Emerging Agritourism: Farm to Fork Dinners at Sandiwood Farm

Twenty-five years ago, the land that would become Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, VT wasn’t much more than a barren field. But that didn’t stop Sara and Bob Schlosser from putting down roots and starting a life there. The two married in that field, and in the years that followed, they built a house, a family, and a farm, all the while transforming it into a beautiful, thriving landscape. In their quarter-century of farming, Sara and Bob have refined their growing techniques to be able to offer some the earliest vegetables available in Northern Vermont—zucchini and cucumbers the first weeks of June, and potatoes just before July!—and have developed strong relationships with area chefs who serve Sandiwood produce all around the Stowe and Morrisville area. They also sell directly to customers at the Stowe Farmers Market, and at their own farm stand in Wolcott.

From left: Kyle, Sara, Bob, and Sandi Schlosser

In 2012, after many years of planning and dreaming, Sara and Bob decided to add agritourism to their list of farm enterprises, and hosted their first Farm to Fork Dinner. Their daughter Sandi, a New England Culinary Institute trained chef, helped develop the idea. The farm produces almost all of the food served at the dinner, while Sandi creates the menu and runs the kitchen. Their son Kyle (whose middle name Woodrow is the second reason for the name “Sandiwood”) is also involved in the dinners, helping prepare and serve the food, and acting as the event photographer. The dinners have taken off since 2012, and the 2014 season will see one dinner each month through October.

I had the chance to stop by Sandiwood Farm and see the dinner prep in action for their season kick-off Solstice dinner. As always, Sara was brimming with excitement, welcoming me and showing me around the farm while Bob greeted early arrivers and Sandi and Kyle prepped with a small crew in the kitchen. There was not a weed to be found in the gardens that surround the house, and Sara joked that everywhere she walks she has the chance to weed. It’s hard not to be drawn in by Sara’s genuine love for farm and family, which is surely one aspect that keeps many diners coming back for meal after meal.

As agritourism is growing in popularity around Vermont, I asked Sara for her thoughts on it.

Katie Spring: How long have you been farming?  Can you give a quick background on your farm—what you grow, where you sell, etc.

Sara Schlosser: We’ve been farming for 32 years. We grow a diverse array of produce, pushing the early season boundaries by having zucchini and cucumbers to sell by early June and beans and peas mid June. This year potatoes will be ready from a high tunnel by the end of June. We also produce maple syrup from our 35-acre sugarbush and sell it through mail order on our website. We’ve been fixtures at the Stowe Farmers Market for 20 years as, and also sell to high-end restaurant chefs.  In the 1990s we had a 35-member CSA for 10 years before it was popular in the area. We’ve taken many twists and turns over the past 26 years but have stayed committed to growing food for ourselves and the surrounding community. More recently we’ve been focusing on sugaring and farm tours, and the Farm to Fork Dinners in the field!

KS: What does agritourism mean to you?

SS: Having guests to the farm to connect to where their food is raised and grown. Giving a wonderful, memorable, and educational experience and, in our case, an incredible localvore sunset meal in the field. We are blessed to be stewards of an amazing piece of land with incredible views, and we want to share what we love and what we are doing.

KS: What drew you to agritourism and wanting to share your farm with others?

SS: It’s natural to share what we are so blessed with—this land and the farm—and we’re proud of our accomplishments. We also want to share what we’ve learned about crops and varieties, season extension, and what is possible to grow in this climate without a heated greenhouse.

KS: Did you offer agritourism events or have other ways of inviting the public to your farm before you began the Farm to Fork Dinners? 

SS: We’ve always welcomed people to our farm for sugaring and educational tours, and we have a plant sale from the farm for 6 weeks in the spring and early summer. We launched our first Farm to Fork Sunset Dinner and farm tour in 2012 and sat 20 people. We had no idea this type of dining experience would be so popular—we now seat 60 and could expand if we build a more permanent structure or pavilion. We are excited to have guests to our farm to connect to where the food is grown. We’ve had to find our niche with our farm dinners and make a truly unique experience different from other farm meals.

KS: You developed the Farm to Fork dinners with your daughter, a NECI-trained chef. What was the seed of this idea?  How has this partnership evolved over the years?

Chef Sandi, at right, prepping with her team

SS: Our now-grown children were born and raised on the farm, and helped build our farm and business. Sandi found her true passion early on, always going to the gardens to harvest and prepare food from the time she could walk. Sandi has always loved to cook. It’s no wonder she went on to the New England Culinary Institute to get her chef degree! Collaborating on the Farm to Fork Dinners was a no-brainer with our incredible views, the farm, and Sandi’s passion to cook. I’m also a Justice of the Peace, and the family is excited to branch more into weddings and other special events on the farm with catering/grower/venue/family collaboration. Our son, Kyle, is entering his senior year at UVM and is a Parks, Recreation and Tourism major. Kyle is an integral part in making the farm dinners happen, from grounds and maintenance, kitchen help, and serving. We couldn’t do all that we do if our whole family wasn’t involved.

KS: What keeps you farming year after year?

Chef Sandi’s Fried Green Tomatoes with Micro Arugula

SS: It’s what I’ve been doing for so long—it’s hard to change!  I will always grow food for the local community and ourselves.

KS: What’s your favorite aspect of the Farm to Fork dinners?

SS: Seeing so many people truly enjoying the experience, raving about the food, venue, and what our family is doing together. It is so much more than a meal in a field. It is community building.

KS: Do you have any advice or encouragement for other farmers interested in agritourism?

SS: There are so many details—parking, rest rooms, insurance, handicap accessibility—and all the little things that need to be done in a timely way to give folks the best experience. It’s a lot to think about and prepare for. Just like agriculture, with all the certifications and insurances, it’s hard to stay small and really be sustainable. For us, we’d have to do a lot more dinners or branch out further with other agritourism options on our farm, but at this time we are maxed out with the mix of farmers market, chef sales, and on-farm dinner events. We are only in our third year of the dinners, though, and just like agriculture, it can take a little bit to get on your feet. The community experience and family venture keeps us going, and we are excited at how the dinners are growing!

KS: Any advice for eaters seeking out a farm experience?

SS: Do it!


One of the best things about agritourism is that it allows you to have a unique experience in your own backyard. Historically farms have not been a public space, but more and more farmers across Vermont and the US are opening their land up and inviting eaters to dig in. Whether you are driving to a local farm or visiting farms on a vacation, agritourism allows you to get to know a place on a deeper, and certainly more delicious, level. To learn more about Sandiwood Farm or to sign up for a Farm to Fork Sunset Dinner, visit www.sandiwoodfarm.com


Posted in Commercial Growing, Farmer Authors, Health and Wellness, Philosophy | 1 Comment

Local Food, Music, Workshops, & More at High Mowing Field Day

Join us this Sunday, August 24th for the annual High Mowing Field Day, our fun-filled open house marking the height of the growing season! Learn something new at our workshops, tour the beautiful Trials & Showcase fields, satisfy your soul with a delicious Local Food Showcase meal prepared in the field by New England Culinary Institute chefs, then dance the night away with live music and a bonfire!

Best of all, all events are FREE!

Be sure to check out all the other great events going on this weekend as part of Kingdom Farm & Food Days, a celebration of local farms and producers of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. KFF is presented by High Mowing Organic Seeds, Sterling College, Pete’s Greens, and the Center for an Agricultural Economy. Read on for more details…

High Mowing Field Days Schedule – Sunday, August 24th, 2014

All tours and workshops start at the Welcome tent.


  • Field Tour with Taylor


  • Pollinators, What’s All the Buzz About? with Stephen Purdy. This workshop will take a look at pollinator identification, habitat, and life cycle with a focus on their role in organic seed production. We will walk through wildflower patches and production fields discussing the challenges that pollinators face, then build some nesting sites to take home.
  • Introduction to Vegetable Fermentation with Holly Simpson. In this workshop we will cover all the basics of successful home fermentation.


