It’s time to get dirty.
The growing season in New Hampshire doesn’t last long, so now’s the time to get to work on creating the outdoor space of your dreams. Maybe that means flowers and a green lawn, or maybe your goal is a harvest to keep you in tomato sauce and zucchini bread all winter long. Whatever your plans, the yard and at least four months of relatively warmer weather await.
Here are some stories to get you started. We give you some advice from the experts about organic gardening and getting rid of garden pests. And we look at community gardening — where apartment-dwellers, gardeners who like some company and those with poor soil can turn to get their hands dirty. And we also look at some of the mental benefits of putting shovel to ground as well as places to turn for some gardening fellowship and further study.
Pull out the gloves and the wide-brimmed hat and spend some hours playing in the dirt.
Share the garden
Keep pests out by bringing wildlife in
By Jeff Mucciarone
If you like snacking on the fresh produce popping out of the earth in your home garden, there’s a good chance critters will too.
While your initial reaction is probably to try to keep critters out of the garden, there are also ways to let some critters in for the benefit of the whole backyard habitat. But you’ll probably need to take some steps to prevent deer or woodchucks from munching a little too freely on your green beans.
Marilyn Wyzga, a wildlife educator with the state Department of Fish and Game, promotes building a garden in the context of wildlife — enhancing both the garden and the presence of local animals. Rob Calvert, with Fish and Game Wildlife Services, has some ideas for keeping unwanted animals on the outside looking in.
People should expect to see plenty of wildlife in the backyard: insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some small mammals are probably already making the back yard home. The key is putting the focus on beneficial insects — that drives the equation. As nectar feeders, honey bees, butterflies, moths and (though not an insect) hummingbirds serve to pollinate the garden, said Wyzga, who co-authored a book titled Integrated Landscaping: Following Nature’s Lead.
“If you want a healthy vegetable garden, with all parts of the system intact ... you’ve got to anticipate some things are going to be eaten a little bit,” Wyzga said. “Shift the mindset to sharing with wildlife, a little bit for you, a little for me, then we all benefit.”
Think about interspersing some flowers, such as impatiens, nasturtium and marigolds. The bright flowers — and particularly nasturtium, which has extremely bright colors — draw in hummingbirds, which only benefit the backyard habitat, Wyzga said.
Gardeners can mix the flowers right in with vegetables. Sunflowers are a nice addition to a vegetable garden, both as a nectar plant and as a seed source later in the season. So while the flowers add a pleasing visual touch to the vegetable garden, they also tend to bring in beneficial insects that help the garden, Wyzga said.
“When you’ve got more insects, a diversity of insects, insectivorous birds, birds that eat bugs, come in and feed on the bugs,” Wyzga said. “It influences the whole food web.”
A diversity of insects brings in all different kinds of swallows, warblers and flycatchers.
Gardeners can also think about adding flowering herbs to the mix, such as marjoram, different mints, dill or parsley. Herbs are appealing for the chef, for the flowers and for caterpillars, moths and butterflies, which feed on the herbs.
“A lot like to see butterflies up close, but you need to have caterpillars first,” Wyzga said. “I always tell people in my wildlife habitat talks, if you want butterflies, you’ve got to anticipate some of the plant materials are going to get eaten. Plant enough and know some are going to get chewed on. It’s all part of the mix.”
A healthy food web in the back yard also draws in reptiles and amphibians, such as toads. Those animals, which prefer moist areas, prey on different insects as well.
“They’re great to have in a vegetable garden,” Wyzga said, adding many will munch on the not-so-beneficial insects that might make their way into the garden. Having more moisture is a good thing for more than just amphibians. Butterflies like to puddle in the mud as well.
Alongside the vegetable garden could be a good place to provide more habitat for backyard birds, which like dense shrubs. Wyzga said to think in layers. Start with ground cover, and then perennials, particularly ones with bright red flowers, which are appealing to hummingbirds in particular. Try out a bee balm, which also comes in red.
Asters, columbine and different types of grasses are solid options for creating a diverse habitat. Grasses seed in the fall and become a food source for wildlife. A mixture of low and tall shrubs and smaller trees can help create a nice variety, Wyzga said.
Make sure to consider a water source, which could be as simple as a bird bath. Keep the bird bath clean and make sure to switch out the water often enough so you’re not breeding mosquitoes. People use plastic water jugs with a hole poked into it to constantly drip water into the bird bath, Wyzga said.
