Coronavirus constraints make me appreciate self-sufficiency


I’ve always had an independent streak. The pioneer lifestyle has always fascinated me. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century, except if I had then I never would have taken up writing.

Modern editing capability makes writing fun. I have so much respect for anyone who did this before the 80s. The typewriter was the standard tool then, and I’m a lousy typist. I’m even worse at asking someone else to do it for me.

I’m just into self-reliance. I like to fix things and get by with fewer resources. This virus and our response to it has shown me that as a country we have allowed ourselves to be less self-sufficient. Back in the 80s and 90s, CEOs were praised for outsourcing and making their companies and stockholders large sums of money. I thought it was short-sighted then and I feel vindicated now.

We need to be able to make certain essential products here in this country. It’s even better if we can produce many of these goods locally. We can’t afford to be hamstrung by other people who might hate us.

Like most folks, I’ve been to the grocery store recently. Many people are nervous. They must be because certain shelves are bare. For awhile milk, bread, meat and toilet paper were basically nonexistent. Toilet paper and paper towels still are.

I overheard people in the store complaining about the toilet paper shortage, and I wanted to tell them to go to a hardware store or online and order a bidet attachment for their toilet. It would likely cost them less than $50. I haven’t installed one, but I’ve done my research.

As far as food goes, my freezer is full of meat, but most of it didn’t come from the store. My pantry is loaded with home-canned stuff and it’s better than any similar items you can buy in the store. I love homemade bread too. That’s probably part of the reason I’m carrying more weight than I should, that and arthritis.

Social distancing is a buzzword now. Government mandates have forced us to curtail certain activities. Restaurants are now only for take-out orders. Schools are virtual and all assignments and correspondence are completed via computer. It’s certainly not my style but I’m adapting. We all are.

I have a cabin in northeastern Maine. As the crow flies, it’s less than ten miles from the Canadian border. We have no electricity and no running water. Only a hand-dug well and a spout pump keep us from the drudgery of carrying buckets of water.

I love that place. When I’m there I see more eagles than people. In the summer we live on fish chowder and blueberries. When it’s cold, the old wood stove keeps the place warm. I love it, but I think the biggest reason I do is because when I’m there, living without modern conveniences is my choice.

I’m not too keen on government mandates, but I realize we all must comply for the welfare of all during this crisis. I’ll be glad when it’s over, and I can be more in charge of my life.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Some plants control the growth of other plants


Some plant species inhibit the growth of others. We’ve all heard people say that certain plants stop others from growing, but is there a scientific basis for it? There is and it’s called allelopathy.

Allelopathy is when plants release chemicals into the environment that are toxic to other plants. It’s a common way for plants to reduce competition near them. Sometimes chemicals reduce feeding by animals and insects. Allelopathic plants discharge chemicals through their leaves, bark, and roots. Most of the time this has a negative connotation.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a tree famous for its allelopathic properties. Many plants simply will not grow near these trees. This has been known for centuries. Most plants in the potato, rose (except for cherries) and cabbage families are sensitive to black walnut allelopathy. Numerous others are too. However, many vegetables like beets, carrots, melons, squash, onions and beans show no effect from the chemical juglone, produced by the black walnut tree.

Plants are naturally competitive, allelopathic or not. The idea that plants work together is not true. Many home gardeners constantly search for a way to make their tomatoes grow better. They read articles that tell them which plants to plant near tomatoes and which ones to keep away.

Allelopathy could enter the equation some, but much of the reason their plants are successful or not depends on the direct competition for water and nutrients. Attracting or repelling certain pests could be reasons, too.

Many folks struggle with growing tomatoes near cabbages. This could be allelopathic or it could be an example of cabbages drawing insect pests, then outcompeting the tomatoes once the pests were present. It’s not clear whether tomatoes not thriving is because of true allelopathy or another environmental factor.

Plants recommended to plant near tomatoes are basil, garlic and parsley. Garlic supposedly helps repel red spider mites and it also inhibits the growth of the late blight fungus. Basil acts as a general insect repellant. Parsley attracts predatory insects that eat tomato hornworms.

An old-time favorite to plant near tomatoes is the marigold (Tagetes sp.). Marigolds supposedly produce a chemical in their roots that suppresses the root-knot nematode. Marigolds also repel several insects and often it’s insects that transmit viruses and other diseases that destroy tomatoes.

