ManyTracks Organic Gardening
Four decades of Growing
in the Northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
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.
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
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":
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.
TOMATO SUPPORTS -- The picture shows some kind of wood rack over your -- what is the reason for these? --Dale from West Virginia
The 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 many 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
HEIRLOOM PEPPER VARIETIES
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.