Stevia: grow this natural alternative sweetener in your garden

When most people think of ‘Stevia’, they think of the powdered green (or white… if it’s been bleached) stuff used as an alternative sweetener you can buy from most supermarkets. But it doesn’t start out that way. Stevia is an herb that you can grow in your garden.

It’s always a fun experience to invite someone to taste a leaf of the plant, and for them to realize what it is. It’s pretty cool when it’s an exciting experience for someone. I usually like to do the “Hey try this” with Cinnamon Basil or Lemon Basil. Another good one is German Chamomile flowers or Lemon Grass… more for pressing between your fingers and smelling. Maybe it’s because I hope that if I can get people to start experiencing bits of the amazing-ness of plants, they’ll start growing more of their own (though Carrie and her husband Corey already to grow tomatoes and flowers).

Now, about stevia. I get a lot of questions about it, so I thought I’d give you a quick brief on it, according to my experience in growing it.

Stevia is actually a whole group of plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family. The single plant prized for its sweet leaves is Stevia rebaudiana (so be sure that’s what you’re getting when you’re purchasing seeds). Some say that growing from seed won’t produce a sweet plant, or that you’re less likely to get a sweet plant… but in my case, it’s clearly very sweet (about a quarter of a leaf is more than enough to sweeten a cup of tea).

You can also purchase S. rebaudiana as a seedling, usually when it’s about 4-8 inches tall, so ask your local nursery about that. It may be easier to start with a seedling because, from my experience, Stevia rebaudiana is a rather finicky plant to start from seed. Once it’s growing, though, it grows very well. I managed to get six seedlings to come up at this past spring, but only one made it all the way to adult-hood. It’s a sturdy plant once it’s become established. It produces fairly thick, tall stalks, but you can keep it lower and bushier if you pinch it back every few weeks. I didn’t want to do that in its very first season, since I was finding it a bit hard to keep any of them alive past 3 or 4 inches of growth, so I was happy to just let it grow and become stronger and more established this year.

If you just let it grow and reach its full height, it’ll begin to put out flower heads once the stalk reaches 2-3 feet tall. The leaves become very sweet as the flower heads begin to appear, and that’s just about the time you want to cut the stalks and dry the leaves.

Cut the stalk about 6 inches above the ground, right above a set of leaves. The plant will sprout two new stems right above each of the leaves (as you can see in the picture at the bottom right). These stalks were cut about a week earlier, and already you can see the growth of two new stems right above each of the leaves.

I found that S. rebaudiana likes a good dose of water nearly every day (and sometimes twice a day when it gets hot, especially if it’s in a container), but the container/soil needs to drain very well so it’s not standing in water, and has enough time to dry in between waterings. I used sifted compost and sand to create a good, healthy mix for my stevia, and it worked very well. If stevia gets too wet or the roots sit in water too often or too long, it can be affected by fungal disease, so good drainage is a must.

I wanted to use compost, because a stevia plant that is fed with a nitrogen fertilizer will keep the leaves green, and perhaps produce more leaves, but they won’t be as sweet, and sweetness was my goal. So to keep the plant healthy, with plenty of nutrients, without compromising the sweetness, compost seemed to be the best option and it worked well with a good dose of sand mixed in.

A common garden fertilizer without nitrogen in it would work well, too. On the last note of nutrients – I have heard that fertilizing your stevia plant with Boron will increase its sweetness (perhaps boron is part of the process of making the sweetener that stevia plants produce), but I haven’t verified that claim.

There is a new ‘North American Stevia’ plant, which has been developed to contain less of the stevioside and more of the Rebaudioside A. Both are sweetener chemicals, but the stevioside has a slightly bitter aftertaste, and the North American Stevia plant has been developed through cross-pollination and selection, to have less of the stevioside chemical in it, and more of the Rebaudioside A chemical, so you don’t get very much of the bitter aftertaste.

The packet of seeds I grew did not indicate that it was one of these or not, so I don’t know which one I have. The leaves on my plant are definitely sweet, and I don’t taste much of a ‘bitter’ aftertaste, though it is certainly a different sweetness from sugar… and maybe an ‘off’ aftertaste lingers a bit on the tongue. If you want to be sure to get the new North American Stevia plant, it would probably be best to purchase one as a seedling, since cuttings are guaranteed to be true to the mother plant. Check your local nursery for seedlings, or you can order seeds online from ParkSeed.com, Burpee.com, and CooksGarden.com.

The stevia stalks grew tall and strong, but they were a bit brittle, so I took care to stake them, and I’m glad I did. The tallest stalk had the top snapped cleanly off during a very windy storm over the summer… the one bit that I hadn’t supported with some stakes and rope, so I was glad I’d supported the rest of the plant.

Grow your stevia in full sunlight. The more sun, the more the plant will produce the sweetness in the plant, and the healthier the plant will be.