Sometimes plants lose vigor because they have no mycorrhizal fungi on their roots. Mycorrhizae are fungal roots (hyphae)that attach to plant roots and siphon off sugars in exchange for providing plants better mineral nutrient uptake. Some allelopathic chemicals destroy these mycorrhizal fungi. Without this root association, many plants struggle.

In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming was researching a possible cure for the influenza virus. What he found instead was that a bread mold produced chemicals that killed bacteria that grew next to it.

Penicillin was the first and even now one of the most widespread antibiotics in use. It’s a classic example of allelopathy, and it has turned out to be a pretty good thing for nearly a hundred years. Therefore, allelopathy is not always bad.

This black walnut tree suppresses many plants but not all

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Planning your home garden can be complicated


Designing a productive and aesthetically pleasing garden can be complicated. Doing it correctly involves more than placing a seed in the ground, watering it and watching a corn plant come up. We must determine what our goals are.

If you want a vegetable garden and you live in town, aesthetics is key. Traditional vegetable gardens aren’t exactly designed to be ornamental. However, we can choose plants that are dual-purpose and don’t sprawl out of control. Even plants that do can be contained effectively and look pretty at the same time.

Take cucumbers for example. Growing them on a fence keeps the vines confined and out of our yard. It also makes fruits easier to harvest.

Some crops like corn and peas take up huge amounts of space. They might not be the best choice for folks possessing small yards. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and many herbs might be the best choice for those situations.

If having a pretty garden is essential, incorporating flowers along with the vegetables can be effective. There are also plants that can help control garden pests. I’ll leave that for another time.

Some of our garden plants are perennials. Strawberries and asparagus are good examples. This can pose a problem unless we plant them separately from our annual vegetables. Perennials should be in an area that is not intended to be tilled up every year.

Light is another consideration. It’s helpful if tall plants are planted toward the north side of the garden. That way they don’t shade shorter crops.

All garden plants can’t be planted at the same time either. Soil temperature is very critical. Okra and melons shouldn’t be planted until soil temperatures are well into the 60s. This won’t happen until the ground dries up and all danger of frost has passed. Cabbage, broccoli, celery, carrots and most greens can be planted now if the ground is dry enough to work. May peas should probably have been planted by now.

It’s also helpful to plan the garden so that it can be sequentially planted. In other words, it’s nice if all the warm-season crops are planted together so that we’re not constantly tromping around and risking damaging plants that are already growing.

Some plants in the garden can be directly seeded and some must be grown from transplants for maximum efficiency. Generally, tomatoes, peppers and okra should be started from transplants. Corn, beans, beets, spinach, carrots and radishes are grown from seed.

Another important factor to consider is how pests and diseases will affect our garden over a long time. We need to rotate our crops and not plant them in the same spot year after year. Insects and diseases are often species-specific and will build up in the soil. I realize that this might violate our tall and short plant rule, but sometimes sacrifices must be made.

Gardening is fun, and most of the rules aren’t hard fast. However, it’s helpful to plan. I think it’s always important to think ahead and manage the space effectively.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Pencil cactus is an interesting but poisonous houseplant


I get a lot of questions about poisonous plants. Many species, both interior, and exterior can contain poisonous chemicals. Most aren’t a major concern. In fact, many of our common houseplants are considered poisonous, but they are found everywhere. Often, we see them in public places frequented by pets or small children.

Poinsettias are common Christmas decorations, and they have poisonous latex in them. If we get this latex on our hands and then rub our eyes, we’ll be sorry. However, the same can be said for touching habanero peppers.

Elderberries are quite poisonous prior to ripening. In large quantities, nutmeg can cause dizziness, drowsiness and seizures. Apple seeds and cherry pits contain cyanide compounds. Potatoes exposed to light contain glycoalkaloids. These can even cause death. Raw cashews contain the same compound found in poison ivy.

Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) is a poinsettia relative. It has a reputation for being extremely poisonous. I’ve even had folks ask me why we have it in our greenhouses. The answer is simple. We keep poisonous cleansers under our sinks. Who worries about that? We even eat foods containing poisonous components like the ones already mentioned.

I wouldn’t place pencil cacti around unsupervised toddlers or puppies, but they are an attractive and intriguing houseplant for well-lit places. The white latex is the only toxic part, and these plants have no thorns.

They’re great in succulent dish gardens, but after a year or two, they often must be separated and planted by themselves. Eventually, they can become large. I’ve seen these Euphorbias well over six feet tall indoors.

