Country Moon


Why I Garden

Country MoonWhew! Another gardening season is almost in the books. The last few weeks have been spent in the kitchen cleaning, chopping, canning and freezing veggies. On a good note, the pantry is full. The garden has been fruitful in spite of dealing with bugs, fungus, weeds, too much rain, not enough rain and critters.

As I am getting older, just a tad bit, this year I have been asked more than a few times why I go to the bother to have a garden. Besides the work, it ties me down…no summer vacation here. It probably is more expensive than it would be to just buy the veggies, cost-wise I have never figured it up because I really don’t want to know.

So, why do I do it? Well, there are the obvious reasons like knowing where your food comes from and how it is raised; having fresh produce whenever you want it; and having exactly what you want, when you want it. But, there is more to it than that. There are so many reasons why I would recommend having a garden to everyone, regardless of where you live.

First of all, it is good for your health. Sure, the fresh veggies are good for you, but just the act of gardening provides a host of health benefits. With planting, weeding and harvesting, working the garden provides plenty of exercise. It has been proven to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and stroke, as well as improve the immune system…and those are just the physical benefits.

Gardening does wonders to reduce depression, anger and stress. These days, most careers offer their fair dose of stress with looming deadlines, peer pressure and being tied to technology for long hours. I dare anyone to walk away from a garden and not feel less stressed. Fresh air, sunshine and, sometimes, soothing raindrops do wonders to soothe the soul. When I am there, it is just me and my garden.

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Of course, it is hard not to eat more fresh produce when it is right outside your door. During winter, it is easy to shy away from buying all the different veggies at the store to make a salad. You always have a little of this and a little of that left. With a garden, you cut the lettuce, pull the radishes and carrots and harvest whatever else you have and only take what you need for that day. Besides that, it can’t get much fresher.

There is also something special about knowing that you planted the seeds, watered them, weeded the tiny plants, fertilized them and nurtured them to maturity. All of my plants are my babies, I usually check them morning and night, not to mention being out there most of the day anyway. There is power in reaping a harvest from something that you planted as a dormant seed.

When I work in the garden, whether it is wet or dry, I like nothing better than kicking my shoes off and feeling the soil under my feet. There is something about feeling the warm earth under you that grounds you and brings you back in touch with the good earth and nature.

There is actually a name for going barefoot. It is known as earthing. Yes, many of us remember the counter culture of the 1960’s and the hippie movement where many of them didn’t wear shoes. Well, since then earthing has been scientifically researched and the results show a number of positive health benefits. Among them are increased antioxidants, reduced inflammation and sleep improvement. It boils down to absorbing electrons from the earth improves health.

Maybe our forefathers had this advantage without knowing it. Many of them went barefoot simply because they didn’t have any footwear. For me, I just know it feels good and helps me to get back to basics. Perhaps it is time to take a step back in time…barefoot, that is.

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Another reason that I garden, and perhaps the most important one, is that I want to show the next generation how important it is to be connected to our food supply. It is not only those that live in the city, but many folks that live in the country and do have enough ground to have a garden do not bother anymore. With farmers’ markets and supermarkets in close proximity, sometimes it seems moot to go to the bother to plant your own food.

Yes, it is easier to go and buy what you want, but it doesn’t help the next generation to know where the source of their food is. When Wyatt was just little, he would come out and help in the garden. He learned quickly that, if you didn’t pull the root of the weed out, you were pulling the same weed the next week. He learned how all the different vegetables grew. The rule was that he had to take at least one bite of everything that he helped with in the garden. Lots of things he still doesn’t like, but at least he has been exposed to them and knows how they grow.

In this technical world that we live in, it is important to get back to basics and to know where the food supply starts. Only through this understanding can future farmers, gardeners, scientists and horticulturists make improvements in quality and quantity to feed the world.

Besides all of this, gardening just feels good. It is my haven away from the tensions, demands and rat race that we all call life. For four months out of the year, I have this paradise in my own backyard that provides peace and sanity from a weary world.

