Getting Started with Seed Starting

For the last few years, I’ve been growing seedlings indoors each spring. I find it very enjoyable. Nothing beats those seasonal blues like the sign of green life in the face of a grey winter. I also enjoy bringing out my nurturing side to care for little plants that, hopefully, will produce fruit for my labor. Indoor seed starting has been a journey for me, with new lessons each year.

Indoor Seedlings

Past Experiences

The first few times I tried growing seeds indoors was when I lived in a condo. Even though I didn’t have any land of my own, I was lucky to have tall ceilings, lots of windows, and a balcony. I started the seeds on a window ledge with some success and then moved them outside to pots. I assumed that a little bit of seed, soil, sun, and water would equal a healthy plant. I learned it wasn’t that simple. The type of soil, directness of light, growing space, and amount of water make a difference.

Early attempts to grow plants, with only a sunny living room and a balcony, taught me more about plant requirements.

Early attempts to grow plants, with only a sunny living room and a balcony, taught me more about plant requirements.

After moving out of the condo and living temporarily with relatives, I tried starting seedlings using peat pots, again indoors. Then I moved them outside into the ground. That year, I also purchased some seedlings from a garden store. I observed that my seedlings didn’t do as well as the purchased ones. I asked myself: why didn’t my seedlings thrive, why did they become leggy, and why didn’t some tolerate being transplanted? With lots of questions, I read gardening books with more understanding.

Two years ago, I moved into our current house, which does not get much sunlight through the windows. The house came with a shop light in the basement, so I decided to grow seedlings under the florescent lights. Last year I set up a seed tray under the lights and had only a little success. Some seedlings I overwatered and lost. Others became leggy, discolored, or didn’t thrive when moved outdoors. I realized that the light bulbs were probably too old and didn’t give off enough light, I considered that more light bulbs were needed, and I realized the seedlings needed light for a longer time period. I acknowledged that the seedlings needed larger pots as they grew and that transplanting really was an important step. I questioned how many seedlings I should start indoors.

Getting Serious

This year, I improved my system. I purchased three additional light fixtures, eight all new florescent bulbs, a seedling heat mat, and larger shelves, applying some new knowledge on what the plants needed. After getting the seeds to germinate with the heat mat, I set them on the shelves with each flat having two light fixtures over it. I set the light to be on for 16 hours and off for 8 hours. I set the heat mat to be on for 8 hours at night and off for 16 hours a day to promote stocky growth, per advice from from Mark of Voss Organics (told to the 2013 Permaculture Design Certificate class). When I also happen to be growing bean sprouts indoors, I water the seedlings with the water drained off from the sprouts to add some growth hormones. I’ve been watering the seedlings every morning with a small water bottle (a peri-bottle actually, if you know what that is), which works great to give each seedling a small amount of water. I transplanted the seedlings to larger pots when they were about two weeks old. My seedlings are doing better than previous years.

Lights placed at an angle to account for plant height.

Lights placed at an angle to account for plant height.

However, I’m still learning. One challenge is how to keep all the seedlings close to the light. Some of the seedlings are short (peppers) and some seedlings are getting huge (nasturtium). I’ve been placing the tall seedlings on the right and the shorter ones on the left and angling the light fixtures. When seedlings are different heights, I need to be careful pulling out the flats to water them and then readjusting some of the leaves within the light fixtures so they’re not caught by the lights.

Another challenge is how to best label the seedlings. I want to keep track of the plant type, seed source, how old the plant is, and when it was transplanted and hardened off. Then I can see which care factors (light, temperature, water, growing medium, hardening off schedule) lead to the best seedlings. A piece of masking tape and a laundry marker are a start, but figuring out how to succinctly write down key information to identify the plant and track the plant’s milestones is an art. I’ve been labeling the plants with their plant type and a batch number and then tracking the plants on a spreadsheet.