You can step up from a bird bath to a small pond with a circulation pump that can be purchased at a Home Depot-type store. Fish and Game has a 1,000-gallon two-tier circulation pond complete with five different species of frogs. On a smaller scale, a home gardener can purchase an entire system for a pond with a plastic shell, including a circulation pump, for less than $100. Ponds draw in different kinds of aquatic insects, which naturally draw in more insect-eating birds, Wyzga said.
And don’t worry about keeping things too, too neat.
“We have a tendency with gardens where we want to be really tidy,” Wyzga said. “I encourage people to leave some of the leaf litter on the ground. It’s doing a couple things. They’re protecting the soil, so it’s not blowing or washing away. It also breaks down and becomes soil. It’s also a great place for insects to hang out.
“And then the waves of migrating birds that come through ... as they’re passing through New Hampshire, they’ll land in the garden and they’ll kick around in the leaf litter to eat wintering insects and larvae. They help to clean up the garden a little bit. They may be removing some of the less beneficial insects.”
Not all animals are welcome additions to the backyard habitat if a successful garden is in your plans. Woodchucks, rabbits, raccoons and squirrels can all snack on garden offerings. But Wyzga said those animals tend to already be present in the back yard for other behaviors people have — for example, raccoons are attracted to trash cans. Bird feeders, which ideally would be put away by now, attract squirrels and chipmunks. Bears are out now and feeders attract them as well.
“The bottom line is once you start playing with the food web, you’re going to be inviting things — you don’t necessarily get to decide who’s there,” Wyzga said. “You might be influencing some other species. Chances are they were there anyway and you just hadn’t been aware of them.”
If your back yard is home to lots of small mammals, then there are probably other critters, like weasels, that are present preying on the small mammals.
“You’re always going to get the wildlife you deserve,” Calvert said. “When you plant a garden it’s like Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. You probably need to be aware as soon as you put something in the ground and spread fertilizer and make it more palatable than the native vegetation, you’re going to have some visitors.”
There’s plenty home gardeners can do to keep some animals out of the garden.
Deer and woodchucks are attracted to greens of all kinds, as well as cucumbers, pumpkins and squash. Anyone whose garden has fallen victim to a deer feast knows deer can do serious damage in a night. Some people use sulfur-based repellants to deter deer. Some of those repellants are best used as a perimeter application as you wouldn’t want the repellant contacting fruits or vegetables, Calvert said.
Repellants are helpful in reducing damage, but they’re unlikely to stop it completely. That’s where fences and barrier technology come into play, Calvert said.
People can purchase a variety of fences to keep woodchucks and raccoons out. Stock wire or a chicken-wire-style grid can prevent animals from getting in beneath a fence. It helps to bury the fence a foot or so beneath the ground. Coyotes keep woodchuck populations down. A good dog might do the trick as well, Calvert said.
People also use Mylar tape, which is a silver and red double-sided tape that will flash with the slightest breeze. Those types of reflective measures can keep animals off guard and possibly away from your garden, Calvert said.
A product called a Critter Gitter uses a nine-volt battery with a heat sensor to sound an alarm when an animal triggers its sensor. That can be used as a stand-alone measure or in combination with something else, Calvert said.
For deer, gardeners might want to think about setting up a homemade electric fence — a 20- to 30-inch-high fence with two strands of “hot” tape (electrified tape) in combination with stainless steel posts. Gardeners can hang aluminum foil off the tape with peanut butter smeared on as bait. When the curious deer comes over to investigate, its first encounter with the fence will be rather painful psychologically. For gardeners going the electric fence route, it’s important to always keep the fence on, Calvert said.
“If they ever get into it when it’s not on, then you’ve lost the element of a painful response,” Calvert said.
People sometimes immediately think chain-link fencing and expensive components when it comes to fencing. Posts cost $2 to $3 each, and a roll of hot tape costs about $20 or so. The heart of the system is what drives it. Calvert said people can buy chargers to be plugged in for about $60 that must be kept on all the time. For about $150, gardeners can pick up a solar charger that uses the sun to create a charge.
“It really is a depreciable component system that lasts a number of years. If you value your time and your hobby efforts, it’s a good investment,” Calvert said.
Along with fencing, people often try to live-trap woodchucks, which can work, but once the garden gets under way it might be difficult to entice a woodchuck with something in a trap when it’s got a fresh spread of produce in the garden. Try putting carrots, apples, lettuce or broccoli in some water in the trap to keep them fresh, Calvert said.