  • Field Tour with Jacob
  • Seed Saving & Production Tour with Tom Stearns. In this workshop we will walk around the Trials and nearby seed production fields discussing techniques and issues related to saving your own seeds on both a garden and farm scale. Most varieties of vegetables as well as some herbs and flowers will be covered.



  • GMO OMG: Understanding Genetic Modification and Why It Matters with Sophia Bielenberg. In this workshop we will discuss many aspects of genetic modification. We will talk about transgenic and cisgenic genetic engineering, what they are, and why the USDA allows one in organics but not the other. We’ll also cover High Mowing’s stance on varieties derived from the popular artificial CMS technique, the recent study of nutritional differences between conventional and organic foods, and what’s on the horizon for Vermont since passing the GMO-labeling law. We’ll save time at the end for Q&A.
  • Putting Cover Crops to Work: Better Soils for Better Crops with Jacob Keszey. Join us to learn about the broad impact cover crops can have in improving the life of your soil. We’ll discuss how using cover crops effectively can improve soil conditions by increasing organic matter, fixing nitrogen, reducing soil compaction, suppressing weed growth, preventing excessive water loss, and limiting erosion of fallow ground.

4:30pm: Local Food Showcase Meal prepared in the field by New England Culinary Institute Chefs!

5:30-8:30pm: Live Music with Granite Junction and a bonfire!

Getting There

High Mowing Field Day takes place at the High Mowing Trials & Showcase Field on Marsh Road, Wolcott, VT (NOT at our warehouse at 76 Quarry Rd!)

Directions To Trial & Showcase Gardens

From Morrisville and Points West:
Drive East on Route 15 through the town Wolcott. Continue on 15 past Fischer Covered Bridge on your right and High Mowing Organic Seeds’ warehouse on your left. Turn left on Marsh Road. Follow Marsh Road uphill continuing to bear left wherever the road forks. When the road stops going uphill, continue past the Steve Hill farm on your right until you see the VT Land Trust sign on the left. High Mowing Organic Seeds Trials & Showcase Garden is the next driveway on your left. (Google Map)

From Hardwick and Points East:
Drive West on Route 15. Turn right on Marsh Rd. Follow Marsh road uphill, continuing to bear left wherever the road forks. When the road stops going uphill, continue past the Steve Hill farm on your right until you see the VT Land Trust sign on the left. High Mowing Organic Seeds Trials & Showcase Garden is the next driveway on your left. (Google Map)

We hope to see you at Kingdom Farm and Food Days this weekend – and join the fun on Facebook!

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Win a Winter Garden Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds!

Sometimes in the midst of the summer farm and garden abundance, it’s hard to remember to plan ahead for the fall and winter months. A little planning now can help you make that abundance last long into the winter–so we’re having a contest to tell us what fall and winter crops you’re growing this year!

Lately many people have been using the website Pinterest to organize their garden ideas and wishes. We think this is an excellent idea as it provides a great visual representation of what you’d like to grow. The boards people create are beautiful to look at and fun to use.

We would love to see what YOUR dream fall/winter garden looks like. We’re inviting you to create your dream fall garden by “pinning” varieties you’d like to grow onto a board, then sending us the link to your board. We’ll randomly choose three winning boards, and the owners of the winning boards will receive a Winter Garden Collection of seeds to help make those garden dreams come true!

Check out our past winter growing articles to get some ideas for your board!

The rules are simple:

  • Create your own board called “Winter Garden from High Mowing Organic Seeds“. Pin vegetable varieties you’d like to grow this fall/winter. You can pin varieties from our High Mowing Organic Seeds website or any other site.
  • Come back to this post and leave us your Pinterest “Winter Garden” Board URL in the comments section below. Make sure to use your real e-mail so we can contact you if you win!

Enter by 4pm, Friday, September 5th 2014 for your chance to win the Winter Garden Collection! The winner will be announced on Monday, September 8th.

Contest closes at 4pm (EST) on September 5th, 2014.  The fine print: High Mowing Organic Seeds is giving away 3 Winter Garden Collections (a $13.75 value) to three lucky winners! The contest runs from 8/14/14 through 4pm (EST) 9/5/14. The winner will be selected using random.org. The winner will be notified via e-mail, so please ensure that your e-mail is accurate. Winners must respond to the winner announcement email within 96 hours to claim their prizes. If the winner fails to respond within that time, High Mowing Organic Seeds will select another winner through random.org and will send out another e-mail to the next winner.


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Easy Seed Saving for Everyone

In the northern reaches of the country we are just starting to see the first ripe tomatoes rolling in. Very soon there will be not only red but purple, yellow, orange, green, striped, white, long, fuzzy, and flattened tomatoes ready – a cornucopia of colors, textures, and flavors to delight the senses. Why not carry a bit of that abundance forward?

Believe it or not, there are several crops that make seed saving easy as pie—and tomatoes are one of them! We’ll also talk about peppers, peas, and beans, and how to Cross Your Own Hybrid. The even better news is that you don’t need to sacrifice your whole crop to save seeds—just a few fruits will do. After all, producing seeds is the end goal for most of these plants….we just happen to like eating what grows around them. Here are some easy seed saving techniques perfect for kids’ activities and adults alike.

For Ages 2+: Peppers are one of the easiest crops to save seeds from for two reasons:

they are mainly self-pollinated annuals, and the seeds are ripe when the pepper is ripe. That means you get to have your cake (the seeds) and eat it (the pepper) too! About 20% of them are pollinated by insects, however, so you need to be ok with a few surprises in the mix. If different varieties are isolated from each other by 200-300 feet, you may be able to get completely “true” seed just like the parent variety; however this is probably not practical for most people. That being said, peppers are even easier than tomatoes to save! Here are the steps:

  1. Harvest your favorite kind of ripe pepper (that means if it’s a red pepper, harvest it red, not green)
  2. Cut the pepper in half and use your hands to gently brush the seeds onto a plate or cloth. If need be use a 1/8” screen or colander to remove any detritus. Pat seeds dry with a paper towel.
  3. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place for up to 3 years.

    Tom Stearns mashing tomatoes to extract the seeds

For Ages 3+: Tomatoes are nearly as easy as peppers—they are self-pollinated annuals, and the seeds are ripe when the tomato is ripe. Many vegetable crops are insect-pollinated (like squash) or wind-pollinated (like corn). But tomatoes can pollinate themselves because they have perfect flowers  (with both male and female parts). So that means that they should nearly always “come true”, or make plants just like the parent plant, and it also means two different kinds can be side-by-side and not cross-pollinate each other. Here’s how you save the seeds:

  1. Harvest your favorite kind of ripe tomato(es).
  2. Using a spoon or your hands, squeeze the seeds and juice into a jar and add about the same amount of water as tomato juice. (Use the leftover tomato flesh to make sauce!)
  3. With the jar open, allow the tomato seed-juice-water mixture to ferment in a warm place for 3-5 days, stirring each day, until the seeds sink to the bottom of the jar.
  4. Rinse the seeds thoroughly with water (a 1/8” screen or colander may help) and let them dry on a paper plate or dish cloth. Once fully dry, the seeds can be stored in a cool dry place, such as in a container in the refrigerator, for 4-10 years.

For Ages 5+: Peas and Beans can be pollinated by insects, but it’s very rare. These have perfect flowers too—in fact, the flower is usually pollinated before it even opens. One thing to consider is that mature plants will produce more viable seed with wider spacing—so consider this if you’re planning to grow peas or beans for saving next year.

Erin winnowing seeds at High Mowing

  1. Harvest all the peas and beans you want when ripe, then leave some on the plant to mature seeds. For peas this is about 4 weeks after they stop producing edible peas; for beans it takes about 6 weeks after your last harvest. The pods should be completely dry when it’s time to harvest the seeds.
  2. If rain or frost threatens while your pods are drying down, dig up the entire plant and hang upside down by the roots in a cool, dark place (such as a garage or basement) until pods are completely dry and papery – the beans should be hard enough that your fingernail doesn’t leave a mark.
  3. For smaller quantities, you can shell the pods by hand, but for larger quantities you will probably want to thresh the plants. This means laying out a tarp and jumping on the pods until they open. Who needs a trampoline when you can thresh!
  4. Remove any remaining chaff (plant residue) by winnowing with a box fan – set up a fan on a chair blowing over a bin next to it, then pour your seeds into the bin. The fan will blow away any lighter chaff but not the heavier seeds. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place for up to 4 years.