A third challenge is doing a cost-benefit analysis of seed starting indoors. It’s one thing if I am doing the seed starting purely for enjoyment (where that would be the primary benefit), but if I had other things I preferred to do with my money and time, then would it be better to just purchase the seedlings that I wanted? I considered whether or not I would be saving money by starting my own seeds. My new setup was an investment in equipment and a commitment to the time it would take to raise the seedlings. After adding up the costs, I concluded that with a five year outlook, I would probably save about $100 per year by growing my own seedlings. To me, keeping costs down is an important secondary benefit.

The Journey Continues

Starting your own seeds is great fun. If you feel discouraged with limited resources, have hope that each year gets better with more trial and error. Sometimes I get to thinking that all the answers are in a book and that I can become good at something right away, but I always have to remind myself that experience teaches us a great deal. I’m sure I will have more challenges and successes to share as my journey continues.

“For thou shalt eat the labor of thy hands: Happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.”
~ Psalm 128:2 (ASV)


Growing Bean Sprouts

Thai Fried Rice featuring Mung Bean Sprouts made in a jar at home

Thai Fried Rice with Bean Sprouts made in a jar at home

This past winter, I decided to try growing my own bean sprouts. I read that they are packed full of vitamins, protein, enzymes, minerals, and fiber, as well as easy to digest and low in calories. The bean sprouts in the grocery stores never look very fresh, but luckily, they are easy to grow right at home without fancy equipment.

I purchased seeds from a local garden store called The Bruce Company. The brand is Botanical Interests and they are listed as Mung Bean Sprouts, Vigna radiate (Phaseolus aureus), for $3.49. Other seed companies such as Burpee appear to offer these as well. You can also find other types of sprout seeds, such as a Sandwich Mix containing alfalfa, red clover, and radish.

Here are the steps that I took to grow my own bean sprouts. I wanted to provide this illustration so that others can get a sense of the general process. However, please consult your seed packet for more details on the process, as I am not an expert and modifying any of the steps could affect the results.

Step 1: Disinfect the seeds.
a.Place 1 1/2 Tablespoons of bean sprout seeds into a measuring cup, removing any broken or bad-looking seeds. Add 1 cup of hot tap water and then 1 teaspoon of bleach. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Step 1a

Step 1a

b. Rinse the bleach off the seeds well.
Step 1b

Step 1b

Step 2: Soak the seeds.
Place the seeds in a quart jar with about 2-3 times more water than seeds. Let sit for 8 hours out of direct sunlight. After the soaking time, rinse the seeds (see step 3 below).
Step 2

Step 2

Step 3: Rinse the seeds every 8 to 12 hours with cool water. Twice a day (e.g. 7 am and 7 pm) works fine for me. After rinsing, drain out the water. You can hold a strainer or fasten cheesecloth to the jar while draining to keep the seeds in the jar. Prop the quart jar up at an angle with a towel so additional water can drain out. Make sure there isn’t water sitting in the jar. Then cover with a cloth to keep the seeds out of light.
Step 3

Step 3

Step 4: When the sprouts are an inch long (around day 5), they are ready to be harvested. Pour into a bowl of water and swish to allow some of the green seed coatings to loosen and come off. Pull out the seed coverings that come off (it’s ok if they don’t come off, you can eat them) and drain off the water.
Step 4

Step 4

You can store the sprouts in a container in the refrigerator, however they do not last long. When refrigerating, make sure they are not too wet. Rinse and drain them once a day to help keep them fresh a little longer.

I try to make a recipe right when I’m harvesting them so they are at their freshest. Here is one of my favorite recipes (ingredient amounts are approximate so adjust as needed).

Thai Fried Rice

2 eggs
2 Tblsp. safflower oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 c. leftover cooked brown rice
1 c. grated carrots
1 c. bean sprouts
1 Tblsp. fish sauce
1 Tblsp. soy sauce
1 c. fresh basil, torn into small pieces
1 c. fresh cilantro, torn into small pieces

1. In a large skillet, scramble eggs and cook through, breaking in small pieces. Set prepared eggs aside.
2. In the same skillet, warm oil over medium heat. Add garlic and rice and toss to coat.
3. Add prepared eggs, carrots, and bean sprouts and toss together for a few minutes.
4. Add fish sauce and soy sauce and toss together for a few minutes.
5. Remove from heat. Mix in basil and cilantro.