I’ll be overwintering my inside, which is why I grew it in a pot, because it is a very tender perennial. If you grow it in the ground, you can either lift it and pot it up to bring it inside for the winter (if you’re colder than zone 9), or you can harvest it the stalks and let the plant die, and then just grow it again the next year. If you overwinter it inside, be on the lookout for white fly. If your plant is being attacked by whitefly, spray the plant with a Insecticidal soap, or a dilute mixture of water and household dish soap (making sure it doesn’t have perfumes or other chemicals in it that may harm your plant). Or you can make a sticky trap with contact paper and a small stake.

 

The seeds are fairly expensive, as far as seeds go. Once you’ve got an established plant, you can propagate it with stem cuttings, which are more likely to be successful if you use a rooting hormone powder. I’ll be trying that myself in a few days, so I’ll give you an updated post to let you know how it goes.

To use stevia in cooking, once you’ve harvested the stalks, hang them upside down to dry until the leaves are brittle. Or you can pull the leaves off the stem immediately and spread them out to dry on a screen. Once they’re brittle, you can pull them off the stem and store them in an airtight container, or you can powder them (either manually or with a food processor) before storing them. Then, when cooking, add a measured amount of the stevia powder to recipes. Remember that because stevia powder doesn’t have the same properties as sugar, other ingredients in the recipe may need to be adjusted to retain moisture levels, rising action, etc. to compensate for the decreased amount of sugar.

I found a great Pinterest board with a bunch of recipes for stevia bookmarked. I think you’ll find it useful. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes on there myself.

For my herbal teas, I just add a bit of a leaf to stew with the other herbs. I can use the same leaf at least 2 or 3 times with great results.

I hope you enjoy growing and using stevia! Below are some pictures of the growth of our stevia plant throughout the summer. I thought you’d find them interesting.

 

When to Pick Your Winter Squash & How to Store It

Before the cold temperatures of winter come, you’ll want to make sure you’re able to harvest as much of your produce as possible. The first thing you’ll need to do is pull off all the extra flowers, and possibly even some of the smaller, undeveloped squashes, so that the energy of the plant can be concentrated in the squashes that are already developing.

Remember to watch the weather predictions in your area to make sure you harvest all your winter squashes (as well as tomatoes, peppers, annual herbs…) before freezing temperatures hit your area. If freezing temperatures are in your forecast, or it’s going to be under 40℉ consistently for more than a day or two, it’s time to pick your squash. Then let them sit out in full sunlight for a day or two. This hardens the exterior of the squash, which will help them last longer in storage (which is a huge plus when you’re building up your winter larder!).

Don’t let them sit on the ground, though. The ground is often damp during this season of the year, and it won’t ‘cure’ properly. If rain is predicted, pick at least 24-48 hours before the rain hits and let them sit in the sun, then bring them inside and carefully store them on a soft bed of straw or sawdust. Take care while picking and transporting your squashes. If they get bumped, bruised, scratched, or scraped, it could provide an easy entrance for various organisms that could cause the squash to rot. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to leave at least an inch or two between each squash in storage, and avoid stacking your squashes. It minimizes the likelihood of transferring disease from one infected squash to another, in the case that one of them does end up rotting before it can be used.

Is it Ripe Yet?

There are three fairly fail-proof methods of determining if your squash is ripe or not.

First, take a good look at the surface. Young squash have a bit of a sheen to them, but as they grow and mature, the surface color becomes dull (it loses the shiny-ness).

Second, give it a small thump or two. If it sounds hollow, with a low tone (for its size), it’s probably ripe.

Third, for pumpkins, you can check the pumpkin stem… the bit that stays on the pumpkin once it falls off the vine. If it’s hard, then the pumpkin is ripe.

A lot of people like to press on the rind of the squash to see if it’s hard enough… but what if it isn’t? Then you’ve just bruised the surface of your squash, before it’s even ripe. If you use your fingernail (as I’ve seen recommended by other growers) then you may cut right through the skin which isn’t a good idea. It’s best to use one of the other methods.

If the squash hasn’t had the chance to fully ripen on the vine, and develop a tough exterior, it won’t last as long in storage. Just because a vine is dead doesn’t mean the fruit (squash) is fully ripened. The vine may have died prematurely from disease, environmental stresses, or early frost, and the fruit won’t store as well. Let it cure in the sun to give it as good a chance as you can. Once the vine is dead, it’s about the best you can do.

Don’t wash your squash before putting it into storage. Just brush off the dirt. If it must be washed, use chlorinated water, and make sure it’s entirely dry before putting it into storage.

A lot of people don’t have a special storage cellar for storing squashes and other vegetables over the winter. A garage will do, but it would be best to place the produce on shelves as close to the main house as possible. The temperature in a garage may drop below freezing during the winter, but right next to the walls of the home is likely to stay just a little warmer.