Pencil cacti require very little maintenance and they can be pruned without causing harm to the plant. The white sap can be a skin irritant to some. It will cause severe eye problems for most people.

People allergic to latex are especially susceptible to eye irritations, and in some cases have even gone temporarily blind. Corneas can be totally burned out. I wouldn’t recommend people with latex allergies keeping this plant or others containing latex. Otherwise, washing with soap and warm water immediately after handling will remove the toxins and avoid any problems.

Pencil cacti are also toxic to pets. The sap can cause irritation to the mouth and digestive system, but generally, toxicity is overrated. Many other plants like daffodils are potentially a greater concern for pets. Oleander, Aloe vera, castor beans and tomato foliage are common plants that can be problematic for canines.

Ingesting the sap from pencil cactus is not common. Numerous articles warn us that it’s toxic, but the sap is so bitter I doubt even the most curious toddler could tolerate swallowing enough to be life-threatening.

Dumbcane is another houseplant often touted as extremely toxic. It contains calcium oxalate crystals, which cause burning and tongue paralysis. Symptoms are mild and temporary, and I suspect children and pets wouldn’t consume enough to hurt them.

We have houseplants for decoration, and pencil cacti make striking contrasts to our other plants. Furthermore, any plants with latex are likely to cause skin and eye irritations. Keep that in mind.

This young pencil cactus is thriving in the greenhouse.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Apple cider vinegar has a big following for many reasons


Popup adds online, infomercials, junk emails and many other sources bestow the wonders of apple cider vinegar. Obesity, diabetes, heart problems, skin and hair maladies are just a few of the issues apple cider vinegar use is claimed to combat.

A friend of my dad’s was a serious canoe racer. Years ago, he came up with this concoction that must have been mostly vinegar. At least that’s what it tasted like. It was supposed to suppress thirst, and it certainly did that. If that was all we had to drink, there was no way I’d admit I was thirsty.

On the other hand, my wife had an aunt that loved to drink vinegar. When they made pickles, her parents couldn’t send her to the store after it. One time they did and the bottle was half empty by the time she got home. I guess some folks don’t mind the taste.

Many people must not object to imbibing this acidic liquid too much. Apple cider vinegar is a major component of a diet that promotes weight loss and lowered blood sugar. Acetic acid can delay the digestion of starch, and this can lower blood sugar spikes.

Vinegar also can cause nausea. That would reduce appetite and might limit food moving through the digestive system. I don’t know if that’s a great way to reduce weight or blood sugar.

One thing is certain concerning high doses of apple cider vinegar. The pH of the digestive system will be lowered somewhat. This will contribute to lower potassium absorption. Calcium loss from teeth and bones is also possible.

Some folks use vinegar topically instead of consuming it. Bathwater containing apple cider vinegar is supposed to clear up skin problems and fight dandruff. I’ve also read claims of its ability to cure athlete’s foot. The primary reason is that along with acetic acid it also contains antimicrobial compounds.

Personally, I think there are far more effective antimicrobial materials out there. I also don’t particularly wish to smell like vinegar. That wouldn’t be fair to my wife.

I think one of the biggest reasons apple cider vinegar treatments have become popular is that the substance is cheap. A gallon jug of the generic stuff costs less than five dollars. Even if the material doesn’t work, you’re not out that much money.

My favorite use of apple cider vinegar is as a base in a good marinade. It’s a great meat tenderizer.

In hot weather, it’s often difficult to cool freshly killed venison. I always add vinegar to an ice slurry in a cooler to cool game when temperatures are high. It works great and doesn’t impart flavor to the meat when cooked.

I’m astonished at the many fad uses for apple cider vinegar. I guess I’m just skeptical and I’m no medical doctor. Many foods such as pickles contain significant quantities of acetic acid. It’s certainly not poisonous, at least in moderate quantities. However, I would suggest before embarking on a full-fledged apple cider vinegar program you should consult your medical professional.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Essential oils show promise and problems


As much as we sometimes resist change, there often is an urge to try something new. This is especially true when it comes to our health. Many folks never seem to worry about any complications from herbal treatments. However, they often are skeptical about many pharmaceutical drugs and the companies that produce them.

I’m not saying that’s bad. Being skeptical is good. It should make you try to learn more.

Essential oils are chemicals extracted from plants that give them their aroma. We often associate essential oils with plants from the mint family. Quite often we’re correct. What likely gives our spices their aroma and taste is contained in their essential oils.