If you enjoy making sprouts, there are sprouting devices which will help the sprouts grow larger or may make the process easier. However, given their short storage time, making a small batch in a jar for a recipe works just fine.

The Season of Winter

One of the things I love best about Wisconsin weather is how it compares to the cycle of life. Many of us live in the mindset of summer. We want to be warm and happy all the time, but fall tells us that we are not gods. Nothing lasts forever. As the seasons shift, winter reminds us of death. Many Wisconsinites hide indoors or try to escape to warmer climates. But those who accept winter’s place in the year reap the reward of a miraculous spring and the hope of rebirth. If it were always summer, we could not fully appreciate the beauty of the first light-green leaves, opening flower buds, and warm raindrops.

Although March is here, it’s hard to believe that this winter might ever end. Temperatures this season were bitterly and continually cold in Madison, making it the coldest winter in 35 years and the 11th coldest winter on record. The snow has stayed on the ground since December (we’ve had snow for almost 100 days now). The Great Lakes were 91 percent covered in ice this year (according to the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory), compared to the past four winters when they were around 40 percent or less covered. I can only imagine that spring will be extra beautiful this year after a harsh winter.

We’ve had several days now this month that got into the 40s. With warming temperatures and sunnier days, I can dream only about gardening. I’m anxious to bring our garden back to life and eat fresh vegetables again. Given the attendance at the Garden Expo in February, I’m sure I’m not alone. I have been reading garden books (after seeing illustrated vegetation, be careful for the initial shock when you look out the window at the snow…) and planning our vegetable garden beds. I’ll have a lot to do this spring: finish building our raised garden beds, order compost to fill them, and get the early spring plants going as soon as we can. I also want to start some new strawberries, do some pruning, and add some native shrubs along the lot line. It will be a busy spring.

And I do hope to blog about all our permaculture adventures… if I get the chance. As I stay home with two preschool-aged kids, one that gets up at 5 am and the other that stopped napping last September, finding time to focus on blogging has been difficult. Yet, here I am, in a stage of life where I am a parent. When I feel frustrated about wanting to get a blog posted, I remind myself to enjoy the present moment, to embrace parenting my children. Like winter, it is part of the circle of life. Even if I don’t have much time to blog this year, I know that someday I’ll miss my children’s playful days and will have more time to blog. Life continually changes… bring on spring.

Setting up a Soaker Hose

Looking back, one of the challenges of the summer was how to best keep the garden watered. Here was that story.

As the July weather heated up and the soil dried out, I realized that all the rain we had gotten in the spring wasn’t coming back. At least, not in the timeframe or quantity that my vegetable plants were calling for. To keep the soil around the plants moist, I considered a couple options: a sprinkler, mulch, and a soaker hose.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer I had set up a sprinkler to water the vegetable garden. That was easy to do, however, it wasn’t very efficient. Drops of water soaring through the air tended to blow off course, evaporate, or wind up on the plants’ leaves instead of the soil. It also wasn’t ideal since the city water raised our water bill and contains chlorine.

Mulch was another consideration. I had heard from a few other gardeners that they didn’t need to water since their gardens had a thick layer of mulch. This option conserves water, however it means having to purchase a significant amount of mulch. This mulch would have to be purchased and delivered every year, and during droughts, I still might need to water. I added some straw as mulch, but was disappointed to see grass sprouting there later on. Unsure about the best logistics for this, I tabled this idea until I might be able to find a quality (seed free), cheap source of mulch.