So, next year, even if you only have a few square feet, kick your shoes off, plant a few seeds and watch not only the crop grow but also a little calm and peace.

Tips for Mile High Meringue

Country MoonWith fall comes the return of baking season. At my house, dessert in summer months usually consists of fresh fruit because of the abundance. With cooler temperatures, it feels good to heat up the oven and to make old-fashioned desserts.

Cream pies have always been a hit, especially when having company over. However, most cream pies are topped with meringue, a sweet topping that is made by baking a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar until crisp. This simple sounding treat can be a lot trickier than it sounds.

Sometimes my meringue is high and fluffy like it should be and at other times, well, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even though I make it the same way each time, the results are not always the same. So, I did a little research to see what the deal was on why making meringue is sometimes a tricky chore.

What I found out was that it has to do with a lot of factors. The method of whipping, the utensils, temperature and humidity all play an important part in creating a fluffy mouth-watering meringue. Here is the skinny on how chefs do it:

Eggs

How you treat your eggs is probably the biggest factor in whether your meringue is successful or not because meringue essentially consists of…eggs or, more precisely, egg whites. Having even the smallest speck of fat in the egg whites will cause them to deflate. The most likely culprit here is a tiny piece of yolk from imperfectly separated eggs. Not wanting to spoil the whole batch, I have quickly dipped out the tiny amount of yolk that fell into the whites when I was separating. Wrong. I should have just tossed the egg whites and started over because it did ruin the meringue in the end anyway.

Cold egg whites are easier to separate but whites warmed to room temperature are loftier when whisked. So, the best practice is to separate the eggs while cold and then allow the whites to stand at room temperature, covered, about 30 minutes before beating them.

Another tip is to crack eggs on a hard surface like a countertop instead of on the edge of the bowl like most of us are accustomed to doing. This reduces the chance that a shred of shell will pierce the yolk, allowing it into the whites.

Equipment

Make sure that your whisk and bowl are clean and dry. No matter how well washed they are, plastic bowls may retain traces of fat from previous uses. Copper, glass and metal bowls are preferred. Many chefs swear by copper when making meringue because a chemical reaction between the copper and the egg whites tends to produce fluffier, more stable peaks. Just before using a copper bowl, clean it thoroughly with salt and lemon juice or vinegar, rinse with cold water and dry well.

I couldn’t cook without my stainless-steel mixing bowl set. It also seems to work well when making meringues.

Sugar

Sugar not only sweetens the egg yolks, but also helps to create a thicker structure than egg white alone. Individual sugar molecules help to support and stabilize the protein in egg whites. Superfine sugar dissolves easier than granulated. You can make your own by processing regular sugar in a food processor for 2 minutes or you can also use confectioners’ sugar.

Another important factor is to add the sugar gradually, usually a tablespoon at a time. This allows it to get fully incorporated into the egg whites.

Cream of Tartar

Most meringue recipes call for a small bit of cream of tartar. This small amount will mimic the reaction when using a copper bowl. It makes the meringue stronger and less likely to deflate. The general rule of thumb is to use 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar for every 2 to 3 egg whites. If you don’t have this on hand, lemon juice can be substituted at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon for each 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar that is called for.

Whisking

Next to the eggs, this is probably the next important factor in creating a good meringue. It takes a while for egg whites to become frothy and cloud-like. Beaters with more tines like standing mixers or hand-held mixers will incorporate air better into the whites than a standard whisk will. If using a copper bowl, many chefs prefer whisking by hand because it produces fluffier and more stable whites and also reduces the likelihood of overbeating.

Knowing when enough beating is enough is truly an art. With meringue, there is a fine line between too little and too much. It should be smooth, glossy and flexible with stiff peaks. If it doesn’t peak, it is probably over-whipped.