Be aware, however, that even prolonged exposure to temperatures below 50℉ (10℃) can cause damage to your squash. Try to find a storage area that stays between 50℉ (10℃) and 55℉ (12.8℃) and is well-ventilated. A gardener knows that he/she is likely to lose some produce, at any stage of growing and harvesting, and it might be that you’ll just have to plan on losing some of your squashes to rotting or temperature stress. Some of them will likely still be in pristine condition by the time Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, to add delicious flavor and color to your holiday spread, so it’s all worth it in the end.

Here’s a quick storage reference, assuming they’re being stored at the optimal temperature range of 50-55℉, and 50-75% humidity in a well-ventilated area, having been picked ripe, hardened in the sun, and stored well, without any bumps, scratches, or scrapes:

  • Pumpkins will store well up to 2 or 3 months. Do not store with apples. Apples give off ethylene gas, which will ‘ripen’ a pumpkin, and cause it to go bad sooner.
  • Acorn squash happens to be my favorite of these four, but unfortunately, it only stores up to 6-8 weeks. That give you an extra month or two, but it won’t store through the winter. So it’s probably best to use up all your acorn squashes within the first few weeks.
  • Butternut squashes last for between 2-3 months. Not much longer than Acorn squash, but still, that’s an extra 2-3 months of winter squash eating! (The one advantage butternut squashes have is that they’re a little more sturdy when picked prematurely, so even young butternut squashes are likely to store pretty well.)
  • Buttercup squash is basically the same as butternut: 2-3 months of storage.
  • Hubbards are the best storers of them all. They can be stored up to 5 or 6 months! That means if you pick it in October, it’ll last you right through the winter until March or April! And some of them have great flavor (my favorite is the giant candy roaster).
 

Test Your Soil Texture… and what it means for your plants

The basic idea:
The texture of soils can be divided into three parts according to particle size and structure: sand, silt, and clay. The various concentrations and organization of these three types of particles is what gives a soil its physical structure, and it is the physical structure of your soil that has a lot to do with how well your plants will fair in your garden.

The details:
The texture of your soil is fairly easy to determine and will tell you a lot about you’re your growing capabilities. Texture is divided into three categories according to particle size: sand, silt, and clay.

Sand has the largest particles of the three basic types of soil. When you feel a soil with a lot of sand in it, it will feel gritty and coarse. Because of its coarse nature and round particles sand will naturally have more air because of larger space between the particles. Sand drains water better for this reason, but that can also lead to a washing-out of the soil. Sandy soils can’t hold nutrients very well, so they’re pretty poor soils as far as nutrient content is concerned. Plants that need good soil drainage do better in soil that is largely made up of sand. To improve a sandy soil so it can hold more nutrients and still keep its drainage quality, the best thing you can do is add organic matter, compost, and well-decomposed manure.

Clay is the smallest of the three particles. The particles are actually smaller than dust particles; they are microscopic so they feel smooth to the touch. Unlike sand, clay particles are angular in shape and are thus able to pack together very tightly. Imagine the difference between putting a bunch of tennis balls in a bucket and a bunch of blocks. The edges of the blocks fit smoothly against each other. This is why clay soil does not drain nearly as well as sand, and when it dries it can create rock-hard lumps. The picture to the right can give you a pretty good idea of the nature of sand vs. clay soils. Because of its microscopic structure, it can pack together tightly. Clay holds water very well, and thus it also holds nutrients a lot better than sand. To improve drainage in clay soil, without losing its capacity to hold nutrients, the best thing you can do is add organic matter, compost, and well-decomposed manure.

Silt soil is somewhere in between. It is smaller than sand so it will also feel quite smooth to the touch. However, its particles are larger than clay and its structure is different, so it doesn’t pack as well.

Soils with smaller particles, such as clay, have a greater capacity for holding water and nutrients because of their increased surface area. However, with too much clay, the soil can hold a lot of water and become very boggy. Most plant roots don’t like that -they need air to breath. In fact I remember one of my professors saying that you can effectively seal in water to create a pond by laying down a thick layer of clay, a thin layer of sodium chloride (the sodium ion scatters clay), and another layer of clay on top of that. The ground will be virtually impenetrable by water and it will nearly be as though you put in cement. I don’t think I would ever want to do that in my landscape, but it was an interesting side note.

Sand has the advantage of draining better. It doesn’t hold water or nutrients as well as clay, but it does allow air to get in and around the roots. Also, it doesn’t become as compacted. This is an especially important concept for places like playgrounds or sports fields, where the ground is getting tromped on all the time. Mixing in a good dose of sand will help prevent the soil from being packed so tightly that it crushes the roots, as can happen with clay soils. The two pictures above are a very good example of this. You’ve probably seen ‘cow paths’ similar to this. In this case, walking off that corner of the sidewalk over to the parking area was more convenient than taking the roundabout way of the sidewalk.