I decided to try out a soaker hose. I wasn’t really sure how a soaker hose worked, which was the most appealing thing about this option. I wanted to see what it did and how well it worked. Essentially, a soaker hose is like a sprinkler, but it should be more efficient as it waters at the soil level and can be set-up wherever you want to put it. It also is cheap, except that it would still be calling on chlorinated city water. I found a Yardworks 50-foot soaker hose at Menard’s for $10.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The exterior packaging for the soaker hose sounded impressive. Here are some of the claims:
* 70% water savings (prevents water lost to evaporation and run-off)
* Steady, even soaking (perfect for gardens or shrubs and around walkways)
* Removeable coupler cap (for adding additional lengths of hose)
* 3-year limited guarantee

However, I was disappointed when I opened the package. Here are some of the interior warnings:
* Before using hose, place washer firmly into coupling at faucet end to ensure a watertight seal. This will help prevent leaking.
[I need to buy washers too? Or otherwise it will be leaking?]
* Do not leave hose under pressure while unattended or for extended periods of time.
[I need to babysit the hose while it’s on? Not much of a time savings.]
* Drain hose in the summer when not in use and keep it shaded as much as possible. Water left in hose in the sun will expand, damaging the hose.
[Wait a minute, shade the hose? My vegetable garden is in the sun! And how do you drain the hose without moving it? Having to move the hose defeats the convenience of having an irrigation system set up where you want it.]
* Drain hose completely before winter storage as water left in a hose can freeze, damaging the hose.
[Hmmmm, I sense an impending accident when I get busy in the fall and forget to bring the hose in before the first frost.]

Products these days are usually a disappointment. Why did I expect that a cheap soaker hose would be helpful time-saver, able to water my garden for years to come? It sounded more like it would leak all over and only last one summer. Yet, wanting to find out how it worked, I proceeded to pull the hose out of the packaging and set it up in the garden.

The first thing I noticed was that the hose was hesitant to straighten out. Being wound up in the package, it kept curling and didn’t want to stay in the assigned location. This was frustrating since the hose weighs enough that it can easily knock over delicate stems and take out a few plants. Looking back, I should have straightened the hose out on the grass first and perhaps used some U-shaped landscaping stakes to hold it in place as I went along.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

The second thing that I noticed was that when I turned it on, small droplets of water came out of all sides of the hose. I hadn’t been sure how the water would come out, so watching the hose drip was interesting. As the water fell, it only watered the soil directly beneath the hose. Soil a foot away from the hose was still dry. It would have been nice if the water had traveled a little farther from the hose so that more of the plants roots would be able to access the water.

Overall, it worked fine. It was a convenient way to water the soil around the plants while still taking care of my kids. I expect I will use it again next year.

Now with the garden winding down, I put away the soaker hose for the winter. I will need to remind myself to set it up early next year so I’m prepared for dry spells and so the plants can grow around it.

Updates in the Vegetable Garden (September 27, 2013)

The vegetable garden in August.

The vegetable garden in August.

As autumn arrives, the gardens are still producing. Much has grown in the last two months of the garden!

There weren’t many problems to report. Leaf miners returned to visit the swiss chard, but didn’t do much damage. A white powder appeared on the topside of some plants leaves, but didn’t seem to harm the plants. Squirrels and rabbits enjoyed fallen apples and pears and didn’t bother the ones on the trees much. The rabbits also noticed the ground cherries at some point, but we still managed to find more on the ground each day. Yes, there are many weeds in the garden, but I haven’t felt a need to go after them.

My daughter's zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

My daughter’s zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

There were many joyful surprises in the garden. I’m not usually crazy about flowers (perhaps you remember my rant about rose bushes) unless the plant offers a practical benefit (something edible or deterring pests), but zinnias have found a place in my heart. My daughter received the seeds at a children’s garden party and she loves to go out and pick the flowers. Watching her put them in a vase on the kitchen table brings joy to our home. They have continued to produce new flowers with determination, so they seem to be a hardy sort of plant. We’ll have to buy some more seeds next year.

Late additions to the garden in the last two months included some wheat grass in a tray and more carrots and peas in my kids’ container garden. We were having plenty to pick and eat so I didn’t worry much about succession planting. Summer gets to be a busy time of year.

Here are more vegetable- and fruit-specific updates:

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini: Wow. The first one I found was a monster that surely must have grown overnight. And they just kept coming. We made zucchini bread, many bowls of zucchini soup, and enjoyed slicing them up to eat right out of the garden. They taste best when they are small and tender, about 4 or 5 inches long.

