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WCAX's Grow an Xtra Row Blog

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"Yes you CAN!"

We hope you and a certain presidential candidate will forgive us, but we couldn't resist.

In beginning this blog entry on the virtues of preserving your own food, it was the first phrase that came to mind.

Canning is gaining in popularity. And, considering today's food prices, it's no wonder. A friend said recently, "Why is it everything at the grocery store costs four dollars!?" She was joking, but it sure is true that prices seem to be rounding up faster and faster, and most of us are on a collision course with some kind of belt tightening.

If you are willing to sacrifice some time and learn some basic rules, canning can be a simple, economical way to preserve some of the local harvest and save on food costs.

And, right now, you can take advantage of canning seminars at Vermont grange halls to be sure you get it right.

These workshops are free and open to the public. If your mom or grandmother could do it, it's likely you can manage it, too. And think of the end result; a succulent jar of tomatoes, all ready to be plucked from the pantry shelf next January.

Canning is a fun and educational family activity. Let kids help you wash, prep, and pack. Older kids can even design their own sticky packaging labels on the computer for the pickles, carrots, and spiced beets they help you "put by".

Whether canning is your budget's salvation in lean times, or a way to connect to local foods, why not give it a try?

For more information and seminar locations visit vermontagriculture.com/news/2008/canningJuly31.html or call Agency of Agriculture Public Information Officer Kelly Loftus at 802-828-3829.

You can also check out books like "Canning and Preserving for Dummies" by Karen Ward, or "Putting Food By" by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughn.

Let us know if you decide to take the plunge. We might just post your adventure on our blog.

Thea Lewis

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The "Grow an Xtra Row" blog has been on a bit of a summer vacation, but the program itself is still in full swing.

If you've been watching you know we collected over 3,000 pounds of food with our "Fill a Truck" event at Price Chopper on Shelburne Road.  Now, we're waiting for donations of veggies to begin arriving at our local food shelves.

Since this is the first year we've done anything like this we had to wonder; with so many food shelves across the state, how will we measure the help we're hoping to provide?

So, our friends at the Vermont Food Bank are working to try to figure that out, with outreach to their network, and hopefully, some email responses back once donations begin to come in. We may not get hard totals in pounds, but hopefully we'll get some idea of what's being provided that wasn't last year.

Meanwhile, we are hoping our Xtra Row pans out. A look at the garden yesterday revealed a few soggy, yellowed tomato plants, which could mean they are waterlogged and not getting enough oxygen, or maybe that the rain is carrying away nutrients. We're going to try feeding them a little (thinking too much would be worse for the poor babies than none at all) and see how they do.

Remember; we got a late start, but at last count there were 16 tomatoes and lots more blossoms, a couple of jalapeno peppers peeking out and some of the cutest little cucumbers we've ever seen. The beans are getting tall. The garden is so pretty in the sunlight. It just looks like summer.  

If you have any ideas for my rain soaked tomatoes, please leave your comment here.

It's a new feature, and we're looking forward to lots of feedback.

Happy gardening!

Thea Lewis

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Help Us Fill A Truck!

If you're like most people, being hungry isn't something you think much about. For the average American, food is plentiful. In our office, treats abound, whether from the vending machine, someone's bagel run, or a co-worker's big summer party, not to mention cooking segments on Across the Fence. (When the studio light goes out, WCAX employees run to the door like Pavlov's dog).

These days it's the surplus of food most Americans have to worry about; super-sized everything from burgers to cookies. For most of us meals happen on schedule. There's never a worry about where the next one is coming from.

But in a country where an excess of calories is becoming a health epidemic, there are plenty of people who don't have enough to eat. And with gas prices driving up everything, their resources are becoming even more limited.

That's one reason we started our Grow an Xtra Row campaign. Local neighbors sharing the harvest mean a better variety of healthy local foods for those in need.

It's a while until the harvest, though. So we've got a plan.

On Wednesday July 9th, WCAX and our partners The Vermont Agency of Agriculture and The Vermont Food Bank, will team with Price Chopper Supermarket on Shelburne Road in Burlington to fill a truck with non-perishable food items.

We need your help.

Visit us between 6 AM and 6PM, and share what you can. Volunteers will be on hand to collect your donations and distribute them to The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and The Vermont Food Bank.

Whatever you can give, a little, or a lot, will be greatly appreciated.

Thea Lewis

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Letting kids grow their own veggies is a great way to get them to eat more of them, but before that first pepper or potato is harvested, you've got to get the plants in the ground.  Guest blogger Thea Lewis gives us a look at what can happen when gardening becomes a family affair.

Kids love dirt, right?  So over the weekend, into the garden we went, with three of them; ages 10, 11 and 12, and plans to get the plants in before it rained. We were starting from scratch in the 12' by 14' plot we'd staked but hadn't tilled, but figured with two determined adults and so much boundless "pre-teen" (They hate it when we call them "kids") energy, whipping it into shape would be a snap.

At first, the gang dug and poked with great enthusiasm, almost too much in fact,

resulting in at least one bop on the head after an encroachment of someone's "tilling territory". No blood was shed, and an ice bag was fetched. The kids went back to work. Then, they discovered the worms.