Humidity

Avoid making meringue on a humid day or when it is raining as these conditions will only add to your chances of failure. Sugar absorbs moisture which will result in a meringue that is soft and one that will be impossible to get thick, stiff peaks. Humidity will also cause the finished meringue to weep or soften.

 This point brings us to the trouble-shooting of “What did I do wrong?” if your meringue still doesn’t turn out. The most likely causes are:

Beading

Sometimes beads of moisture appear on the surface of the meringue after it is baked. This is most likely caused from over cooking. Try increasing the temperature and decreasing the cooking time. This will keep the internal temperature from getting too hot. Just be sure and watch it closely so as not to burn the meringue.

I have also found that letting the pie cool completely after the meringue is baked before putting it in the refrigerator will also keep it from beading (or as we refer to it as “weeping” although that is a completely different issue).

My Aunt Sharlene and I always have this problem of beading and she just refers to the beads as “angel tears.” This has been my standard explanation to company whenever I serve weeping meringue!

Weeping

This term actually refers to a small pool of liquid between the meringue and the pie filling. To remedy this, always spread your meringue over hot pie filling instead of letting the filling get cold first. The heat from the filling helps to cook the meringue from the bottom while the oven heat is cooking it from the top, insuring that it is cooked thoroughly.

Shrunken Edge

Be sure when spreading meringue on the hot filling to anchor it clear to the edge of the crust. This helps to prevent shrinking.

Browning

This is another delicate feature. You want your meringue lightly browned but not burned. Especially if using a higher temperature to prevent beading, watch it closely, you have a tiny window here. To achieve the golden brown, you can place the pie in a 500* oven or under the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Meringue powder can be purchased and used in place of real egg whites. It is essentially dehydrated egg whites. Some have sweeteners and stabilizers already added so that all you need to do is add water. These have a long shelf life and are convenient to keep on hand.

Don’t let all these specifications scare you away from trying your hand at meringue. It really isn’t that hard if you follow the rules and don’t get in a hurry. Mastering it takes experience. Practice plus patience makes perfect. The practice part isn’t so bad, just think of all the pies you will have while on the road to perfection!

toasted meringue on top of pastry
Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash

Homemade Meringue Recipe

Ingredients

• 4 egg whites
• 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
• 1/4 cup sugar

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 

2. Beat egg whites until frothy then add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.

3. Gradually add sugar, beating until sugar is dissolved, and stiff, glossy peaks form.

4. Spread over warm pie filling of choice.

5. Bake 4 inches under heat for about 10 minutes or until browned.

Saw a Bug! Pest-Free Garden Update

Country MoonA couple years ago there used to be a television commercial where a woman screams, “Saw a bug!” and then she immediately calls an exterminator. Well, that is me in the garden. The other day I saw a potato bug and that started the ball rolling because, as we all know, seeing one bug means that soon that one bug will turn into a gazillion…however many that is.

Three years ago, I decided that if I was going to have a garden, I was going to control bugs, critters and weeds organically. I wanted to return to the days that we could pick a fruit or vegetable off the vine and eat it right then and there, when it tastes the freshest and not worry about pesticides or other chemicals. Needless to say, I met with a lot of guffaws and skepticism.

I am happy to say that my mission is accomplished and I will proudly put my garden up against any one that is laden with chemicals. My plants are healthy and disease- and pretty much pest-free…there are always a few stray bugs that die hard.

It took a lot of trial and error to get to this point and I am happy to share what I have learned, hoping it enlightens others that there is a better way to garden by getting back to basics. Let’s start with the potato bugs. Bonide makes a number of organic insect sprays that are made with naturally-occurring ingredients. The active ingredient in Colorado Potato Beetle Spray is Spinosad which is a natural substance made by a soil bacterium that is toxic to insects. It kills the adult bugs, as well as the larvae.

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For non-specific insect control, I use Organicide which is an insecticide, miticide and fungicide all in one. It is safe to use on most all plants, so I buy the concentrate and use it on all my garden plants as well as flowers. It is nice not to have to spray three different products to get this same effect. To date, I don’t have fungal problems, even with the extra wet conditions we have had this year. It also keeps the bugs from munching on all the greenery. It is nice not to find holes eaten in all the plants’ leaves when I walk into the garden.