Broccoli: The heads were small, but the taste and texture was delicious. It was a nice snack to just chop off a piece to eat with the kids in the afternoon.

Peas: The ‘Tom Thumb’ variety of peas wasn’t too impressive. Little growth, small pods, and then they were done. We’ll go with a different variety next year.

Shells and dry beans.

Shells and dry beans.

Hidatsa Beans: We watched the beans go from being skinny and green to swollen and brown. The dried shells cracked open and revealed maroon-colored beans inside. It was interesting seeing where dry beans come from. I knew it would happen but seeing it with my own eyes was quite the learning experience. The kids enjoyed helping to thresh and pull out the beans. Some of the beans dried right in the garden and sometimes we let a vine hang upside-down in the kitchen to finish drying. If the beans were a little soft, we just left them on the counter to dry out more. Now we just need to try to cook them!

Carrots: These were fun for the kids. The ‘Short n’ Sweet’ variety worked well in the kids’ container garden and were good to eat. With new seeds planted in early September, I hope we can pick more yet this year.

Swiss Chard: We got tired of swiss chard after about a month. The taste seemed to get more bitter over time when eaten raw (our preferred way of eating things). They were pretty in the gardens and a sauté with broccoli and turnips early in the summer was delicious, but I don’t think I’ll plant them again next year.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

Cucumber: Another good afternoon snack! Picking a cucumber to slice up and eat warm out of the garden was great. After rubbing off the prickly spikes on the outside, the skin was so soft and edible (unlike the tough skins on large grocery store cucumbers which we often peel off).

Red Peppers: It took a while for the green peppers to take on a bright red, but it was worth the wait. They were beautiful and delicious! We sliced them up to eat raw and warm from the garden.

Tomatillos: Hanging like green lanterns, these were a fun experiment in our garden. We hadn’t had tomatillos before, so of course, we just sliced them up to try them raw. We weren’t a fan of them raw. After a failed attempt at salsa verde (I accidentally made it too spicy to consume without burns to mouth and nose), these became a good donation to the food pantry. Hopefully someone with a knack for salsa-making can enjoy the harvest from this plant until I’m willing to make another attempt. My husband found recipes for strawberry-tomatillo pie and fried tomatillos, so that would be some other fun things to try in the future.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Wheat Grass: After getting some free seeds from the Madison Children’s Museum at the opening of the Urb Garden, we planted them in a shallow tray of compost and set them on the patio. The grass grew and we cut some off to add to a smoothie. It was ok. Our blender shredded the grass pretty well, but there were still a few strings. And it tasted a bit like grass. But hopefully the health benefits made it worth it.

Ground Cherries: These plants keep them coming slow and steady! It has been nice to pick these little fruits off the ground each day to nibble on. My son especially loves to go outside and look for them.

Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: Despite a late planting, no cage, and some storms that threw the plants to the ground, tomato seedlings from our church’s food pantry garden brought us a pleasant surprise. We were never crazy about large tomatoes from the grocery store, with their tough skin, watery inside, and bland taste. But we figured we ought to try the large tomatoes that grew from these seedlings. Wow! The taste and meaty texture was exceptional. Someone at church thought they might be an heirloom variety. We will definitely be planting more next year and further exploring the world of home-grown tomatoes.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

Nasturtium: Although the spicy nasturtium leaves and flowers weren’t a hit at our house, we enjoyed the beautiful flowers in the garden. The nasturtium planted from seed didn’t get nearly as large as the purchased seedling.

Apples: Our red and green apple trees have brought us much joy this apple season. I’ve made a number of batches of applesauce and we have been eating them right off the tree and sharing them with friends. The red apples have quite a few blemishes from pests, but the green apples are mostly perfect. Both are delicious. I’ve been debating trying to prune these trees to keep them short and healthy, but I don’t want to jeopardize the harvest in future years.

