted seedlings to keep them from freezing in the snow.

It is possible to begin planting outdoors before the last frost with some kind of wind and temperature protection.  At Gaynor Campus Garden we use floating row covers and cloches made from plastic soda bottles.  At Southside Garden we use cold frames, which will be taken off the raised beds in early May.  The thinnings from first planting of arugula and lettuce, put in the ground on March 15, are now ready to eat.  An exciting moment in gardening: eating greens from the cold frame with snow on the ground!

Cold frame at Southside Community Garden

Cold frame at Southside Community Garden

Inside the cold frame.  Arugula, two plantings of lettuce, peas and garlic.

Inside the cold frame. Arugula, two plantings of lettuce, peas, garlic, leeks and carrots leftover from last season.

We’re hoping for a long Spring to make the most of our successive plantings and looking forward to working with the weather as much as possible.  Please let us know if you have a great last frost story!

Garden Club Spring Cleanup

Crocus in mid-March.

Crocus in mid-March.

Garden Club at Gaynor Campus has been busy the past few weeks:  repairing raised beds, clearing away garbage, cutting back shrubs and dead annuals, turning the compost and planting seeds.

Students planted lettuce, beets, radish, arugula, peas, dill, cilantro and kale.

Students planting cool weather crops.

Over the past two weeks, students planted a variety of cool weather crops.  Lettuce, spinach, beets, radish, arugula, peas, dill, parsley, cilantro and kale were put into the ground.

Students repair one of the raised beds.

Students repair one of the raised beds.

A handful of the raised beds needed repairs after this past winter.  The students enjoyed using their strength, ingenuity and hand tools to get the beds back into working condition.

deconstructionThe students also enjoyed breaking apart some of the rotted wood.  Who doesn’t like a bit of deconstruction?

More crocuses at Gaynor Campus, mid-March 2014.

More crocuses at Gaynor Campus, mid-March 2014.

Field Trip!

On St. Patricks day Gaynor Campus Garden Club students took a field trip to nearby Southside Community Garden.  We trimmed the limbs from a handful of trees shading their communal growing space, and clipped the smaller branches into one of their compost piles.

Shelly and Andre trim perennials at Southside Community Garden.

Shelly and Andre trim perennials at Southside Community Garden.

The students were curious about the garden’s cold frames.  Even on a brisk day just above freezing, inside the cold frame the thermometer read over 50 degrees fahrenheit!

How to Start Seeds

‘Tis the season for starting seeds!  Most gardeners know late winter is a great time to start seeds inside.  This year we started a variety of pepper seeds, both hot and sweet, along with lettuces, chives, basil, spinach, arugula, parsley, cilantro and chard.  By starting seeds in February and early March, we’ll cut down on the cost of buying summer crop seedlings, and get a jump start on cooler weather crops such as spinach, lettuce and arugula.

seedlings

Mint, spider plant, chard seedlings in ceramic pot, and parsley seedlings in teapot.

Curious about getting your hands dirty?  Here’s how to start your own seeds:

1.  Gather the necessary materials: seeds, planter, clear plastic, growing medium, spray bottle with water, labels, sharpie, grow light.  For large seeds, soak overnight prior to starting.

2.  Place growing medium in planter and soak using spray bottle.  This will keep the growing medium from collapsing in the planter.

3.  Place seeds in planter according to instructions on seed packet.  Many seeds want a thin blanket of growing medium on top of them to sprout.  Soak seeds using spray bottle.

4.  Write name of seed and date on label with sharpie.  Place label in planter; we use popsicle sticks.  Place clear plastic on top of planter.  Now is the time to wait!

5.  Everyday after starting your seeds, soak the seeds using the spray bottle. As soon as there is a sprout, stop spraying with water.  Growing medium that is too damp will cause the seedling to damp off, and you’ll have to start over.  Remove the clear plastic and turn on the grow light, making sure the light is within 5 inches of the seedlings.

6.  Once the ground outside is warm enough to be worked, the cooler season crops can be hardened off and planted.  Wait until after the last frost for summer crops.

Good luck!