Last year, because I was away, I didn’t stay ahead of the squash bugs and they basically took over the entire crop. This year I started when the plants were just small and sprayed them with a natural product made with pyrethrum, also called pyrethrim. BEWARE here, these two are not interchangeable. Pyrethrum is a safe, effective and environmentally safe garden insecticide that is made from certain species of the chrysanthemum. Pyrethrim, on the other hand, is a synthetic, man-made insecticide whose chemical structure is based on natural pyrethrum. It is not as safe for humans and pets as its natural cousin is.

Next year I plan to go one step further and grow my own. Pyrethrum daisies can be started from seed or established plants. Interspersing them in the garden provides a natural insect barrier and you get gorgeous white flowers with yellow centers to boot. The flowers can also be dried and used as a dust for repelling insects. The active ingredient attacks the nervous system of insects but not humans or pets.

This year, after using this natural squash bug insecticide, I have pest-free plants that are producing fruit with no harmful pesticides.

Bugs are a big concern in gardens, but so are other critters. After all, I do plant the vegetables for our use and not to feed all the uninvited guests. Rabbits were eating my lettuce, carrot tops and other greenery. I bought a huge bottle of cayenne pepper for a little under $8 and have been dusting my greenery with it. If it has not rained or there is no dew, I sprinkle the plants with a little water and then add the pepper so it adheres better. No more eaten leaves. I guess the bunnies are not fans of spicy foods, however I would love to be there to see their reaction when they take their first bite of the “seasoned” greenery!

Now for my even bigger problem, deer. Not only were they eating my plants, but they were also trampling them as they meandered through the garden. After some research, I stumbled across an approach that different folks swear worked for them. So, I gave it a try.

I put 7-foot steel T-posts around the perimeter of the garden, leaving about 10 feet between each one. I positioned them inside the garden far enough that I could still take my Mantis mini tiller around the outside of the posts to keep weeds down. Then I strung four strands of 30-weight fishing line taut between the posts. After that, I hung some aluminum pie tins on the fishing line close to the posts to create noise when the wind blew.

For my gate, I simply strung four strands of 3-foot sections of fishing line from my first post to a steel rod. The rod can be shoved in the ground with the string taut to “close the gate” and easily picked up and swung back to “open the gate.” I positioned one of these on both sides of the garden and directly inside of my gates I hung a wind chime for extra insurance.

So many folks told me I was wasting my time, but as of date, the fence is still up and there have been no deer stopping by for dessert. The theory behind why this works is that the deer cannot see the fishing line so, when they run into it, it scares them. I have deer prints right up to the ‘fence” and they stop there.

The nice part about this solution is that it is easy to take down in the fall and to put up again in the spring as opposed to a regular fence. I might add that it is much cheaper too and it only took three hours to install.  Who’s laughing now!

I do love my garden and enjoy all the bounty that it gives. I am so thankful that, with a little ingenuity and research, there are ways to control insects and other critters from taking it over without using so many chemicals. There are many brands on the market that use natural ingredients, so there are choices out there. To me, eating fresh means eating chemical and pesticide free. It’s not about what is trending, but rather it is about what is right for our health and getting back to basics.

It may be easier to grab the first chemical on the hardware shelves to control pests, but there is a satisfaction in knowing that you are taking a little more initiative and doing what is best for you, the plants, the environment and even the critters. That commercial that proclaims, “Saw a bug,” not in my garden!

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman           

Mum's the Word: Growing Chrysanthemums

Country MoonOne of the most glorious things that happen when the air turns crisp at this time of year is the explosion of color. Certainly, the turning of the leaves and showy pumpkins are a big part of this but, also a big part, are the brilliantly colored chrysanthemums that characterize this season.