I knew that fresh tilled soil often comes with squiggly inhabitants, but once the kids saw the worms, they became less absorbed in digging and eradicating clumps of weeds, and more interested in chasing each other with worms, naming worms, (Wendy? Bernie? Huxley?) and relocating the worms. Complaining of dirt in shoes and increasing humidity, and consumed with concern for the displaced wrigglers, our mini-gardeners turned into a bunch of unpaid worm-sitters, resting on an old park bench under a tree, cooing over how cool worms are in general, and how obviously superior ours in particular must be. 

Worms are cool. And they do very cool things for your garden.

Slime, a secretion of earthworms, contains nitrogen. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for plants. The sticky slime helps hold clusters of soil particles together in formations called aggregates. 

Worms also aerate the soil, so the roots of your plants can grow. The spaces they create make it easier for water to circulate within the soil, too.

More worms, healthier plants. I never pondered that part of the gardening equation before, but I'm all for it, especially if the end result is a succulent tomato on that first summer sandwich from our very own garden.

As it turned out, the rain held off for a while. Now when we look outside we see bean teepees and a trellis for the cucumbers. The jalapeno plants look jaunty

in the morning breeze and one of the tomato plants sports a tiny flower.

I was stiff all day Monday, but after a few days of stretches and walks with the dog, I'm feeling pretty good.

I guess you could say the worm has turned.

Thea Lewis

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Today it's all eyes on the potato. Our guest blogger Tim Allen lets us in on how he grows this mealtime staple with a minimum of effort, using very little garden space.

How to easily grow potatoes!

I love growing potatoes, but always found it near backbreaking work. First it's the planting and then it's the hide ‘n go seek game where you're digging through soil to find the potatoes. I found, quite by accident, that there's a much easier way to grow them, and I have a temporary compost pile I had set up to thank for it.

So for the past 10- 15 years, my favorite way to grow potatoes is to take a short length (3-4 feet) of 4 foot tall ‘welded wire' fencing (available at most hardware & improvement stores.) Simply curve this bit of fencing into a cylinder, attaching it to itself with zip-ties, or the wire from the fence itself. A well placed stake or two will keep young children and puppies from tipping your potatoes over.

Next, simply place the cylinder on the ground and fill it with a foot or so of a compost/soil mix. My favorite way is to take the compost from the bottom of the composter and mix it with garden soil in a large tub. Don't worry if the compost isn't fully finished.

Now, cut up a number of potatoes, or use seed potatoes and alternate about one tater for every three or four shovels full of compost mixture (or alternate your soil and compost if you can't premix). Stop adding the potatoes when you get near the top, put your last few scoops of soil in and wait.

What to do now? Relax! From time to time - cut back any weeds that develop, make sure you have consistent moisture, and deal with any pests as needed.

Now comes the best part! Once the growing season has ended & the tater plants have died after a few frosts, it's time to harvest. Pull off the dead/dying foliage, clip the ties and lift your fence away from the cylinder of soil. Your soil, potatoes and all, will tumble out onto the ground. Pick up your potatoes on the surface, then use plastic leaf rake or your hands to gently work the rest of the soil right into the garden, stopping to pick up any potatoes revealed along the way. The great thing is your garden soil is also now fully amended for next years growing season with the topsoil/compost mix you used for the taters.

A quick reminder on watering, never water in full sun, or water heavily in the evening. I find morning is best as excess moisture is burned off by the sun, without leaving sun damaged spots watering in full sun can leave, and without the mold and fungus evening watering can bring. Also, in the past I've often grown these at the four corners of my garden as it makes it look balanced and it also keeps the potato bugs from discovering a huge cache of food. I also am not averse to planting marigolds, parsley and garlic in, amongst or around my other plants to fend off bugs. So far, knock on wood, I've never had any huge bug issues. I'm also not much of a weeder, only uprooting the worst offending and chocking weeds. Many weeds will be eaten before your garden plants, and they also give a place for spiders and beneficial insects to live.

--Tim Allen

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If you're like most Vermonters, you probably start planning your vegetable garden in January. Who can blame you? Winters up here are long, and off season supermarket produce is spendy. Don't even get us going about what it does to our carbon footprint.

So there you are in the dead of winter, huddled under a quilt in front of the woodstove, or sitting at the kitchen table with your cup of Joe, poring over seed catalogues and making lists of the vegetables you'll enjoy and maybe even put by for another long winter ahead.

Just the names on the seed packets make you feel sunnier; tomatoes called Camp Joy, Caspian Pink, and Big Rainbow; Acorn Squash, Delicata, and Buttercup, and lettuces with monikers like Little Gem, Oak Leaf, and Summer Glory.

You can almost imagine them twinkling in the sun under a fresh mist of morning dew.

Now June is here, and the plants are in, for the most part. We're anticipating calluses and the occasional weeding backache, with a long stretch until the inevitable harvest.

But, is it inevitable? Will the fruits of our labor actually be fruit, or the aftermath of an attack by that cute little bunny who visits while you're snoring?

One year, we planted a crop of Scarlet Runner beans. They are edible, and their flowers are a treasure, lighting up a garden like summer fireworks. They grew fast, climbing their tee-pees and stretching toward the sky, but when they got to be about a foot tall we discovered, (while making a morning visit to smugly survey our progress,) they had been razored into inch high nubs by some visiting woodland critter.

So this year, we're trying a more aggressive approach to deterring varmints, and asking people we know, and people like you what works, and what doesn't when it comes to gardening.

Send us your tips and tricks for keeping your garden free of everything from grubs to marauding squirrels and we'll post the best responses, letters and photos, right here all season long.

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