I just want to add, as a last note, that clay, silt, and sandy soils can all be improved with organic matter (see this article here on organic matter – it’s one of the most important ones we’ve produced!). Sandy soils aren’t devoid of nutrients as some people think, but if you want plenty of nutrients for plants to grow, add some organic matter. Composting, especially making your own, is becoming more popular, and it is a great way to add nutrients and organic matter to any kind of soil.

Determine your Soil’s Texture. 
If you want to get a rough idea for your soil’s texture there’s a way to do it with your hands. Pick up a good handful of soil and feel it carefully between your fingers. If the soil sample feels gritty then you probably mostly have sand in your soil. If the sample feels smooth then you probably have mostly silt or clay or both in your soil. The way to tell between a predominantly silty or clay-ey soil, since they both feel smooth to the touch, is to pinch the soil between your thumb and index finger and push the soil out over your index finger, using your thumb, into a “soil ribbon”. If the soil ribbon stays together and extends out into the air without crumbling then the soil is predominantly clay. If the soil ribbon readily falls apart when pressed out over the index finger then the smoothness was mostly silt.

The picture above right is a good example of a decent-sized soil ribbon, indicating a large amount of clay.

Of course, most soils are rarely pure sand, silt, or clay, but a combination of the three. You can get a ‘feel’ (literally) for soil combinations with practice. A soil that isn’t gritty at all but produces a small soil ribbon is probably a good mix of silt and clay. A soil that is gritty and produces a decent-sized ribbon is probably a combination of sand and clay. Get the idea? Just remember the rules: sand feels gritty, silt feels smooth and won’t make a soil ribbon, and clay feels smooth and will create a soil ribbon.

 

 

Foraging for Elderberries – What are Elderberries and How to Find Them

Foraging for Elderberries

Elderberries are all over the place here. Since they make fabulous jam and syrup, we went and picked a bunch last Saturday.

 

We just moved to the area, so we were afraid it would be a bit of a wild goose chase to find ‘good spots’ to pick elderberries. No problem there – we found so many elderberry bushes, we filled all our buckets in two hours, and we barely skimmed the surface with the amount of elderberries we found.

 

All the bushes we picked from were most likely the species Sambucus caerulea, known as “blue elderberry”. (It is often considered a subspecies of S. nigra sub. caerulea. It depends on who you talk to.) It grows 30 feet high and has dark purple berries that look grayish-blue because of a light waxy coating that covers them. The flowers are white or cream in color, on umbels that are nearly flat across the top when you turn them sideways. They are not as pleasantly odorous as other elderberry flowers.

This species is native on the west coast of North America, from British Columbia to California. (Other areas of North America & Europe have a different varieties of native elderberries – see below for species description.)

We’ve seen for ourselves just how abundant it is in this area. They are everywhere! We were in a small wild area, in between farmland, about a quarter mile from the river. Every 5-20 feet we would come upon another elderberry bush. It was impossible to pick all the elderberries. Plus, the bushes grew so tall, we could only harvest the lowest 7 or 8 feet. The birds will still have plenty to eat if they get hungry for elderberries.

If elderberries grow in your area, look for them along less-traveled roads and in riparian areas. Elderberries do like damp soil, generally, and plenty of sunlight. That should give you some clues where to start looking for them.

(It would be best not to pick them along well-traveled roads. The pollutants near major roadways, from exhaust, weed sprays, etc. have likely contaminated plants in those areas.)

Elderberries do contain poisonous cyanic compounds contained in the stems, leaves, roots, and seeds. The berries are edible when they’re ripe and cooked. A handful of uncooked elderberries will generally have no ill effects, but if you eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, you’ll likely get sick.

The flowers are also edible, and have also traditionally been used to lightly flavor fritters, pancakes, scones, and cakes.

Identifying Elderberries with Certainty

If you intend to harvest the flowers, you MUST be certain to identify it properly. An inexperienced forager may mistake the flowers of the highly poisonous water hemlock for the flowers of the elderberry.

The umbelliferae (formerly apiaceae) family, commonly known as the carrot family, includes many plants that produce white, umbel (umbrella-shaped) flowers. Some are edible (carrots, parsley, etc.) and some are highly poisonous, including the water hemlock. When in doubt, DON’T eat it.

Water hemlock doesn’t produce berries. It is a herbaceous (non-woody) plant. (If it has bark, at least you’ll know it’s not a hemlock.) The leaf axils and stem nodes are often purplish. Its flowers are more open, with several little umbrella-shaped flower clusters in a spray.

Elderberry is a woody plant, with bark on its trunk and branches. It produces white or cream, flat-topped flower clusters.