Chrysanthemums, or “mums” as they are often called, have always been my favorite flowers. Sorry, roses, but mums’ cheerfulness can’t help but bring a smile to your face. They are used in many of autumn’s colorful displays. Yet, they are perhaps the most misunderstood flower.

Are they annuals or perennials? There have been countless times that I have planted them in the flower gardens and sometimes they survive the winter and sometimes they don’t. What’s the deal here?

Well, there are two distinct varieties, namely florist mums and garden mums. They both are derived from the original plant, but today’s hybrids in both categories are results of hybridization between several species. The result is different types of mums that perform for two distinct purposes.

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Photo by natalysavina/Adobe Stock

Florist mums are the large flower pots that you find in supermarkets at this time of year that have many possible bloom forms. They are grown in greenhouses and produce few, if any, underground runners which are necessary to survive cold temperatures. Garden mums, also called hardy mums, are perennials which do produce underground runners, which make them able to survive frigid winters and bloom the next season. The confusion comes because they both make great container plants.

Another factor that influences whether mums will bloom for more than one season is planting times. Fall planting lessens the chances of survival because roots don’t have time to establish themselves. When you plant them in the spring, it gives the plants more time to get established in the garden. Although planting earlier in the year improves the chances of overwintering and reblooming in the spring, it does entail more work. There is more mulching and pinching off buds to encourage compact growth.

Pinching back the new growth is one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around. After all, plenty of buds and flowers is the goal, so why would you want to discard them? But that is the secret to the rounded domes of perfectly shaped mums that we see in stores. Each pinched stem will divide into two stems.

However, you don’t just start taking buds off at random. There is a method to this madness. When the plants reach a height of six inches, pinch back the tops of the stems one to two inches. Do this each time the plants get three to five inches of new growth up until July 4.

Once you have established plants, they need to be divided every couple of years. This is accomplished in spring after the last frost and new growth starts to appear. Pull up the entire plant and separate it into pieces with a clean and sharp spade or large knife. Replant the outer portions and discard the center. Three to five vigorous roots are enough to make a showy clump.

Mums planted in spring should be fertilized with 5-10-10 once or twice a month if you only want annuals. However, if you want them to come back year after year, use a high phosphorous fertilizer to stimulate root growth. After the first hard frost, mulch with straw or shredded hardwood about 4 inches deep around the entire plant. Leave the branches intact and only prune in the spring.

Chrysanthemums like sun, lots of sun to the tune of six hours a day. If they are deprived of this, they grow tall and spindly instead of round and full. Keep in mind that light is not the same as heat. They are not big fans of the scorching summer sun, thus if you are a spring planter, be sure and keep them well supplied with water during the hot days of July and August. The warmer the temperature, the more water the mums need. They typically like about an inch of water per week. If the bottom leaves start to turn brown or limp, water more often but be sure and water at the base of the plant instead of soaking the leaves which promotes some diseases.

Another way to ensure that mums return the following year is to plant native chrysanthemums. This means that if a variety has been native to your area, it will do better than a type that is not native to the conditions in a particular region.

Besides being showy and colorful, mums can help keep your garden free from insects. Many bugs don’t like them, so planted strategically among other plants will deter unwanted insects. Also, pyrethrum, a natural insect killer, is derived from the flowers of mums. Pyrethrum spray is made from the flowers of Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium or Chrysanthemum roseum varieties.

You can even make your own insect spray by drying the flower heads and mixing with water and a little pinch of soap powder.

Armed with this knowledge about how to get mums to survive the Michigan winters, I am going to try my hand at them again this year. I am determined to have these vibrant flowers in my garden year after year. Mums are about the only flower where you get to choose whether it is an annual or perennial. How cool is that!

Restoring Hometown Pride in Leonidas, Michigan

Country MoonThree years ago, Marylou MacDonald of Leonidas, Michigan, had a vision. She wanted her small town to look nice and to be a place that all the residents could take pride in. Her idea was to put hanging flower baskets throughout town. Not just a few flowers, but lots of them and big hanging baskets that folks would stop and take notice.