    Squash blossoms identified for pollination at High Mowing

Ages 8+: Cross Your Own Hybrid using two related varieties of the same species that have qualities you like, such as the Powdery Mildew-resistant Success PM Straightneck summer squash and the adorable round Ronde de Nice summer squash. Making a hybrid is a bit more complicated than simply saving seeds, but you might just invent something great that no one’s ever seen before. To make a hybrid, you’ll need:

  • A few plants of each squash variety
  • Some twist ties
  • A few surveyor’s flags or neon-colored ribbon
  • A permanent marker

Each squash plant has some male flowers and some female flowers. You can tell which flowers are female because they have a bulge at the base of the flower where the squash will form. The female flowers will only accept pollen the first morning they are open. This means you need to have them properly identified when they’re still closed, the night before they’re going to open. They should be bright orange and very full. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Go to your squash plants the evening before you plan to make your hybrid. Use the surveyor flags or tape to clearly mark the flowers of each variety you plan to use so you can find them easily the next day. For example, let’s say to mark the female flowers of the Success PM plant and the male flowers of the Ronde de Nice.
  2. Locate the male and female flower(s) that will open the next morning. Use the twist ties to tie the flowers closed so that they can’t open by themselves.

    Hand pollinating squash blossoms at High Mowing

  3. Return early the next morning and harvest a few twist-tied male flowers from the Ronde de Nice plant. Take the male flowers over to the females and untie all the twist-ties. Remove the pollen-coated stamen from the male flower and use it to brush pollen onto the stigma inside the female flower. Then twist-tie the female flower closed again so no other pollen gets in.
  4. Mark the stems with pollinated female flowers with flags or tape, noting the date and varieties used with permanent marker.
  5. Allow the fruit to ripen and grow far beyond the edible stage. Harvest once the outer shell hardens, then allow to cure 3-4 more weeks in a warm, dry place. After curing, cut open the squash, scoop out the seed, rinse it in warm water, and pat dry with a paper towel. Allow the seed to dry completely on a cookie sheet. Store seeds in a cool, dry location.
  6. Next year, plant out your test crosses and see what happens!

Check out our Hand Pollinating Squash video for visual instructions, and find growing and seed saving information for every crop type on our website.

Posted in Kids and Gardening, Seed Saving and Production, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The Benefits of Hillside Farming

Katie Spring owns and operates Good Heart Farmstead with her husband Edge Fuentes in Worcester, VT.

Prime agricultural soils are often found in flood-plain, where the land is nutrient-rich and fertile. Hillsides, in contrast, can bring a range of challenges for the farmer: nutrient-poor soil, erosion, and nutrient run-off to name a few. But as we experience more extreme weather in the Northeast and all over the country, hillsides can offer some unique solutions to environmental pressures.

Hillsides: The Underutilized Resource

As young beginning farmers, we didn’t expect to buy land with the perfect agricultural soils, and we knew early on that we’d spend years building soil and increasing organic matter in our fields. We had met on a hillside farm in Alaska that grew 3 acres of veggies on terraced land, and so we were excited to find land with a slope and to integrate some of the practices we had learned at Calypso Farm.

Though it requires more work to establish cropland on a hillside, the benefits, from flood protection and gravity-fed irrigation to the increased solar gain on south and south-western slopes, make the work worth it. The solar gain difference is particularly significant—according to Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower, “Land in the northern hemisphere at a latitude of 43 degrees with a slope angle of 5% to the south with have the same solar climate as the area 300 miles to the south of it.”

Watch & Learn

Preparing Beds with a Broadfork at GHF

Before tilling up an acre for crops, we watched the land through a spring and summer. We took into account where the natural high and low points are, where the water naturally flows and, judging by the types of plant species growing, where the nutrients seemed to be the highest (which coincided with the water flowed). We chose a central spot high on our field that had a small crest in the center that falls away to the south, out of the way of the water flow. Our land has a gentle enough slope to avoid leveling and building terraces; instead, after tilling, we used broadforks and a pick to make raised beds that follow the contour of the land. Rather than tilling the entire field each year, we will have permanent beds and use a low-till system to encourage the build up of soil life.

Gravity-Fed Irrigation & Drainage

Our first season started off with a hot and dry May followed by a cool, rainy
June. In May, we set up a 250-gallon water tank at the top of our field and used the brook above to gravity-fill it. We then set up drip tape and gravity-fed water through the garden. We’d fill the tank as we irrigated to keep the water supply going, and this system kept the plants happy until June came and we no longer needed it.

In the drenching rain day after day, the raised beds held their shape as the broadforked soil was able to absorb much of the water, while excess water ran off our crops into the field. Thanks to our slope, we were able to continue transplanting and harvesting when fields in the lowlands were bogged down with water. During this time, we diverted the water in the holding tank from the garden and used it instead to bring water to our livestock in the pasture below.

Ditches at GHF

Hillside Challenges & Mitigation

Of course, we had our challenges, too. Even though the garden drained well, there were still days too wet to work in it, and parts of our pasture were flowing with water, forcing us to keep our sheep out of those areas which also happened to have some of the nicest grass. A little ditching helped relieve the problem somewhat, but keyline plowing or a series of irrigation ponds may offer a more permanent solution.

It is important to note that the techniques you should use depend greatly on the subsoil characteristics and annual rainfall in your area. In Papua New Guinea, for example, where hillsides up to 45 degrees are farmed and rainfall can exceed 150 inches a year, down-slope oriented beds are actually preferable. This is because the clay subsoil does not erode easily, and the water is able to drain away. If cross-slope beds were used, the clay-lined beds would hold huge pools of water, which would eventually overflow, carrying the whole bed down with it.

In drier regions, it is usually  preferable to site beds across the slope on the contour. A subsoil keyline plough, which does not invert the soil but creates channels through it, is an excellent tool for encouraging water to move across the land and soak into it rather than flowing downhill.

Let the Land Work for You

Even with our challenges, the slope of our land more often offers advantages. In heavy rains we are protected from floods, in dry times we can use gravity to our advantage in irrigation, when frost settles in the valley come fall we can stretch out an extra week or so before the frost makes its way uphill, and the Southwest orientation magnifies the sun’s effect, warming our fields from spring through fall. And let’s not forget the many cultures and people who have farmed on hillsides long before us—from Asia to South America, hillside farming has been utilized for centuries as an effective method of farming on seemingly unlikely farmland.

For more information check out the NRCS Guide to Contour Farming and The Challenge of Landscape, the seminal work by PA Yeomans, inventor of Keyline farming.

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An Oasis in the Desert: Succeeding with Dry Climate Agriculture

Dryland farming at Agritopia

A cross-country road trip reveals some remarkable things about America. Across the continent the vast differences in culture are evident in the range of clothing styles, food preferences, accents, vehicles, and dwellings; in our music, art, politics, and economic stability. But as great as our cultural differences are, they are insignificant compared to (and thoroughly shaped by) the differences in our ecosystems. Here in Vermont we are famous for our sugar maple trees and cheddar, while California boasts giant sequoias, fine wines and orchards as far as the eye can see. The temperate wet summers and dry autumns of the Pacific Northwest produce the best of many seed crops, while less than a thousand miles to the south the landscape is so dry that only cacti and C4 plants survive.

The Farm at Agritopia

In the wild, that is. Tenacious farmers and gardeners of the arid southwest are coming up with new creative ways to raise food even in the driest regions of our diverse continent. This is a unique area even from a global perspective, characterized by martian-looking plateaus and buttes of red rock, high-altitude windswept mesas, and magnificent canyons carved by deep rivers that dried up generations ago. Day and nighttime temperatures can vary by as much as 60 degrees F, and at first glance one can see that farming in this environment requires an equally unique approach.