Other elderberry species include:

  • S. canadensis: Known as “sweet elderberry.” Flat-topped, white flower bunches. Deeply purple berries (almost black). Native on the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia all the way south to Florida, and west to Manitoba (in Canada) and Texas (United States).
  • S. ebulus: The smallest species of elderberry, growing only 3-5 feet high, and known as the “dwarf elderberry”. Native to Europe and the western parts of Asia. The flowers are white with purple anthers. Less used for food than the S. nigra.
  • S. nigra: Also native to Europe. Known as “black elderberry” or “European elderberry”. One of the most-used elderberries. Used medicinally as well as for food (berries & flowers).

Picking & Preparing the Elderberries

The easiest way to pick elderberries is to use a pair of scissors or clippers and cut the entire umbel off and place it in a bucket. Then when you’ve returned home, you can gently tease the berries from the stems in comfort.

To wash the berries and remove further chaff that may be mixed in with them, gently fill the bowl with water until there is about an inch of water above the berries. Then you can run your hand carefully through the berries without damaging them, since the water is holding a lot of their weight. More chaff (stems, bits of leaf, dried flower bits, etc.) will rise to the surface. This can be easily skimmed off with a sieve. (See the video below.)

Since the stems and leaves of elderberry can poison you, you’ll want to be very thorough and clean the berries well.

If you don’t have time to turn the elderberries into jam until a few days later, as in our case, when you get them washed and cleaned, you can freeze them until you’re ready to turn them into jam.

Gently scoop handfuls of berries out of the water, and place them in freezer containers or freezer bags, and freeze.

Each 5 gallon bucket we picked yielded 2 full gallons of cleaned elderberries, so we got about 12 gallons total. That is going to make a LOT of jam, syrup, and fruit leather.

Making Elderberry Jam & Syrup

Elderberry jam is delicious. It doesn’t have as strong a flavor as blackberry or huckleberry jam… it’s more on par with blueberry jam. (This, of course, is my own estimation.) Its flavor is very pleasant, like a dullish blueberry with a bit more acidity.

We have a fabulous recipe for Elderberry Jelly & Syrup. (One of our favorite uses of this syrup is to make Lemon & Elderberry Cheesecake!)

 

Growing Elderberries

Elderberries are loved by bees, butterflies and birds. If you don’t have elderberries in your area, you could grow your own. Learn more about growing your own elderberries.

 

Rhizobia Bacteria: Nature’s Fertilizer Factory

Perhaps the single most applied fertilizer nutrient in all of agriculture is nitrogen.

Nitrogen is exceedingly abundant on our planet via the atmosphere (79% of the air we breathe is nitrogen), but elsewhere on the planet it is hard to find. And for all its abundance in the atmosphere, atmospheric nitrogen is woefully unavailable. Nitrogen in the air is triple-bonded to itself as N2 gas, and that triple bond is monstrous difficult to break apart, which is really unfortunate because that breakage is necessary in order to render nitrogen useable in biological systems.

Nitrogen is difficult to obtain, yet it is a high-demand nutrient. Without nitrogen there would be no amino acids and no proteins – the building blocks of life.

List of Nitrogen Fixing Plants

Luckily Mother Nature has some troops on hand to tackle this problem – a group of tiny organisms called rhizobia bacteria.

Rhizobia aren’t the only ones responsible for nitrogen fixation, but they do the majority of it by far.

Rhizobia bacteria possess the DNA encoding for a protein called nitrogenase. Nitrogenase is an enzyme that breaks nitrogen gas apart into biologically useable forms. Sounds like a miracle – and it is – but rhizobia do require some help. Triple bonded atmospheric nitrogen, as discussed earlier, is very hard to pull apart. Energetically speaking, it is very expensive for the rhizobia to use nitrogenase. In a way it’s like a big truck: there is a tremendous amount of utility in that size of a vehicle, but the gas bill . . . let’s just say the costs of operation can be steep.

Luckily rhizobia form a wonderful partnership with plants. Plants supply the fuel, in this case carbohydrates that they’ve harvested from carbon dioxide and the sun’s light energy. In return for the carbs, the rhizobia give plants some of the much-needed nitrogen. There is one major catch to this symbiosis…

Only certain plants have the ability to form a relationship with rhizobia.

By and large, this group of plants belong just to the legume botanical family. Beans, peas, peanuts, alfalfa, clover, jicama, and ahipa are good examples of leguminous crops.

Having knowledge of and using leguminous crops is a major plus to anyone interested in producing their own food with greater ease, especially if you want to do it without commercial fertilizers. This is beneficial not only for the soil (commercial fertilizers are technically salts) but also for your wallet.

With the help of rhizobia, legumes self-fertilize; that is, they are able to acquire nitrogen on their own without the need of supplemental fertilizers. Furthermore, legumes add nitrogen to the soil so that other crops can use it.

This can be done by crop rotation where non-leguminous crops are planted in the same spot of ground that leguminous crops were planted in previously, or by intercrop where leguminous crops are planted in and amongst other crops so they will help fertilize them.