There isn’t much of an issue with eastern cottontail rabbits in New Hampshire, aside from some specific locations. The same methods of control for woodchucks would work for rabbits, as well as skunks and raccoons. Skunks and raccoons enjoy sweet corn, and Calvert said the state is getting more incidents of Virginia possums getting into gardens.
Deer are a protected species, so gardeners can’t start firing away on them. Woodchucks, on the other hand, are not protected. Some people, if they can locate both ends of a woodchuck’s burrow, will use gas cartridges to eliminate the problem. If it’s safe and if local permits allow, people can use firearms to stifle a woodchuck population. Calvert said people often use a .22 caliber rifle to shoot woodchucks.
But fences may be a safer and easier alternative, Calvert said.
“A lot of people have a Wild West mentality where they want to shoot everything that’s in the back yard, but that’s not always the best case,” Calvert said.
Garden for good health
Getting outside can help you on the inside
By Adam Coughlin
Thirteen years ago, Donna Covais lost her vision. Discouraged, she closed her Raymond flower shop and prepared for a life without gardening. But, after meeting her husband and moving to Vermont, Covais rediscovered the power of horticultural therapy and she has dedicated her life to sharing its benefits.
She is not alone. Gardening as therapy is gaining traction both formally and informally around the state.
“Gardening connects you with nature,” said Gail York of the Manchester NH Gardening Club. “It encourages you to spend time outside. When you were a kid you would go out and play in the dirt. Gardening is the grown-up version of that.”
Maddy Perron, who has been a Master Gardener since 1993, is involved with the Horticulture Therapy program at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home. Horticulture Therapy is defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) as “the engagement of a person in gardening activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals.” Perron said for many seniors, working with the tiny seedlings makes them feel like they’re taking care of babies, which, for many of them, was a major part of their lives when they were younger.
“Now tending to these small plants can be rewarding as well as self-fulfilling and can give [a resident] a sense of worth,” Perron told a group of Master Gardeners. “The residents are now the caregivers and have a new role to play.”
There are many additional emotional and psychological benefits of gardening, according to Covais. She said working with plants can heighten self-awareness and improve hopefulness. “Elderly people in a nursing home can know they are doing something meaningful,” Covais said. “They aren’t just doing busy work. That also helps cure boredom. Working with the plants can also improve fine and gross motor skills.”
And then there’s the final product: fresh vegetables, lovely flowers or herbs.
“With gardening you get to see the fruits of your labor,” said York. “You get to enjoy the beauty of what you have planted.”
You can also sell the product, which helps with that sense of meaning, according to Covais, who studied Horticulture at the University of New Hampshire. Such sales are happening Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30, at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home, 627-5540, and on Saturday, May 14, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Nashua Historic Society.
Joan Bonnette, president of the Nashua Gardening Club, citing research done by Dr. Charlie Hall, a professor at Texas A&M University, said the presence of ornamental plants is known to increase memory retention, relieve tension and improve moods.
Even in the winter, house plants can be placed around the home; York said some are known to take pollutants out of the air.
Bonnette mentioned a study done in the late 1960s by Bill Wolverton for NASA. While heading a test facility in Florida, Wolverton discovered that swamp plants could eliminate Agent Orange, which had entered local watersheds as a result of government testing. While most people don’t have Agent Orange in their homes or work place, they do have other pollutants or toxins. Bonnette said some foliage plants have been found to help take toxins out of the air.
Not everyone has access to large spaces for an outdoor garden. But gardening has great flexibility. York said a recent speaker for the Garden Club talked about container gardening, which is helpful for people in a city or in a nursing home. In this practice, people can plant vegetables in a container.
At the Hillsborough Nursing Home, Perron said, the gardens are composed of raised beds, a variety of plants to hold interest, and signage to help ID plants and engage cognitive and verbal skills. “These gardens become areas to socialize with family, friends and staff,” Perron said.
This last comment brings up another point about gardening: it is a great social activity. York said the Manchester NH Garden Club is always welcoming new members and almost every town in southern New Hampshire has a group of people who get together and talk about their shared love of gardening.
“You don’t need to be a great gardener to join,” York said.
Besides flowers and vegetables, herb gardens are often popular, especially among the elderly.