Unfortunately the water problem is getting more severe, with irrigation water becoming more expensive and less available as agriculture intensifies, and major rivers like the Colorado drying up long before reaching the ocean. Now more than ever we need to produce more food with less water. So we talked to Erich Schultz, a High Mowing customer and Head Farmer at The Farm at Agritopia® outside Phoenix, Arizona about some simple techniques and varieties contributing to the success of farmers and gardeners in the drylands.

The Farm at Agritopia®

A CSA share from the Farm at Agritopia

The Farm at Agritopia® is a 15-acre certified organic urban farm in the heart of a housing community called Agritopia® located in Gilbert, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix. The community website describes Agritopia® as “something of a modern day village set within the urban fabric of the Phoenix metro area…[it’s] about preserving urban agriculture and integrating it into the most neighborly, well-designed community possible.” The community features two restaurants that source produce from the farm and according to Erich, “Because of our climate, we can farm year round growing a wide range of row crops ranging from arugula to tomatoes, plus orchards for citrus, peaches, apricots, apples, medjool dates and olives. We grow 3 varieties of heritage wheat (White Sonora, Red Fife and Khorasan). We also raise sheep, chickens, ducks and turkeys as well as keep bees.” The farm produce is sold

Agritopia’s 24-Hour Farmstand

through their farmstand, farmers markets, a CSA, and to restaurants. The climate presents its challenges, however. According to Erich, “Our summers can be quite warm (110+) and our winters can have dramatic temperature swings (60 during the day and 15 at night).” Erich has learned to work with the climate using some key xeriscaping techniques.

Xeriscaping Basics

Gardening to minimize water usage is called xeriscaping. It is essentially a means of using traditional gardening techniques but in slightly different ways to reduce the need for irrigation.

A Plant for Every Place

The first basic principle is to match plants’ water needs to different microclimates, seasons, and soils on the property – this is an important technique used at Agritopia. According to Erich, “We grow our cool weather crops like roots and greens fall through spring, and warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, sweet potatoes, and beans in the spring through early winter. We’ve had a great carrot, kale and broccoli crop early this year and are currently having a great melon, pepper and eggplant crop. We harvest citrus winter through spring, medjool dates and olives in fall, and peaches and apples in spring.” In other words, don’t try to fight nature by growing things out of season, like planting spinach in the summer—instead, only try to grow it at times of year when it will do well (probably only in the winter in the Southwest).

Mulches and Irrigation

Low water-use drip tape at Agritopia

Another important xeriscaping technique involves using mulches and drip irrigation to reduce evaporation from the soil. The Farm at Agritopia® is fortunate in this regard—according to Erich, “Our soil has a high percentage of clay in it which is helpful for holding moisture.” Despite the retentive qualities of the soil, however, he says they “use a low water-use drip tape irrigation system which allows us to be very precise with the amount of water we apply to the crops.” If you don’t have good soil that retains water, adding lots of organic matter is a good technique to increase water retention.

The Right Plants

Lastly, choosing drought-tolerant plants that do well in the local climate will be one of your best tools for success. Erich has found that certain varieties, such as Shishito PeppersListada di Gandia Eggplant, Snowy Eggplant, Little Finger Eggplant, Sugar Baby Watermelon, Waltham Butternut Squash, Lovelock Lettuce, Magenta Lettuce, Ronde de Nice Squash, Cocozelle Zucchini, and Sivan F1 Melons tend to be successful in the hot, dry conditions. If you want to grow greens in the summer, try some of the Asian Greens like Shanghai Green Pac Choy, Vitamin Green, and Toyko Bekana, all of which are more heat-tolerant than lettuces and mustards.

The Power of Shade

Companion planted peas and carrots. Photo credit: MOFGA

If you’ve ever come into the house after gardening on a hot summer day then you know the feeling of relief brought on by shade. Plants in hot dry places experience this too! One solution that can greatly increase the variety of plants that can be grown in a dry climate in summer is to utilize shade to its fullest extent. Populating the garden with trellises, arbors, shade cloths, and tall drought-tolerant plants like cacti, palms and acacias can make gardening much more pleasant for you and the plants. Trellises and shade structures can also protect against frost and slow down drying winds, while drastically reducing the water needs of the plants beneath them. Drought-tolerant plants like bougainvillea can be trained to climb over them, creating a stunning display of color above while deepening the shade below. Below your shade structures, your planting options expand. Traditional garden plants like tomatoes, which wither under the heat of the Texan sun, can grow beautifully with a little shade. This is how tomatoes are often grown in Southern Italy, which has a similar climate and soil to the American Southwest. Planting them in self-watering containers will further increase their success, and they too can be trained to grow up a trellis. Between your tomatoes will be even shadier; here you can plant low-growing greens, radishes, and roots that would not last a day without their leafy protectors.

The Green in the Gray

Sample graywater system for irrigation. Photo credit: Waterwisegroup.com

Graywater, or the water that goes down the drain of your kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, and washing machine, is a valuable and underutilized resource in areas that face chronic water shortages, and it collects a lot more quickly than water in a rain barrel. While this water can contain contaminants, it can also be used safely on garden plants with just a few simple changes—just be sure to check the local regulations about using graywater in your area. If biodegradable soaps are used and harsh chemicals like bleach are avoided in the household, graywater, especially from sinks, can be safely used on ornamental and even edible plants in the landscape. The simplest method is to remove the greasetrap under your sink and place a bucket below, using this in the garden as it fills. More sophisticated systems which divert the water directly outside can also be created easily and cheaply. Just be sure to keep the following in mind when using graywater in your garden:

  • Try to alternate between watering with fresh water and graywater to avoid buildup of sodium salts in the soil. Test the soil annually and add calcium sulfate or another sulfur product to lower the soil pH if necessary.
  • Water the soil around the plant with graywater – not the foliage. Add organic matter like compost to help break down any toxins.
  • Avoid using graywater on slopes where it will run off, especially near streams
  • Limit graywater use to 50 gallons per week per 100 square feet of garden

More Ideas and Resources

Erica’s new hugelkultur beds. Photo credit: nwedible.com

There are lots of individuals and non-profit groups currently developing innovative techniques for reducing the water required to garden in dry climates. A neat example is the Food is Free Project, a non-profit in Austin, Texas that helps communities build “wicking” garden beds, a type of large self-watering container that has a water reservoir and can be made using waste materials. To learn how to build your own wicking garden bed, visit the Food is Free Resources page.

Another interesting technique for reducing water usage and building soil rich in organic matter is called Hugelkultur (a German word, pronounced HOO-gul-culture). This is a method where you make a pile of waste wood (sticks, wood chips, logs, just about any wood that isn’t pressure treated), then cover the pile in soil, packing soil into all the crevices. Water in thoroughly, allowing the pile to settle for a few days before planting. You can then plant this mound with plants or seeds, and the decomposing wood inside will act like a sponge for water, soaking it up when water is available and releasing it back to plant roots in times of drought. This method has been widely used all over the world to grow food and build soil in desert-like environments. It doesn’t need to look like a huge pile of dirt, either—by building a lower, broader pile within a raised bed, then finishing off with a layer of mulch on top, it will look just like an ordinary garden bed.

To learn more about Hugelkultur, check out Margaret Roach’s article Hugelkultur Raised Garden Beds which features a gardener in East Texas and our friend Erica’s article Half Ass Hugelkultur from the Pacific Northwest.

And check out The Farm at Agritopia® online and on Facebook!

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What’s Wrong with My Garden? Part 2: Demystifying Common Diseases

If you read last week’s article you already learned plenty about dealing with common garden pests. Now let’s get into the common garden diseases and how to prevent them. Garden diseases can be difficult to diagnose—many of them have similar symptoms. They may have different treatments that are appropriate at different times in the disease lifecycles. And of course, you need to know when to try to save your plants and when it’s best to pull them out and minimize risk to the rest of your garden. We’ll cover all that and more in this simple guide to preventing, identifying, and managing garden diseases.

Prevention Basics

There are basically three primary vectors for plant diseases: bugs, moisture, and poor rotation.