You can also add large amounts of legume plant material to a compost pile, thereby enriching it tremendously. Legumes can also help prepare nutrient-poor ground for food production by way of the “chop and drop” method: grow legumes on a patch of ground you want to farm and then cut the legumes back and leave all the trimmings behind on the ground. That way much of the harvested nitrogen stored in the plant tissues gradually decomposes back into the soil and enriches it. With this method, the chopped legume plant itself is quite literally used as a fertilizer. In gardening/agricultural circles this technique is sometimes referred to as green manuring.

Legume trees can also be planted throughout a property and any plant material harvested from those trees (autumn leaves, prunings/trimmings, etc.) can be used as a fertilizer – either on the compost heap or composted in or on the soil.

Did you know leguminous trees are some of the best fuel-producers?

If you heat your house with a wood stove you can grow and cut leguminous trees back for fire wood. Since leguminous trees are self-fertilizing because of their symbiosis with rhizobia they grow back vigorously when cut and can be harvested again for fire wood in the future. This wood-harvesting technique is referred to as coppicing and has been used historically for millennia. By coppicing with leguminous trees, a grower is quite literally growing fuel. I’ve even heard of self-sufficiency gurus who harvest fire wood in this manner to not only heat houses but to fuel steam engines that turn generators and thus power houses or recharge batteries. Pretty cool stuff.

Fuel aside, fast growing legume trees can also be harvested for their timber to make farm structures, fences, furniture, even housing, and so on.

Through the miraculous symbiosis between rhizobia and leguminous plants, nitrogen can be pulled from the atmosphere and put to good use in biological systems. With a sound knowledge of leguminous plants and their potential uses, a grower can wisely use one of nature’s greatest environmentally-enriching phenomena to his/her advantage to grow large volumes of high-quality food and fuel.

 

Growing Elderberries: How to Grow Elderberry Plants

Elderberries grow so commonly in the wild in much of the United States and Europe, that it almost doesn’t make sense to grow it in the landscape. But perhaps you live in an area where elderberries don’t grow naturally, or you simply want one for your landscape.

Most elderberry bushes grow so large that it really only suits a larger landscape. There’s no hope of pruning or training an elderberry into any particular shape, so find a spot where you want a rather informal, bushy clump. Especially when seen at a distance, the white sprays of flowers, and later, the dark berries, produce an ornamental effect.

Elderberries are easily propagated by digging up and replanting the suckers. Or by growing from cuttings.

Be aware that because elderberries sucker so readily, the suckers will need to be pulled or dug out at least once a year to prevent the elderberry from spreading beyond its bounds.

There are 4 basic elderberry species, and countless varieties. The Edible Landscape (non-affiliate link) is one good source of elderberry bushes. You really only need to purchase one. It’ll grow quickly and you’ll easily be able to propagate plenty of other bushes from it the second year.

 

Elderberries grow best in moist soil, but they do tolerate dry soil.

Elderberries prefer full sun, though they will tolerate partial shade. Unless you have your elderberries planted underneath a giant oak tree, not much will be able to shade them once they’ve reached their full height.

In the meantime, you can wonder if the wood produced by your elderberry bush is really the same that created the famed Elder Wand in the Harry Potter saga.

If your elderberry bush gets out of hand, simply prune it hard. It’s very unlikely that you could kill it, short of chopping it to the ground (and not likely even then).

 

DIY Potting Soil

Potting soil is big business. Every year thousands of bags of potting mixes are sold from nurseries and garden centers across the country.

 

Potting mix is particularly appealing to gardeners for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s sterilized. Whether you’re buying peat moss potting mix or a composted bark potting mix, the concoction has most likely been sterilized through steaming or some other heating process, or (at least historically) through a chemical process. One of the biggest frustrations for seed-starters is seeing young seedlings topple over and shrivel up. This is caused by damping-off fungi, which are present in large amounts in soil. Using sterilized potting mix prevents this problem.

Second, usually nutrients have been added to help your plants get a good start. Though most of the original nutrients are destroyed during the sterilization process, a lot of potting mixes now contain added nutrients, which should provide seedlings with all they need to make a healthy start in growing.

It all boils down to convenience. But what in the world did gardeners do before bagged potting mixes?

They made their own. And you can too with a little extra work and planning, and it can save you a bundle of money, especially if you’re growing en masse.

Make Your Own

We have used well-sifted compost before, and loved the results. It must be fully composted and sifted so that nutrients are available and the seeds won’t get lost amongst big bits of compost. It can be composted leaves, garden refuse, wood chips… pretty much anything organic that has been broken down into a fine, clean compost.

You can re-use potting mix you’ve already bought.

Vermicompost is also an excellent seed-starting medium.

Or you could simply use a good, loamy soil that doesn’t pack (aka, not clay). In old days, they used to start seeds on all sorts of mediums. One of the favorites was the dirt from mole-hill mounds because of its lightened texture. (If you’ve got a mole problem, at least you can put that mole-hill dirt to some good use.)