Pears: Our pear tree produced about 25 pears this year. I read online that pears don’t ripen on the tree, so I picked the pears green and put them in the refrigerator for about a week or so. Then I placed them on the kitchen counter to ripen for another two weeks. They slowly turned yellow and became soft, at which point, I returned them to the refrigerator. We’ve been eating them raw and enjoying their sweetness. One of the pears had a worm crawling out of it (coddling moth?) which was a little creepy, but generally, they’re mostly blemish- and pest-free. I have debated trying out a recipe with them, such as pear butter, but we’ll probably have them all eaten before I find some time.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

As you can see from the harvest totals, much has been picked since my last update:
* Swiss Chard: 338 g
* Carrots: 180 g
* Nasturtium: 9 g
* Peas: 54 g
* Wheat Grass: 18 g
* Zucchini: 2509 g
* Broccoli: 250 g
* Cucumber: 682 g
* Cilantro: 9 g (not all weighed)
* Basil: ? (not weighed)
* Hidatsa Beans (dry): 79 g
* Red Peppers: 276 g
* Sun Gold Tomatoes: 500 g
* Red Sweetie Tomatoes: 545 g
* Ground Cherries: 352 g
* Cherry Tomatoes from church seedlings: 463 g
* Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: 496 g
* Tomatillos: 246 g (more haven’t been picked)
* Green apples: 1014 g (many more to pick and some eaten without being weighed!)
* Red apples: 8396 g
* Pears: 3044 g

This brings the harvest total up to 7075 g (16 lb) for vegetables and 12,454 g (27 lb) for fruit so far. Not bad for our first year with a backyard garden! It’s a minor chore to weigh all the vegetables and fruits as they come in the house and write down the numbers, but it certainly is interesting to see how our gardening efforts are paying off. In the future, it will also be nice to look back and see how our garden has changed from year to year.

Connecting to Natural Food Sources

As the saying goes, “we are what we eat.” For many, this saying helps us to cut down on fatty foods and desserts, but if we dig deeper, what does it really mean in our modern society?

To start answering this question, here is an exercise for you to consider. For a month, write down all the foods you ate: those from the grocery store, restaurants, school meal plans, office catering, candy dishes, church potlucks, and celebrations. Then, look over your list. What are you eating? Usually a common theme quickly surfaces: we really have no idea what we’re eating, how it was made, or where it came from.

It's snack time. Do you know where your muskmelon comes from? Your local farmer's market can offer you a freshly picked, organic selection.

It’s snack time. Do you know where your muskmelon comes from? Your local farmer’s market can offer you a freshly picked, organic selection.

I have serious concerns about the available foods these days. Low prices, uniform appearance, shelf life, bright colors, and marketing slogans have become the driving force behind our food production, despite the fact that our food is becoming less and less natural and healthy for us. Why is this? Does society care more about immediate gratification and the external appearance of their make-up, gadgets, cars, houses, and vacations, than they do about the food they internally consume all day long? Some might argue that natural, healthy foods are too expensive, but the world functions on supply and demand. If people demand fancy cell phones, they are manufactured and everyone totes a cell phone. If people demand natural, healthy foods, they become more available and less expensive. What we have is a simple problem with priorities: do we focus more attention on quick fixes and superficial status symbols, or the natural world and ethical values?

For those who prioritize natural, healthy foods, grocery shopping has become difficult. At your typical grocery store, it’s hard to find organic locally-sourced produce, whole grains, dairy products without rBGH, or meat without hormones and antibiotics. I don’t enjoy looking through item after item on the shelf to find something simple without corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, MSG, dyes, unnecessary sugar and salt, or BHT. Not to mention the mystery about whether the ingredients were treated with unlabeled chemicals or are genetically modified. I’ve managed to meet our food needs by shopping for different products at a variety of sources: rBGH-free local cheese and organic fruit from Metcalfe’s, hygiene products and organic canned goods from Whole Foods, summer vegetables and yogurt from the farmer’s market, nuts from Target or Copp’s, and bread from Clasen’s bakery. But sometimes grocery shopping feels like a week-long tour of the city to meet all our food and budget needs.

Despite the difficulty, it is a worthy endeavor to seek out natural foods and understand where our food comes from. Not only are we caring for our bodies, we are also connecting to nature, supporting the farmers or producers, and taking a stand in our society to say that food ingredients and sources matter. In addition to shopping around for natural foods, here are some other ideas to connect ourselves with natural food sources:

A fresh organic zucchini for your soup sits waiting in your own backyard.