Pests: Infestations of garden pests easily and quickly distribute spores from fungal diseases from sick plants to healthy ones. So staying on top of pest populations in the garden will greatly improve the health of your garden over the long term.

Pruning tomatoes photo: finecooking.com

Moisture: The second vector can be even trickier to control—if humidity is high, drainage is poor, airflow around plants is limited, or you’re dealing with monsoon conditions, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with some diseased plants. However, even after planting there’s still plenty you can do to help keep your plants healthy, like pruning.

Rotation: If you plant members of the same plant family in the same spot over and over again, you’re asking for trouble by providing a constant food supply for diseases. One of the best methods for discouraging diseases from taking up residence is to rotate your crops on a 3-year cycle. If you have no choice but to plant things in the same place, then you may want to read up on companion planting, which makes it harder for disease to spread in the garden.


One more thing – I can’t say enough about sanitation. It’s hard to try to do and even harder to actually do, but it’s really important. All you need to do is follow some simple rules. 1) Never touch a sick plant and then a healthy plant without washing your hands in between. This goes for pruners too – 2) Never prune a sick plant and then a healthy plant without sterilizing your pruners with alcohol. Keep a small container with you that you can quickly dip them in between plants. 3) Never put diseased plant tissue into the compost. Unless your compost pile gets really, really hot, you’re just risking inoculating all your plants when you spread the compost. Bag diseased tissue and throw in the trash or burn it right away.

The Cucurbits: Winter and summer squashes, zucchinis, cucumbers, and melons.

Photo: M. Grabowski, University of Minnesota

Powdery Mildew (PM) is a very common disease for this family and is also commonly found on garden phlox, lilac, bee balm, and many other plants. PM looks just like it sounds – powdery, as though the leaves have been dusted with flour. It is a fungus and tends to occur in warm, humid, shaded conditions and where pests are present. PM rarely kills a plant, though it can definitely reduce yields and result in premature fruit ripening. To prevent PM in the first place, choose resistant varieties, stake, tie, or trellis plants to ensure good air circulation, and never touch plants when they’re wet. Once you spot the disease, you can try either of these two homemade solutions: Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda with 1 drop of dish soap and 1 quart of water and spray on plants to raise the pH of leaf surfaces, discouraging diseases. You can also mix 1 part cow’s milk with 9 parts water and use this as a foliar spray after each rain. Severely affected leaves should be pruned off, bagged, and thrown away. A counter-intuitive but effective solution is to use a strong jet of water to knock the spores off leaf surfaces—if it looks like you’re starting to lose the battle, try this method on a sunny day to slow its progress. Sulfur, neem oil, jojoba oil, and biological fungicides may also be used in severe cases.

Photo: Clemson University, Bugwood.org

Angular Leaf Spot is caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas and generally occurs in periods of wet weather. Again, it looks how it sounds – like spots that turn brown, then transparent, then disintegrate and fall out of the leaf, forming a rectangular hole. On squashes and watermelon it tends to look more variable in size and is surrounded by a yellow halo. Eventually it will infect fruit with small, circular lesions. To prevent the disease, avoid overhead watering and handling plants when wet, and rotate crops. Always clean up diseased crop residues by plowing under, bagging and throwing away, or burning immediately after harvest. Once the disease has been spotted, you can try the baking soda spray above. Like PM, Angular Leaf Spot does not usually kill plants, and they will generally outgrow it if conditions dry out.

Photo: Michigan State University

Downy Mildew (DM) is like PM and most other diseases in that it prefers moist conditions. It has a strong preference for cucumber plants, especially late in the season. It starts as yellow spots on the leaves, which look gray or purple and fuzzy on the undersides, and progresses rapidly to form angular lesions followed by brown, dry, curled leaves. It needs living tissue to survive, but it can be blown into northern areas by summer storms. Prevent the disease by maintaining good air circulation and never handling wet plants. Resistant varieties are few since the disease adapted and overcame previous genetic resistance. When it appears, quickly dispose of affected plants to avoid transmitting the disease to healthy ones, or try the baking powder spray.

Photo: University of Missouri Extension

Bacterial Wilt is a common disease caused by the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila transmitted by cucumber beetles. If you see them, keep an eye out for wilt—first one leaf or part of one will wilt suddenly, starting where there is significant cucumber beetle damage, then the disease will spread outward until the whole plant wilts (unlike the wilt caused by squash vine borer, which will only affect the chosen vine. Before you do anything else, check around the base of the plant for small holes in the vines and sawdustlike droppings caused by vine borers). Bacterial wilt mainly affects pumpkins and squash, and there’s a test you can do to find out if you have it: Cut a wilting stem. Push the two cut ends together, then slowly pull apart. If the two ends are connected by a “string” of ooze, you probably have it. The disease should be prevented by choosing resistant varieties and excluding the beetles—keeping plants covered with row cover until they flower and spraying with a kaolin clay product. You can also use Baby Blue Hubbard Squash as a trap crop. It is very attractive to the beetles, the seedlings are vigorous and it is tolerant of bacterial wilt. Once the beetles have fully colonized the trap crop, bag and destroy the plants in the early morning when the beetles are sluggish.

The Nightshades: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, and husk cherries

Photo: NC Cooperative Extension

Early Blight, or Alternaria is a severe fungus that affects tomatoes and potatoes. It likes warm, moist conditions and appears as one or two brown 1/4″-½” spots per leaf on older (lower) leaves that enlarge, developing tan centers with fine concentric rings similar in appearance to tree growth rings, and a yellow halo around the spot. Eventually the spots will grow together, causing leaves to turn brown and dry. Dark, sunken spots will develop on tomato stems, fruits, and potato tubers. To prevent the disease, maintain good air circulation by keeping tomatoes pruned and begin spraying baking soda solution or fermented compost tea two weeks before early blight normally appears. Remove and dispose of leaves in the trash as soon as the spots appear and spray with compost tea or baking soda solution after each rain. In severe cases, copper- or sulfur-based fungicides can be used. Carefully dispose of all infected plant material at the end of the season.

Photo: Dr. Steve Johnson, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Late Blight has in the last few years become one of the most common and serious diseases of tomato and potato in the northeast. It is caused by Phytophthora fungi, especially likes cool wet weather, and causes distinctive irregular “water soaked” gray to purple spots on the older (lower) leaves. The spots enlarge and have a white downy texture on the leaf underside, and cause dark blotches on potato tubers that cause them to rapidly liquefy in storage (this is the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine). One trick to avoid the disease altogether is to plant a very early crop and a very late crop of tomatoes in a hoophouse, as vigorous young plants can better stave off the disease than mature ones. Infection can be slowed or prevented altogether in dry weather by keeping plants pruned and spraying foliage with fermented compost tea, which creates a physical barrier of beneficial microorganisms that outcompete the fungi. In wet weather, however, the disease will spread and rapidly cause rotting of the fruit and foliage. In dry weather it may be possible to slow the disease using copper-based fungicide sprays, but in most cases you will want to immediately pull up and destroy plants infected with the disease to prevent it from spreading to other tomato or potato plants. Always dispose of infected plant material quickly and properly. Choose varieties with resistance such as Matt’s Wild Cherry, Wapsipinicon Peach, Juliet, and Iron Lady F1 tomatoes, and Yukon Gem potatoes.

Septoria Leaf Spot is a very common disease of tomato that is usually not deadly.

Septoria Photo: William M. Brown Jr., www.bugwood.org

The symptoms are numerous tiny brown spots on the lower leaves. The spots have no yellow halo, and do not cause stem or fruit damage. Simply prune off the infected foliage, disinfecting pruners when moving from plant to plant as you should always do when pruning.

Blossom Drop occurs in tomatoes in cool rainy weather as well as very dry conditions. Mature flowers simply fall off the plant and fruit (especially large fruit) fails to develop. This is usually caused by a magnesium deficiency and occasionally by a bacterial or fungal infection. Foliar spray with Epsom salts. Fruit set can be encouraged by gently shaking or tapping the plant on a sunny day.