Sterilizing Your Own Potting Mix

To be sure that your seed-starting efforts won’t be thwarted by damping off, which is likely to be present in any compost or soil you might use, you’ll need to sterilize it yourself. We’ve done it a handful of ways.

1. Use your oven. This is the easiest and fastest way of sterilizing the soil, and though you can only do it in small batches, you already have the space and equipment to do it. We use the full-size catering pans (you can get them at many grocery stores) and simply fill it with sifted compost or soil, add a bit of water to mix it around to make sure it’s slightly damp (this steams it, which helps with the sterilization process), and then stick it an oven preheated to 170〫to 200〫F. The soil needs to get up to at least 160〫F.

2. Solarize it. If you want to do it in bigger batches, using solar power is one way to do it. You can use a solar oven to heat up the potting soil

Or, if you have a metal or dark-colored compost tumblr (preferrably one that hasn’t been used to actually compost the compost) you could put the sifted, slightly damp homemade potting medium in the composter, and let the sun bake it hot for several days. You’ll have to wait a little longer, but you’ll get a lot more done at once.

OR, an even more cost-effective, solar-powerized option is to simply place the sifted compost in clean black garbage bags (double-bagged to retain the heat) and let it sit in the sun for a few days. To make sure it gets heated all the way to the center, it would be better to only fill the garbage bag halfway, and lay it out flat.

 

3. Fire power. If you have a fire-pit or backyard pizza oven, you could do large batches much faster, as long as you have a container that will hold the potting soil.

Remember to keep an eye on your seedlings and make sure they have the nutrients they need to grow. Once they’re large enough, mulch them well.

Are you thinking about getting a compost tumbler? You could buy one, but honestly, I would recommend trying other methods first. Compost tumblers are expensive and, in my opinion, not cost effective.

 

Basic distinction between a bacterial and fungal infection

Understanding whether you’ve got a bacterial, fungal, or viral problem in your plants is the first step to taking care of the problem. Here are some basic distinctions that will tell you what kind of problem you’re dealing with.

Fungi are a more advanced creature then bacteria, thus fungi, in general, have more biologically advanced techniques for infection whereas bacteria tend to be more primitive. Consider an infection you may find on a leaf: does the infection spot cross over veins in the leaf and continue on the other side of the vein, or does the infection seem to be blocked from spreading past the vein? If the lesion is not inhibited by veins then the disease is likely to be a fungus; a blocked lesion is likely to be caused by bacteria. The picture at right is an example of a fungal infection.

Most fungi possess enzymes that can eat through interfering structures such as the walls of a vein in a leaf; bacteria do not. Look around the woody parts of your tree to see if you can find an amber colored ooze coming out of a branch or even the trunk. If there is an ooze like the picture below, it is much more likely to be a bacteria then a fungus. Fungi have developed the ability to reproduce and spread by using spores; bacteria have not. The bacteria use the ooze as an attractant for insects. Once the insects land in the ooze the bacteria will stick to the insect. As the insect moves from plant to plant, the bacteria is also spread from plant to plant.

Viral diseases are more difficult to determine, and they are still much less understood and classified than human diseases caused by viruses. Probably the most famous plant virus known is the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV). In general, viral infections cause warping, discoloration, and sometimes lesions, usually noticeable first in leaves and young stems, and in the fruits of the plant.

Viruses must be transmitted by a vector (an agent), whether that’s an insect, a worm, a bird, an animal, or a human. If you suspect disease in your plants, one of the first things you’ll likely need to do is cut it out and burn it. In between each cut, sanitize your tools in a bleach/water solution.

For more on management of plants that are diseased, see the article Cutting out Disease.

 

Cutting Out Disease

When a plant is diseased or wounded, it is often easier to cut out and remove the diseased portion of the plant instead of messing with chemical controls. This is especially true if you are dealing with a fruit or vegetable plant, which you would like to harvest chemical-free food from later.

When cutting out diseased plant material, make your cuts well below the wound site, or site of illness. On a small tree branch, for example, cut the diseased limb off the tree a good four or five inches (six or more inches if you really want to be thorough) below the next nearest plant tissue that shows signs of illness. In so doing, you will be more sure to have removed the disease entirely. It often happens that the exterior part of the limb is not yet displaying signs of illness even though the infection has proceeded far down the limb on the inside, particularly with fungal diseases (for more information, read the article on Bacterial vs. Fungal Infections.)

Another good idea is to dip the blade of your cutting tool into a jar of rubbing alcohol or bleach solution (about 1 cup of bleach to one gallon of water) after each cut. This may seem tedious but it is a good practice. If you are cutting out diseased wood, the blade of your cutting tool may very well come into contact with the disease you are seeking to remove. Once covered in disease, the blade now becomes an inoculating agent, and can communicate the disease to other parts of the plant. Dipping the blade in alcohol, or a bleach solution, will help prevent the spreading of disease.