“Each individual herb and its specific aroma and taste conjures up past experiences in cooking and gardening,” Perron said in remarks to a group of Master Gardeners. “Recalling past meal preparations and socializing with family and friends can be a nostalgic experience for some.”
That’s the thing about gardening, according to Covais. It engages all the senses. The sight of red roses. The smell of fresh herbs. The taste of organic tomatos. The feel of the dirt in your hands. The sounds of friends chatting as they plant seeds. Even a completely disabled person can still enjoy the smells of fresh herbs.
“As we age our senses start to fade,” Perron said. “...Herbs can liven up the senses.”
These benefits are not limited to the elderly. York said she brings marigold seeds to the preschool she works at. Bonnette said studies have found that children who are exposed to plants often learn better.
Covais, who now works with Starr Farm Nursing Center in Burlington, Vt., said plants can even be used in schools to help illustrate to kids what happens to plants if you neglect or abuse them. Such visuals can help kids with eating disorders understand the damage they are doing to their bodies.
“Gardening can affect every age in a positive way,” York said.
Dirt for everybody
Get your green fix in a community garden
By Angel Roy
Communities are offering soil plots to residents who want to grow their own food and flowers but have too little land of their own.
“I believe everyone should have an opportunity to garden,” said Amy O’Brien, administrator of the Hopkinton Community Garden. In addition to producing healthy food, O’Brien noted that planting your own produce will keep a little money in your pocket during the summer.
The Hopkinton Community Garden is made up of 20 25-foot by 25-foot plots (only a handful are not spoken for this season) on the property of Bill Chapin, a resident who decided to allow the use of the land in memory of his late wife, an avid gardener. Chapin also donated a spigot gardeners can use to water their plots. Gardeners must pay $15 to secure a plot for the season, but O’Brien said an anonymous donor has offered to take on the cost.
Gardeners must wait until the land is dry to start prepping and planting in their plots and are usually found in their gardens from mid-May to mid-October, O’Brien said.
The community garden was created in Hopkinton three years ago, after O’Brien’s suggestion of one to her selectman husband was passed along to Greener Hopkinton, a town committee, which was happy to support the project. “It has just kind of grown from there,” O’Brien said.
Each year at the Hopkinton garden gets better, O’Brien said. The garden was moved to a new space on the property last year because the previous year it was established in what O’Brien called “the wrong spot,” resulting in some plots’ falling victim to standing water. This year the garden has been limed and manured to improve soil conditions and a listserv has been created for the gardeners.
O’Brien and her husband grow greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and green beans in their garden. Her four young children participate, bringing over water before running off to play in the field.
At the Hopkinton garden, gardeners are required to keep the borders of their plots trampled, to create a path and to eliminate weeds.
“They need to show activity and that they are making progress toward planting and maintaining the plot, not just having it go to weeds,” O’Brien said.
The garden, she added, is strictly for organic use.
“We wouldn’t want to go into someone else’s land with chemical fertilizer … we feel it is just a respectful thing to do,” O’Brien said.
The Derry community garden at Broadview Farms on Young Road, a town conservation area, will likely be plowed and composted by Memorial Day weekend, which Conservation Commission member Peg Kinsella said works because gardeners need to wait to plant until they are without danger of frost. Gardeners are expected to have their plots cleared by Nov. 1. Extending the garden into late fall allows for squash and late crops to continue growing, Kinsella said.
Derry has had a community garden for 10 years and participation has grown over the last five, Kinsella said, attributing the increase to word of mouth. The garden is organized into 41 10-foot by 20-foot plots. A manual pump sits on the edge of the property to be used for watering. Only five plots remain available for this season.
Kinsella added that the increase in the garden’s popularity may have stemmed from the eat-local movement and even the fact that First Lady Michelle Obama made it a point to start a garden at the White House.
“There is a lot of interest in growing your own food lately,” she said.
Gardener Scott Morrison said he has also noticed an increase in participation at the Concord Community Garden.
“I think the other thing, too, is a couple years ago when food prices spiking, some people just wanted to amend that,” he said.
Weed control is a top priority at the Derry garden, Kinsella said.
“When weeds from one plot blow into another plot, it’s not fair to the gardeners,” she said.
It is also suggested that gardeners put up fences around their plots to keep wildlife, such as woodchucks or deer, from eating their produce.