Blossom End Rot Photo: University of Illinois Extension

Blossom End Rot looks like a water-soaked spot close to the blossom end of tomato fruits when they are about 1/3 developed. The spot enlarges, turning brown and leathery. It is caused by calcium deficiency which can occur through uneven watering. Use mulch and water regularly to keep soil evenly moist.

Scab in potatoes results in dry, corky spots on tubers and generally occurs where soils are dry and/or alkaline. To avoid scab, keep soil pH low and mulch to maintain even moisture in the soil.

The Brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale, as well as more distant relatives like radishes and mustards. Brassicas tend to be more disease resistant than cucurbits or nightshades, since they have thick waxy leaves that provide good protection from foliar disease. There are a few serious diseases that can affect them, however.

Black Rot Photo: Chris Smart, Cornell University.

Black Rot causes leaves to yellow from the bottom of the plant upward, and causes distinctive V-shaped yellow lesions on the leaf margins. The disease can be prevented through crop rotation and good airflow, or by spraying a copper-based, sulfur-based, or biological fungicide.

Fusarium Yellows causes lower, then upper leaves to yellow and wilt, and causes broccoli heads to be stunted and bitter. Pull up and destroy plants with fusarium to prevent spread of the disease.

Club Root Photo: Jack Kelly Clark, University of California Statewide IPM

Club Root is a common fungus affecting brassicas. The symptoms are weakened, yellowed plants, leaves wilting on hot days, and older leaves yellowing and drooping. The disease can survive for many years in the soil. Upon inspection roots will be swollen and distorted. Pull up and destroy plants to prevent spread of infection. Choose resistant varieties and maintain a soil pH around 6.8.


Damping Off is caused by a wide variety of soil fungi. Usually seedlings rot at the soil line and fall over. Be sure to wait until conditions are warm enough before planting, provide even watering and good airflow. Drenching soil with Trichoderma harzianumbefore planting may prevent the disease.

Stewart’s Wilt Photo: OSU Extension

Stewart’s Wilt is transmitted by overwintering flea beetles and causes leaves of corn plants to develop streaking and wavy edges. Broken leaves will ooze bacterial slime, and plants will become stunted or die. Plant resistant varieties, combat flea beetles, and destroy infected plants.

A Note on Basil Downy Mildew

    Downy Mildew in basil has become a very serious problem in recent years, particularly wet years. The spores can overwinter, especially in protected spaces like greenhouses. The disease starts as a lightening of the leaves before the leaves develop

Basil Downy Mildew Photo: Cornell Horticulture

transparent or brown patches. Stems will then turn brown around the soil line – once you see this the plant will usually be dead in a matter of days. Keep an eye out for light, wrinkled, or transparent-looking leaves. Biological fungicides such as oxidate and actinovate, if used early and often, can prevent the disease. Destroy plants that have woody or brown stems and those that have wilted. Provide full sun, good air circulation, even watering, and choose resistant varieties as they become available.

To learn more about garden diseases in your area, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service.

And check out our previous articles on managing diseases:

Disease Prevention in High Tunnel Production

Optimizing Your Backpack Sprayer

Downy Mildew Got You Down?

Pest, Disease, and Weed Resources in the Information Age

Visual Vegetable Disease Diagnostic Resource

Blossom Drop on Tomatoes

Late Blight – Attack of the Killer Plant Disease

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips, Plant Diseases | 9 Comments

What’s Wrong with My Garden? Part 1: How to Manage Common Insect Pests

Nearly everyone who’s gardened for a season or two has experienced that moment of shock when, upon entering the garden, one first lays eyes on a squadron of cucumber beetles happily chomping away on the squash plants. After the shock of seeing the carefully-tended plants in tatters, one moves on to the next phase of garden grief: denial. How could these creatures just lay claim to what is clearly yours? How could they? Finally denial gives way to acceptance and infuriation – with a smattering of bitter hatred – before settling on a deep need to fight back. So, to aid you in your battles with beetles, bugs, borers and slugs, I’ve put together a primer on pests and how to handle them. All is not lost! With all these tools to hand, you might even wind up missing your garden marauders (but I doubt it).

Organic Pest Control Basics

Personally I’m in favor of using simple tricks and homemade remedies when possible for garden problems. Certainly these aren’t appropriate in every instance, and may not be practical on a commercial farm. But a lot can be accomplished with soapy water, your hands, and a few good homemade and store-bought OMRI-listed formulations, without spending a fortune or using persistent chemicals on your hard-won produce.

Another important thing to consider is that plant pests are often vectors for diseases, especially fungal diseases—they walk on one plant that has a disease, then fly over to a healthy plant, where (like muddy dogs on a white carpet) they track spores all over, inoculating the surfaces they’re munching on. So by taking the time to stay on top of pest populations, you’re also helping prevent serious diseases from gaining a foothold in the garden (where they can remain for years to come).

The last key thing to keep in mind is that garden pests are people too. Ok, so they’re not actually people, but they are members (like us) of a vast, interconnected web we call the ecosystem. These creatures aren’t bad in their own right, they’re just bad when they’re out of balance and too many of them multiply in one place at one time. Often that imbalance is a response to monoculture (huge plantings of one crop). In balance, they provide nutritious food for birds and help keep other species in check. When attempts are made to eradicate pests altogether, cascades of negative impacts become evident on farms as well as on the ecosystem as a whole. By educating ourselves about pest life cycles and practicing good holistic management of our gardens through crop rotation, supporting beneficials, and interplanting or companion planting, we can avoid pest population explosions in the first place. Let’s learn to live together, shall we?

The Brassicas

This family includes the siblings broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and kale, as well as more distant cousins like radishes and mustards. I like to discourage brassica pests by interplanting—the smell and mix of species confuses the pests.  I sow aromatic dill or cilantro thickly around the plants, where it eventually gets shaded by the brassicas, making it last longer before bolting. I also plant tall sun-lovers like sunflowers between them, which in turn prevents the brassicas from bolting in late summer heat. In this way pests are discouraged by diversity, weeds are shaded out, and I get three crops in the space of one. There are two main pests that love the brassica family and usually hang around in the springtime: flea beetles and cabbage worms.

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension

-          Flea Beetles are tiny (like, pinhead-sized) shiny black beetles that will jump like fleas the moment you get close.  They chew miniscule round holes, eventually turning leaves to lace, and especially prefer radishes, arugula, mustards, and broccoli raab. The simplest method for dealing with flea beetles and many other pests which are too small and fast to remove by hand, is exclusion – the same day you plant, cover your beds with row covers and make sure all edges are tucked in (covered with soil). Leave the row cover on as long as possible, as smaller plants are much more vulnerable to flea beetles. If you already have flea beetles in your soil, the row cover won’t help much. Try planting an early trap crop of broccoli raab well away from your covered brassicas – the flea beetles would much rather go for the low-hanging fruit. As soon as the trap crop is infested, cover the plants with plastic bags, pull them out of the ground, seal tightly, and throw away. Garlic or kaolin clay sprays can also be used to repel the beetles, and sprays using Beauveria bassianaor or spinosad can be used in severe cases.

Photo: UMN Extension

-          Cabbage Worm (aka cabbage moth or cabbage looper) is a very common and insatiable pest on broccoli, cabbage, and kale. The worms start their lives as pretty white moths that will flutter unassumingly around your brassicas. Beware! The moths will then lay eggs that will grow into dusty green caterpillars precisely the same color as the ribs of cabbage leaves – and that is where they like to hang out. Check the tops and undersides of your brassica leaves, especially if you see any large holes in the leaves, and pick off and squish any worms that you find. I like to use the leaf itself to squish the worms and any eggs I find, as I think this sends a strong message to any other cabbage loopers that might try their luck. Keep the plants covered with row cover after planting to exclude the moths, and spray plants with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad for serious infestations.

-          Cabbage Maggot is a little less common but more serious – ¼” gray flies lay white, tapering maggots that tunnel into cabbage family roots, killing the plants directly or by introducing diseases. Use floating row covers when the crop is planted, apply parasitic nematodes, and try mounding red pepper or wood ash around the stems. For severe cases, only plant brassicas as a fall crop to discourage early generations.