“The catch here is that, like anything else, it would take money,” relates town supervisor Bernard Shaw. “So, they brought it before the board and the project was approved.”

Marylou’s husband, Barry said, “For this small town, that was a huge step considering that the most recent count put our population at only 659.”

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So, they started out with only five baskets. The cost for each pole, including post and basket was $100. Even though that wasn’t many for the first year, it was enough to make people stop and take notice. “It wasn’t long before folks were asking if they could have one in front of their house,” Marylou smiled.

The decision of where to place them and who got the flowers could have been an issue, but there was a simple solution to the problem. They had to call Miss Dig to see where the posts could be located without interrupting any utilities. Problem solved.

Both local residents and passersby took notice and the following year they added five more poles, and this year, they are up to fifteen. They would like to add more in the future and finding a good deal on the flowers just may help them to do that.

The baskets are filled with a variety of petunias that do not need deadheaded to keep flowering. At first, a greenhouse in Kalamazoo, MI, was supplying the plants, but then they checked with Riverbend Gardens out of Mendon, MI. Barry explains, “They are just down the road and the owner, Tony Campbell, literally bent over backwards to get our business. He gave us a good deal and he gets recognition when people comment on how beautiful our flowers are. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.”

Leonidas Township picks up the tab for the poles, baskets and flowers, while Barry and Marylou supply the labor, golf cart and gas to water and care for them throughout the summer. The township also provided a pump for the back of the golf cart so they can drive up and down the streets to do the watering.

Marylou started out doing the watering, but Barry soon took it over after a couple of close calls. He relates the scary scenario, “M-60 Highway runs right through town and, although there are posted speed limits, folks just don’t slow down. Marylou had a couple close calls. Just the other day, a semi tried to pass another big rig right here in town. So, I took over the watering.”

When asked how long it takes to water all of them, he laughed. “Well, it takes about 50 gallons of water each day and about 45 minutes to do the watering, but it has taken as long as an hour and a half, depending on how much I stop and talk!”

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Even late in the season they look great. Folks swear they have a secret ingredient in the fertilizer, but Barry denies it. “Only good old Miracle Gro every couple of weeks,” he confesses.

Although he jokes about it, the close-knit small community is the reason that Marylou came up with the idea in the first place. “It’s not about the cost or the work,” Marylou is adamant. “Barry and I both were raised here, this small town is our home and it used to be beautiful when we were growing up, but then folks started to let their places get run down. I thought this would be a way to bring pride back.”

Leonidas used to be a bustling little burg. It had a hotel, five gas stations and three restaurants, plus a Ford dealership. That was before I-94 was built 29 miles to the north in 1960. After the commerce stopped flowing through Leonidas, the town dwindled. Over the years there have been various party stores, but they just can’t make a go of it.

“I guess that is an ulterior motive for the flowers,” Barry got serious. “It is six miles for us to Fulton, Colon and Mendon, the three nearest towns to us. That may not seem like much, but if you just want gas, milk or a loaf of bread it can be an inconvenience. We would love to see some commercial business locate here. There is still a lot of traffic on M-60 to support a store.”

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Lots of people just passing through stop and ask about the flower baskets. Other small towns have shown interest and asked how they can start the flower project in their communities.

Marylou is pleased how her idea has blossomed…pardon the pun! “We are all so blessed that God has given us these places to have and to take care of, and I just think that we all should take pride in where we live and show the world.” 

It seems to be working. Slowly, folks are taking a little more pride in their places, cleaning up around their homes and making Leonidas a beautiful town again.

Sometimes it takes just one person’s vision to make a difference.

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman

COUNTY FAIRS ARE MORE THAN FOOD AND FUN

Country MoonI call it that August smell. In the waning days of summer, the aromas of all the ripening produce, crops and weeds lend their aromas into one unique blend that defines this time of year. It also signals the arrival of county fairs that are happening all across the country and rightfully so because it is at this time of year the biggest and best produce get to go to fair too.