Once you’ve cut out diseased branches or plant parts, the best thing to do is set up a bonfire and throw them on the pile. You don’t want to put those plant bits in your compost pile or have them, in any way, spreading the disease to other parts of your garden.

 

Grow the Most Amazing Fruit – By Pruning Your Fruit Trees

The basic idea:
Fruit trees manufacture two main types of sugars: cellulose or fructose. Cellulose is a structural sugar meaning that it is the woody portion of the plant, used simply to give the tree its ability to stand and hold itself up. Fructose is a metabolic sugar meaning that it is the edible sugar in the fruit of the tree that we eat.

The object in pruning fruit trees is to force the tree into investing more of its energy into the manufacture of fructose instead of cellulose; that is, we want the tree to produce lots of big juicy fruits instead of lots of woody growth such as new branches. Pruning fruit trees removes existing wood from the tree thus decreasing the trees options to invest in more woody growth. With fewer cellulose or woody growth options left after a thorough pruning, the tree’s other alternative is to invest more in fructose or the fruit. This is precisely our desire.

The details:
The fascinating thing about trees (or plants in general, for that matter) is their ability to take water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to make carbohydrates or sugars. Carbon dioxide in the air is literally transformed into sugar. Chemically speaking, there are hundreds of different kinds of sugars and not all carbohydrates are for food. For the purposes of this article, there are two main types of sugars that I will be focusing on: cellulose and fructose.

Cellulose is a structural sugar. Unlike us, plants don’t have bones or any kind of skeletal structure to help them hold themselves up. Instead they use the sugar cellulose which is the main chemical component of wood. It’s amazing to think that the physical strength of wood is created by nothing more than a mere mass of cellulose sugar! When a tree or a bush grows tall and wide the plant is converting its harvested carbon dioxide into cellulose for the manufacture of all that new woody growth. In fruit trees, however, too much woody growth is not desirable because we want the tree to produce the kind of sugar that we can eat: fructose.

Fructose is a metabolic sugar; that is to say, it’s a sugar we can eat. Fructose is the sugar found in the fruit produced by fruit trees and is what gives the fruit its intense sweet taste that we enjoy so much. When a fruit tree matures it starts to transition, spending less energy on woody growth and more of its energy on producing offspring or seeds which is where the fruit comes from (‘seed’ and ‘fruit’ are actually, botanically speaking, very different but I won’t get into the specifics here). Even though a mature tree converts less of its harvested carbon dioxide into cellulose development and more into fructose development (woody growth vs. fruit growth), the tree will still continue to grow branches and get taller and wider. Owing to the fact that we are more interested in the fruit of the tree than its wood, our goal in pruning is to encourage the tree to produce more fruit and less wood.

Pruning fruit trees removes the already existing wood from the tree thereby decreasing the tree’s options of investing in more woody growth. Cellulose and fructose production are two different processes that are essentiall in competition for the tree’s harvested carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is only a mere .04% of the atmosphere and is therefore a limiting factor to the tree’s manufacture of carbohydrates. Removing woody growth quite literally forces a tree into favoring fructose production over cellulose production: this is exactly what we want. A fruit tree that is well pruned will produce vastly superior quality and quantity of fruit than a fruit tree that has not been pruned in a long time or as they say “has gone to wood.” Notice the picture to the right: I pruned this apple tree quite heavily and the yield in fruit is excellent. What’s even more impressive is that these apples still have a month to go before harvest and they already look fantastic.

The question then becomes how much do we prune? The general rule is this: if, when you are done pruning the tree, it still looks nice you have probably not pruned enough. If you are serious about excellent fruit quality the pruning will need to be more severe than most people think, especially on peach trees. Unlike other temperate fruit trees, peaches produce fruit on first year branches. This means in order to get the maximum amount of fruit on a peach tree you need the tree to make lots of first-year, or new, branches. Hence, pruning quite severely on a peach tree forces lots of new branches and with it lots of high quality fruit. The other temperate fruit trees don’t need to be pruned back as severely as does the peach, but they should, in general, be pruned back fairly hard.

Where do I start and how do I do this?The first easy thing that should be done is to cut out all dead or diseased wood. Observe the outward appearance of the branches of your tree. Even a complete novice can quickly discern a healthy looking branch from a dead or diseased one. Dead branches are dry and brittle, alive branches are flexible. Diseased wood is often sunken or cankered in appearance with black flesh or other off-color demarcations. Remove all dead wood and cut diseased wood out at least a few inches (~7.5 cm) below the apparent infection.

When is the best time to prune?The best time to prune fruit trees, and most other plants, is when they are dormant, which is during the winter time. Late winter is best, but any time during dormancy or the winter will do.