The Cucurbits

This family includes winter and summer squashes, zucchinis, cucumbers, and melons. Dipping transplants in a kaolin clay solution before planting really helps discourage cucumber beetles and squash bugs (even if it makes your plants look like they have powdery mildew!)

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN Extension

-          Squash Bugs are large, ½-3/4” long, shield-shaped brown bugs. They are pretty slow, so quite easy to pick off, but are smelly when squished. I bring a folded piece of cardboard out to the garden and squish them in that (yes, it’s still gross). You can also spray them and other hard-shelled insects with insecticidal soap, which causes paralysis and death. Get creative with mechanical control – some people shake them off the plants onto plastic in the morning when they’re still sluggish, or even vacuum them up before dumping them in soapy water to kill them. I’ve tried to get chickens to eat them, but no luck – even they seem to be intimidated by their significant size and smell. Always check under the leaves for clusters of metallic brownish eggs, and squish any that you find.

Photo: Jeff Hanh, UMN

-          Cucumber Beetles are about ¼-½” long and yellow with black spots or stripes. You can shake them off or vacuum them in the morning, but the rest of the time they’re too fast to hand-pick effectively. Re-applying kaolin clay solution to the top and bottom of the leaves every few weeks helps a lot, and try to keep the plants covered with row cover from planting until they start to flower (at which point they need access to bees for pollination). Always check under the leaves and around the base of the plant for their orange eggs, and squish away. For severe infestations, you can spray the beetles with insecticidal soap or a product containing pyrethrins (compounds made from chrysanthemum flowers). Use pyrethrin products sparingly, avoid ones containing the synergist compound piperonyl butoxide, and only apply in the evening or early morning as they are also toxic to bees and other pollinators. You can also try using sticky traps and/or planting Baby Blue Hubbard Squash as a trap crop. It is very attractive to the beetles, the seedlings are vigorous and it is tolerant of bacterial wilt, the most common disease they transmit.

Photo: Jeff Hanh, UMN

-          Squash Vine Borers are 1” long white larvae, but are hard to see because they bore into the hollow squash vines themselves and then eat them from the inside out. The damage from them, however, is obvious – a whole section of the plant will suddenly wilt while the rest of it looks fine. Follow the wilted section back to where it connects to the main stem, and you will probably see what looks like a tiny pile of sawdust where the borer has chewed its way into the vine. Now here’s the fun part where you get to play ‘Operation’ – take a razor blade and cut a slit lengthwise along the stem starting where you see the sawdust-like droppings. Keep going until you find the larval culprit and remove it. Then bury the slit stems with soil to help them recover and stimulate root formation.

The Nightshades

This glamorous family group includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, and husk cherries. There are not too many pests of this family because the plants in it produce alkaloids that may be toxic or bad-tasting to most bugs…with a few exceptions, of course.

Photo: Jeff Hahn, UMN

-          Colorado Potato Beetle is by far the most common pest in this family. They start as bright orange eggs on the underside of potato leaves, then grow into gross shiny reddish larvae before finally becoming boxy black and orange striped beetles. They are voracious eaters starting in the larval stage and can defoliate potato plants very quickly. They are also now resistant to many insecticides and can fly long distances, so crop rotation may not make much difference. So what can you do? Timing is key with these buggers – they are most vulnerable in the young larval stage. Crush any eggs you find, and handpick larvae in the early morning before dropping into a bucket of soapy water. For serious infestations, you can spray the larvae and beetles early in the morning with Bt, neem oil or spinosad. (Spinosad is an aerobic fermentation product of the soil bacterium, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, and should be sprayed every few days when the larvae are hatching.) Lady bugs will also prey upon the eggs, so purchasing some and releasing them in the garden at night may help in extreme cases.

Photo: Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

-          Tomato Hornworms are giant (finger-sized) green caterpillars that are surprisingly good at staying camouflaged among tomato foliage. If you start seeing leaf damage, look for these guys – you can also trap them by planting dill, their favorite food, nearby. Simply hand-pick them and drown in soapy water, or spray Bt for serious infestations. If you see ones with what look like rice grains on their backs, leave them where they are! These caterpillars have been parasitized by beneficial wasps that will keep hornworm populations down in your garden.


There are many pests that will try to beat us to the sweet, starchy kernels of growing ears of corn. Raccoons in particular use a funny trick of climbing up the stalks until their weight pulls them over, then picking the ears off from the ground. The insect pests are even more clever and need to be stopped early to prevent destruction of the crop.

Earworm Photo: University of Kentucky Dept of Entomology

-          Corn Earworms start as moths that lay eggs on corn silks, from which point the yellow-headed larvae can easily crawl down into the ear, where they feed on the developing tips.  To prevent problems, use a spray bottle to apply a mixture of vegetable oil, Bt, water, and a few drops of dish soap to the tops of the ears just after the silks emerge. Corn earworms are cannibalistic, so you will generally only find one per ear.

-          European Corn Borers are 1” long tan worms that feed on foliage and ears. They can be managed if sprayed early (before boring into ears) with Bt or spinosad.

Flowers and More

Photo: Colorado State University Extension

-          Japanese Beetles are generalist iridescent bronze beetles that will completely defoliate everything from apples to zinnias. You can vacuum or shake them off early in the morning and dump into soapy water, place commercially available Japanese beetle traps around your property, or spray them with insecticidal soap.

-          Aphids are very common garden pests on everything from flowers to tomatoes. Look for ants on the plants, as ants actually “farm” these tiny green or red bugs like cows, eating the sweet sap they produce from your garden plants. The best way to deal with infestations is to

Aphid Photo: David Cappaert, Michigan State University, bugwood.org

spray a strong jet of water to knock them off. If need be, you can spray them with insecticidal soap. Lady bugs eat aphids, so purchasing some and releasing them in the garden at night may help as well.

-          Slugs and Snails have lots of mythology around them involving stale beer and spent yeast. I’ve only found these methods attract more, and don’t kill very many. Handpick as many as you can, and use a board laid down in the garden overnight to attract them to one spot where you can scoop them into a bucket of soapy water in the morning. You can also purchase diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it around your plants – it cuts them when they try to cross it and will keep them away as long as it is visible on the soil surface.

For more information about pests in your area, call or visit your local Cooperative Extension Service website.

You can also check out some of our other great articles on pest control:

Optimizing Your Backpack Sprayer

The Unique Challenge of Colorado Potato Beetles

Bloat Nematodes and You

Pest, Disease, and Weed Resources in the Information Age

Organic Control Measures for Striped Cucumber Beetles

Controlling Japanese Beetles in the Home Garden

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips, Plant Pests, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Growing Wonder: Spending Time with Kids in the Garden

“All knowledge is rooted in wonder, and what better place to cultivate wonder than in our own gardens?” ~Sharon Lovejoy

I gave birth at the end of July, bringing our baby boy into the world the same summer that we started the farm.  Some folks thought it bad timing—a baby in the middle of our first season—but we knew otherwise and looked forward to the bountiful fresh food that would be bursting from the garden ready to nourish me and in turn our new babe, and the ease of having a newborn in the warmth of the summer rather than the cold of winter.  Edge declared that Waylon was our best crop of the season, and as I re-emerged into the world from our little nest at home, I felt such excitement at showing Waylon the garden and livestock and rediscovering the farm through an infant’s eyes.

A Slow Beginning

As I slowly eased back into farm work, I’d set up a little shade tent and blanket and lay Waylon down at the edge of the garden as I thinned carrots and harvested calendula.  Edge would wrap him up in the moby wrap and take Waylon to do the animal chores, Papa and son delivering water to the pigs, sheep, and chickens, coming back with a basketful of eggs.  Though we moved slower and stopped more often to tend to Waylon’s needs, we could do much of our work with him nestled against us in a carrier or napping in the shade next to us.