The mention of county fairs brings thoughts of fair food, local bands, top entertainers and generally fun times catching up with friends and neighbors. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up between the cotton candy and fried cheese on a stick and forget what this small slice of Americana is really all about.

Nearly every county in the country has a county fair. They have been around longer than the Cooperative Extension Service which was established in the 1900’s. All 4-H is governed by this program.

It takes so much more than most people realize to bring everything together for one week in the summer for a county fair to take place. Fair staff, volunteers and families donate a lot of time and money to organize, promote and run the county gathering each year. As soon as one year’s events are over, the staff start to make improvements and plan for the following year. The fair that most people experience for one week out of their summer is the summation of a whole year’s worth of preparations.

It is easy to walk among the stands and displays and not realize the significance of this one week out of the year for the area’s youth. Only a parent knows actually how much work a child puts forth with his 4-H fair projects.

Everyone knows how kids compete for top honors and the prized blue ribbons. Yes, 4-H uses the local county fair to highlight the accomplishments of program participants and volunteers. This is certainly the ultimate prize that all kids have their eye on but, if they are lucky, kids come away with things much more valuable than blue ribbons.

First of all, county fairs are held at this time of year for a reason. Many of them have been raising an animal or produce to show at the fair. At this time of year is when their projects, whether plants or animals, are in their prime.

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So, their award, or lack of, represents a whole year of hard work, or lack of. If they are showing an animal, they have weigh-ins throughout the year which represent their rate of gain. This is tied directly to what they have been fed, and feed records need to be kept throughout the year. When they show their animal in market class, the animal is judged on how well it is represented; its weight, its bone structure and overall appearance. Though much of this is related to genetics, much of it also reflects how it was fed and cared for during the year.

In showmanship, the animal and owner are judged on how they react to each other and how the animal responds to its owner’s commands. It is usually pretty apparent when a youth has spent time and worked with his/her animal.

In both 4-H and FFA, there are three standards which are represented by blue, red and white ribbons. Each one has its own set of qualifications and when a project is awarded a ribbon, it indicates how well it measures up to the standard. So, each participant is competing against the set standard and not with each other. However, there is still always one grand champion and one reserve grand champion, which provides a prize to aspire to.

All judges are different, with slightly different expectations. I always admire the judge who takes a couple minutes with each entrant and explains what made his/her entry either a winner or a runner-up. This is the best way for the kids to learn how to improve for next year. It is also a good lesson in accepting criticism.

Sadly, sometimes folks get too caught up in how well each one placed. It’s about more than the ribbons. Each county fair is supporting the next generation of leaders. It’s about the hard work that they have put in all year long. For those that didn’t get the ribbon, it’s a chance to know how to make it better the following year.

I love to see the kids when they are doing barn duty, usually two-hour shifts spent watching the animals and mucking out stalls. It’s usually hot, smelly work but it is also a chance for the kids to bond and learn about camaraderie and sharing workloads. It’s also a chance for them to interact with the public and answer questions about their animals and show their knowledge.

Perhaps the most important lesson they can learn is about the modern business world. They keep records to know how much money it has cost to raise their animal all year long. Then, at the fair auction, their exhibit is sold at a premium and, if used wisely, is a good chance for them to create a good nest egg for later on. They learn that hard work pays exactly what you put into it.

It is also about letting go. I would be willing to bet that when every one of these kids got their first show animal, be it a goat, calf, pig, rabbit or anything else, they were given the speech about it is a show animal and they shouldn’t get emotionally attached to it because it will be sold. Yet, when kids spend any time at all with an animal, it quickly becomes a pet. I have seen my grandson on more than one occasion lying on top of his calf or steer and crying his eyes out. Sometimes life’s lessons are hard.

It doesn’t matter if kids are showing an animal, sewing a quilt or giving a presentation, they are learning life skills that will follow them through school, work and all other aspects of society.