Mainly vegetables are grown on the farm, but Kinsella said many gardeners plant flowers to keep insects away, or “just because they love them and may not have a place to plant them at home.” Morrison grows beneficial flowers that attract bugs, distracting them from the produce in his Concord plot. One flower in particular, nasturtium, is great at keeping bugs from squash, he said.
State Forester Oscar Johnson, overseer of the Concord Community Garden on Birch Street, which is more than 35 years old, said plots at the seven-acre state-run community garden range from 25 by 50 feet to 50 by 100 feet. The garden has a waiting list of 18 interested gardeners.
Gardeners in Concord are responsible for manuring and liming their own plots, and nothing is done by the state to prep the soil, Morrison said.
“You get the plot as is,” he said. “It is up to you to determine what goes on it.”
Morrison and his wife got involved with the city’s community garden six years ago. The couple has a side garden at their home for growing vegetables in the summer, but they wanted to use the community garden to grow winter vegetables to stock their root cellar. The pair now tends to two side-by-side 50-foot by 100-foot plots. “We make a good team,” Morrison said. “I do the grunt work, the major shoveling, raking and weeding, she does the planting and watering.” Morrison said during the gardening season he and his wife tend to their plots one night a week and for several hours over the weekend.
“It’s good exercise and we love being outside — both my wife and I are from the Midwest and went to college in a farming community, so we have pretty deep roots in gardening,” Morrison said, adding that they enjoy being able to grow their own food, using their own produce to make salads in the summer and eating cornbread made with their late-season corn year-round.
Morrison noted gardening as very rewarding work “especially when you’ve grown something and you’ve harvested it and you eat it.”
“There really is a difference between store-bought food and food you grew yourself,” Morrison said.
The case for organic
Options for going pesticide-free
By Tori Loubier
On almost any given evening, Ron Christie, 55, can step out of his Brookline home onto his ¾-acre farm and have an abundance of leafy greens to choose for dinner. Spinach, lettuce, arugula, mustard greens, kale and Swiss chard are among his choices, plus, depending on the season, a selection of carrots, tomatoes, squashes, green beans, cucumbers and more. Best of all, his crops are entirely organic.
Christie, a Master Gardener Coordinator for Rockingham County through the UNH Cooperative Extension, and organizations like the UNH Coop and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of NH (NOFA-NH), are consistently offering events, educational opportunities and access to local organic spots to promote growing, planting, buying and eating organic.
What is organic?
Generally, organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives.
“The word ‘organic’ can be confusing and is probably used in a misleading manner for the sake of marketing,” said Jen Quinlivan, NOFA-NH bulk order coordinator and Winter Conference media coordinator. Quinlivan references the dictionary, which states that “organic” means ultimately of biological origin. “Organic labeling is a tricky issue. Just because something is labeled organic or natural, [I say] buyer beware. Ask questions,” Quinlivan said. “To be a certified organic producer entails following a specific set of guidelines on the state and national levels.”
Organic farming and gardening have grown significantly in the past 10 years, according to both Christie and Quinlivan. Christie said his farm, Living Earth, began with a 30x30-foot area and has doubled every year since then.
Your own organic
Your path to organic growing can start with something as small as a single plant.
Christie suggests you begin by studying the topic, taking advantage of local resources like the UNH Coop and related websits. “The more you know the better and greater chance of success,” he said.
“The second thing is to know your soil,” Christie said. “Get a soil test. So many skip that step and that’s the first thing you need to do.” A soil test tells you how much organic matter is already in your soil, as well as what its texture is, and how much sand, silt, clay and nutrients are in it. According to Christie, those who want a soil test can go online, read instructions, send two cups of soil to the Coop and have results back in three weeks. “Without pesticides ... I have to be preventative,” Christie said. “Knowing your soil beforehand helps with that.”
“Usually people don’t jump from full-on pesticide-laden practices to fully organic. [Instead,] they are looking for transitioning from chemical fertilizers and pesticides to organic/natural ones. Start a compost pile, use locally sourced composted manures or fish or kelp liquid fertilizers ... those are a nice organic jumping point,” Quinlivan said, adding that NOFA-NH offers bulk ordering twice a year for those wanting to buy soil amendments, organic pesticides, potting soil and other supplies.
“Something to consider is giving up the battle with lawn weeds like dandelions, which are actually a valuable edible and medicinal herb. Lawn chemicals can run off into the garden and can be generally detrimental to children and pets who play on the lawn,” she said.