Kids on the Farm

Edge and I met working on a non-profit educational farm in Ester, Alaska.  At Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, we learned many ways to include kids in the garden and encourage their natural tendencies toward creativity and wonder.  During my season there, I was constantly amazed at the creations and imaginations of the farmers’ daughters, and saw first-hand the way gardens can serve as playgrounds and classrooms all at once, invoking a sense of wonder in kids of all ages.  As Waylon grows, I look forward to sharing the farm with him as Tom and Susan share Calypso with their girls.

Let Go and Have Fun

When spending time in the garden or on the farm with kids, the most important thing is to have fun. Don’t put too many rules on them, but instead relax and be open to where their own interests pull them.  If you run a production farm and need to have order, then make a separate kids garden and let them design it: make beds in the shape of things like animals and plants or the sun, moon and stars.  What little kid wouldn’t want a garden shaped like a dinosaur or an octopus, a sunflower or a pumpkin?  Theme gardens are also a great way to get kids into the garden: make a pizza garden and grow garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers and other favorite pizza toppings; grow the rainbow, with vegetables and flowers of all colors; grow your own fort with runner beans, peas, and sunflowers creating walls as they grow up; or try a pollinator garden to feed the bees and butterflies.

There are endless games to play in the garden, too.  Invite friends over for a scavenger hunt or taste test.  Have garden adventure days and go looking for bugs you’ve never seen before, visit the garden in the moonlight and search for fairies and gnomes, visit it in the early morning and discover dew droplets on brassica leaves.  Follow your child’s lead and move like a plant: dig deep like roots into the soil, be flexible like stems in the wind, and be open like sunflower heads stretching to the sky.

More Food for Thought…

Here are some great books on gardening and discovering the natural world with kids:

Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots, by Sharon Lovejoy

Shelburne Farm’s Project Seasons, by Deborah Parella

Cultivating Joy and Wonder—Shelburne Farms Project Seasons for Early Learners

High Mowing founder Tom Stearns also shared about gardening with his daughters last year. You can read his wonderful article here: Eat More Dirt: Raising Kids in the Garden

Posted in Farmer Authors, Kids and Gardening | Tagged | 1 Comment

Brassicas Rule! A Fall Planting Guide

Giveaway! One lucky commenter will win an Organic Winter Garden Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds. These 5 cold-hardy varieties can be planted for fall harvest and will even overwinter in mild climates. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you plan on planting for your fall harvest! Contest ends midnight, 7/4/14. Winner will be chosen at random, and will be notified by e-mail. Winner will have 48 hours to respond. This contest is in no way associated with Facebook.

Listen… do you hear that? It’s your kale talking. It has really been loving the extra attention that you’ve been giving it, and as a result, it’s inviting you into the garden to take a few leaves. It’s OK, it’s happy to give them up. Just be sure to share some love with your broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. And don’t forget the collards…they’ll get jealous.

Brassicas Unlimited

One of the bigger vegetable groups that I grow (outside of potatoes and their kin) is the Brassica family. They have lots of players, and many (like kale) can be grown at almost any time of year on a farm or in the garden. On my farm, we start by planting radishes (from seed) and kales (from transplants) in early spring. Then we throw some Asian greens (Tokyo Bekana is my new fave) into the mix later in the spring. Finally we move to the cabbages, broccolis and cauliflowers (all grown from transplants) for the fall.

Part of our strategy is a function of real estate; we are able to plant every available bed to cold-hardy crops like radishes and kale very early in the season. Then we have to wait for a few successions of these and other crops to finish out before we plant brassicas again. For this reason, the broccoli and cauliflower that I plant is all geared towards fall production. One of the advantages of this is that fall really is the golden season for lots of these crops. Cooler days and nights are perfect for forming beautiful domed heads of broccoli, jaw-droppingly pretty cauliflower, and tight, dense heads of cabbage. Exciting to think about all those pristine vegetables, isn’t it?

Starting Brassicas for Fall Production

In more Northern regions like ours, now is the time to be seeding these fall players for transplant in a few weeks. On our farm, we always follow our early peas with our fall crops. The peas are usually done at just the right time to till in and plant brassicas, and the fall crops get an extra boost of fertility from the plowed-down pea greens. I have been growing Belstar F1 broccoli for years now, and it loves this schedule, and makes crowns that make me feel like a real farmer. It will be forming heads late enough that I don’t see a lot of side shoot production, which is why I plant a few successions. The harvest window for Belstar is about 10-15 days, so if you stagger your plantings by two weeks, you should have a continuous supply of broccoli through the fall months.

The Fall Advantage

Most of the major pests that go after these plants in the spring will have cycled out for the fall planting. In our spring plantings, we don’t put any brassicas out without immediately covering them with remay. Our two big spring pests, flea beetles and cabbage worm, can’t do their damage if they can’t get to the plants. Flea beetles aren’t generally a problem for us from midsummer on, and cabbage worm usually does its worst in the spring, and typically won’t bother us later in the season. Not having to keep the late-season plantings covered allows us to keep them well-weeded and clean. We weed a few times and then they have enough leaf cover to crowd out any weeds trying to take hold.

We often side dress our kales and Brussels sprouts with compost later in the summer. They have been working hard since spring, and need to carry on through late fall, so they really benefit from the extra food. Putting some extra time and inputs into these full-season crops can yield a big payoff. As a group, brassicas are super hardy, and can take some pretty cold temperatures without losing eating quality. A few years ago I had a broccoli crop that was moving really slowly in the waning days of autumn, but I let them grow into late November. I ended up covering some of them with row cover, and one night they got down to 22 degrees under the Remay. When they thawed out, however, they were absolutely beautiful, and I sold every crown at a late season market. They were also delicious, having gotten sweeter from the cold temperatures.

Other Crops – Roots

So now you’re probably wondering what other crops we’re growing in the fall and how we do it. You can direct-sow fall carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips and rutabagas through the end of July for harvest into late fall (or even overwintering if your winters are mild enough). The trick here is that these crops like to germinate in cool soil. Try using cardboard or shade cloth to cover the soil for 3-4 days before seeding carrots and beets – this will shade the soil, cooling it and helping to retain moisture. If you live in a very hot, dry place, plant your seeds in a little trench where water will collect, water in well, then re-cover them with cardboard or shade cloth. Check them every day and only remove the covering once they’ve germinated.

If possible, plan to irrigate or sow seeds just before a period of rainy weather – this will also help cool the soil and improve germination rates of midsummer plantings. If you grew spring crops in these beds then you will want to rotate through different plant families – for example, if you grew spring mustards in a particular bed, try to grow fall carrots or beets there as opposed to broccoli or cabbage. Ideally brassicas should only be planted in the same spot once every three years, however this may not always be possible. Rotating your crops will help avoid a buildup of pests or diseases particular to one plant family, and will also help balance the nutrients beings used up. If you can, amend the bed with compost if you grew spring crops in it – this will help restore any nutrients that have been depleted.

Greens & More

Later in the season, from mid-August to September, you can plant more short-season, cool weather crops like lettuces, spinach, mustard greens, Asian greens, arugula, scallions, and radishes. The same principles used for carrots and beets (above) should be used for these crops. They really like cool conditions, and will be a lot happier going into soil that has been cooled off if it is still very hot in your area at that time of year. Have hoops made of galvanized metal wire and row covers at the ready for when frost threatens. Some of these crops – like radishes and scallions—are very cold-hardy and can withstand a light frost; however most will benefit from some protection.

More Resources

Here are some more resources for planning your fall harvest. For a general overview of how late you can plant various crops depending on your first frost date, check out this helpful succession planting chart published by the Farmer’s Almanac.

To determine the first frost date in your area, just type your location into the Farmer’s Almanac frost date calculator.

For more regional growing information, check out these guides published by Ag Extension.

And take a look at our many previous articles on fall and winter growing:

Giveaway! One lucky commenter will win an Organic Winter Garden Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds. These 5 cold-hardy varieties can be planted for fall harvest and will even overwinter in mild climates. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you plan on planting for your fall harvest! Contest ends midnight, 7/4/13. Winner will be chosen by random, and will be notified by e-mail. Winner will have 48 hours to respond. This contest is in no way associated with Facebook.

Posted in Articles by Farmer Paul Betz, Winter Growing | 162 Comments