We all like to get away from the daily grind of the farm and “go to town” so to speak for one week during the county fair. It’s easy for the real activities and focus to get lost among the commercial exhibits and carnival fun. That’s all right, it’s OK to have fun as long as we don’t lose sight of the real focus of our county fairs which is spotlighting our youth and their accomplishments.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

DON'T MICROMANAGE YOUR GARDEN

Country MoonAt this time of year, the garden is coming into all of its glory. Well, it should. After all, it has been planted (sometimes replanted), fertilized, weeded, watered, sprayed for insects, mites, fungus and more. It has literally been babied so that it will produce.

For all of us folks who love to be in the garden, it is easy to overdo, both physically and garden-wise. Micromanage means to supervise every small step and some of us tend to do this with the garden. We tend to forget that nature provides a balance and sometimes, by trying to help, we do more harm than good.

A case in point is watering. Yes, everything needs water to flourish but not everything needs the same amount. My garden has sandy soil which can wick away moisture in no time. Where heavier ground would be saturated by a heavy rain for a couple days, the same amount of rain will drain through sandy soil in less than a day. So, it does need to be watered more often, but not as a whole. Each plant variety has its own moisture needs.

I learned this lesson the hard way with my peppers. They do like a drink, but not nearly so much as other plants. For years, I watered them every day, especially when they were flowering and making peppers. I was always disappointed when I had hardly any peppers those years. When I learned to let them have their drier soil, they blessed me with numerous fruits.

A few years ago, I literally cooked my tomatoes before I picked them. It was during a hot, steamy stretch of weather and the vines were withered in the middle of the afternoon. Instead of waiting until the cooler evening hours, I watered them in the hot afternoon by spraying water directly onto them. The cold water literally cooked the over-heated foliage and damaged the plants for the rest of the season. Even though they were withered, waiting a few more hours would have been better for them than trying to remedy the situation immediately. I “helped” too much!

The same goes for fertilizer. The first thought is to add nutrients, lots of nutrients, as soon as you can after planting and to keep doing so week after week. Sometimes less is more. Just like when we overeat, we do not do our best and the same is true for plants.

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Also, just like us, not all palettes are the same. We like different foods and so do plants. It is a pain to buy different fertilizer blends but the end result is well worth it. One size doesn’t fit all here.

Micromanaging the garden for me comes into play especially at harvest. It does not matter how much I space out my plantings, it seems that everything is ready at the same time…or so it seems. Take tomatoes, for example. In years past when I would can them, I wanted enough to make a canner full. So, whether it is spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce or just plain tomato juice, I picked the ripe ones and some that were not quite ready yet. Throwing a few partially ripe ones into a batch wouldn't hurt and I would have a full canner. It did affect the flavor. Instead, I could have picked the ripe ones and held them for a couple days until there were more ripe ones to make the canner full. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to ripening fruit for there is nothing that makes it taste better than ripening on the vine.

The same is true for my sweet peppers. Green peppers are exactly that…green peppers that are not quite ripe. When they turn orange or red, they are sweeter and tend to cause less stomach problems in folks who say they cannot eat green peppers. I cannot count the times that I have micromanaged and plucked them green off the vine instead of waiting for nature to take her course.

Much of this micromanaging thing is simply due to enjoying the garden so much. After all, here in the northern climate of Michigan, our gardening season is pretty short. I have this misguided notion that I need to be in the garden every day, even when it is perfectly fine on its own. This is why I plant companion plants that “help” each other to grow better and I also plant certain herbs and flowers that naturally keep predators at bay. So, why don’t I step back and let them work? Sometimes, it takes more patience just to step back and let the garden grow on its own. Some problems we create by having to be in control of everything.

I have always believed in balance and this is as true in the garden as anywhere else. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn to tend to the garden and help nature instead of trying to do it all ourselves. I am trying to take the term “micromanage” out of my vocabulary. Be patient, my garden, this may take a while.

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman







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