A fresh organic zucchini for your soup sits waiting in your own backyard.

* Instead of purchasing products from unknown companies, why not look up the companies on the internet and see if they offer tours of their farms or factories?
* Instead of filling our Christmas wish lists with shiny gizmos, why not consider asking for a share in a CSA?
* Instead of going to the store for zucchini, why not have some in the garden to pick for our soup?
* Instead of fretting over choices in the bread aisle, why not bake our own homemade loaf and fill our homes with the smell of a bakery?
* Instead of buying mysterious jams, canned goods, ketchup, pickles, or applesauce, why not make and can them ourselves?
* Instead of believing that restaurants have healthy options, why not find out where they get their ingredients from and decide for ourselves?

To go back to our initial saying, “we are what we eat.” If we don’t know how our food was made, can we understand who we are? Are we becoming an unfamiliar, unnatural, chemical, genetically-modified, and marketing creature rather than a human being? I stand up for natural food, for connecting to the source of our food, and for prioritizing nature and ethics as I live my life. In the 21st century it’s a journey filled with difficulty, but I will do what I can, to take care of my family and the earth.

Discovering the Pests on our Apples

With two apple trees and a pear tree in our backyard, I see that pests are quite fond of these fruits. When looking at our apples and pears, spots show us that they have had visitors. Wanting to keep our property natural (without chemical sprays), these pests will likely come to visit every year. But who are they and what are they doing to our fruit?

The Coddling Moth leaves a dark chunk of fiber under the apple.

The Coddling Moth leaves a dark chunk of fiber under the apple.

Today the West Madison Agricultural Research Station had their yearly open house which enabled me to learn more about our apple pests. One of the tents had a fruit intern with some examples of apples with pest markings. He talked about three common pests: the Coddling Moth, the Plum Curculio (beetle), and the Apple Fruit Maggot.

The inside of the apple visited by a Coddling Moth.

The inside of the apple visited by a Coddling Moth.

The Coddling Moth is what you might hear of as the typical apple worm. A moth lays her eggs on the fruit and when they hatch, the larvae burrow into the fruit to eat the core of the apple. The apple tree will usually drop these fruits after sensing the internal damage. It’s a good idea to look for apples with the Coddling Moth marking while doing your early summer thinning and remove them first.

A scab forms on the apple from a Plum Curculio.

A scab forms on the apple from a Plum Curculio.

The Plum Curculio is a beetle that lays its eggs under the skin of stone fruits. Yes, an apple is not a stone fruit, but this little pest doesn’t seem to realize that. As the apple grows, often the eggs are crushed by the growing fruit preventing baby beetles. A scab-like blotch forms on the apple and sometimes the apple is also flat or indented by that spot.

Spots are left behind by the Apple Fruit Maggot.

Spots are left behind by the Apple Fruit Maggot.

The Apple Fruit Maggot also lays it’s eggs inside the fruit. These maggots leave behind sting marks on the outside of the apple and brown railroad-like tracks inside the apple. An indentation is also often observed on the side of the apple.

So, what can be done about these pests?

If you want organic apples, the fruit intern noted that there is a clay that can be applied around the fruit, but it needs to be applied to each fruit often as it washes off in the rain and cracks as the apples grow. An easier solution on the Vegetable Gardener website is to tie brown paper lunch bags over the apples when they’re young. It sounds like there are also pheremone traps that can be purchased to catch some of the pests.

The fruit intern emphasized that although these pests cause cosmetic damage, these apples are still edible. It seems that nowadays most people are used to blemish-free grocery store apples and are quite disconnected from an understanding of their food sources. The most benign markings scare people away. But the fruit intern noted that these apples were just fine to eat. In fact, he planned to eat these unmarketable apples, every bite of them, after the open house was over.

Now that I know who the pests are that are visiting, I’m less afraid of what’s in our apples. But until I come to terms with eating worms, I think I might still compost the parts of the apple with spots and brown trails.