These chemicals can be extracted by many different methods. Sometimes these compounds are synthesized artificially. If they are, they would not be considered true essential oils.

For years, wintergreen flavor used in foods was extracted from the wintergreen plant and from sweet birch. I’ve always liked sweet birch tea, and whenever I’m in an area where these trees grow, I usually collect some bark. It’s great to chew too, and it makes your breath smell and taste like wintergreen.

I think now most of the methyl salicylate is artificially produced. We often think that if these chemicals come from plants considered edible that they should be safe in any quantity or concentration. This is a dangerous assumption. Concentrated oils from any source can be toxic to people and pets.

I’m not saying that extracting essential oils from plants is dangerous. Many benefits await, but we must understand that most compounds in high concentrations can have harmful effects. Furthermore, all people don’t react to these chemicals the same just like all folks aren’t susceptible to dermatitis from poison ivy. It is caused by a plant oil called urushiol. Technically it is an essential oil, but it has no aroma.

Essential oils can be applied to the skin to treat various maladies. The biggest concern here is their concentration. They must be diluted. Always follow recommendations and consult with your medical professional.

Aromatherapy is relatively new mainstream science, but it has been practiced for centuries. Essential oils often have antimicrobial properties. When inhaled they can help cleanse our respiratory system.

Essential oils also can enter our cells and travel to our brain, which can affect all our body systems, hopefully positively. In short, these essential oils can improve our mood and make us feel better. This often translates into greater physical wellness.

Another thing to consider when using essential oils is our pets. It’s less concern to outside dogs and cats, but for inside animals, we must think about how essential oil use might affect their health.

Cinnamon, wintergreen, citrus, pine and peppermint oils are often a problem for dogs and cats. Common toxicity symptoms are difficulty breathing, weakness, fatigue, drooling and vomiting. Pets are like small children in that they’re more likely to get these substances on their skin or even ingest them.

Essential oils are medicines. We must use them wisely and be as informed as possible.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Beets are all the rage right now


Lately, many health enthusiasts are touting beets as an important health food. Some even call them a superfood. Whenever the superfood label is thrown around, we can assume there must be a barrage of supplements to choose from. That assumption is not wrong.

Numerous companies have formulated preparations from beetroots. Claims are so positive and wide-ranging that they almost seem too good to be true.

Beets are rich in natural nitrates, which in the body readily convert to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is important for vasodilation. That means our blood vessels stretch and that makes blood flow through them easier. This contributes to lower blood pressure. How much might be debatable.

Increased blood flow also could contribute to an increased oxygen supply. This means more efficient metabolism and more endurance. This translates to better athletic performance.

If increased beet consumption does increase blood flow, there are many other benefits we could derive. Our brain uses large supplies of oxygen for example. Who wouldn’t benefit from a more efficient brain?

As a rule of thumb, most brightly colored fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of antioxidants. These are chemicals that protect our cells. Beets are no exception.

Personally, I’m somewhat leery of highly refined supplements, but I laud the use of eating the raw product. In the case of beets, they contain high fiber in relatively few calories. The only concern I have is that they are fairly high in oxalates. People who develop kidney stones might wish to consult their medical professionals before going on a high beet diet.

Beet greens are even higher in fiber and lower in sugar than the roots are. I’m a lover of many wild greens, but of the cultivated types, beets are my favorite, followed by swiss chard and spinach.

My biggest concern about consuming large amounts of these greens might be directed toward those on blood thinners. All are rich sources of vitamin K, which aids in blood clotting. I doubt it’s a big deal for most folks, but it’s something to discuss with your doctor.

My theory is that if eating the real vegetable is good, then growing your own is even better. Beets are easy to grow around here, and they also store well. They grow best in cooler weather, so we can raise them in the spring and again in the fall.

Fall production is great because we can store them in the ground during winter and eat them whenever we want. Freezing temperatures make the roots even sweeter. In northern climates, the roots degrade during winter.

Beets grow best in moist well-drained slightly acid soils. When soils are too sandy, they can be deficient in boron. Boron is necessary for proper root development, so growing beets on sandy ground might require a little added boron. A little trace mineral fertilizer or a small amount of borax added to the soil can help. Don’t overdo it, because too much is toxic to plants.

Growing your own vegetables is fun and easy. The exercise can help you too. It’s a win-win situation.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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