People, towns, businesses, farms and gardens all grow in Michigan soil.

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Wash Your Counters Like You Wash Your Hands

I recently read an article from MSU Extension about using a “clean break” when harvesting and preparing produce for market. You can read it at

Briefly, the article says the grower should rinse off loose dirt from any surface that will hold produce, then wash the surface with soap and water, then rinse off all the soap and water, and finally sanitize the surface. All of this is done prior to placing any produce on the surface. This preparation creates a clean break which is documented by the grower to provide traceability if there is a problem, such as people getting sick, that could lead to a recall.

I started thinking about what happens in my kitchen. I empty the bags from the grocery store onto my counter. That means the bottoms of the grocery bag, boxes and cans, plastic bags and containers with the produce, and some produce have touched the counter. There is certainly some transfer of whatever my groceries and counters have come in contact with.

Should I be rinsing off cans before they go into the pantry? I certainly can’t rinse off cardboard boxes. If I put a less-than-clean plastic bag or container of lettuce or carrots in the crisper drawer, might people become sick?

There are some fresh foods we are told not to clean before refrigerating them, like soft berries. Should I be putting the unwashed food into a container I have washed before putting it in the frig?

If I’m freezing meat, should I just put the wrapped meat in the freezer? Should I wrap the already wrapped meat with another layer? Should I unwrap the meat and then rewrap it in foil, or plastic, or both?

Am I obsessing?

I try to meet myself in the middle. I wash fresh fruit that isn’t berries and put them in a bowl, either in the frig or on the counter. The bowl signifies the fruit is ready to eat. I put berries into another container that I know is clean. I rinse the soil off the vegetables grown in my little backyard garden but the store-bought ones are usually tossed into the crisper drawer as is; my shame. I do clean them well before cooking or serving raw. I always re-wash the “pre-washed, organic lettuce” just because. I wrap the meat still in its original package in more plastic before putting it in the freezer. I open the package of meat I want to freeze in smaller serving sizes and then wrap that in plastic that goes into a freezer bag; maybe a bit overly zealous.

That article made some very good points. So, now I plan to wash out the frig, shelves and drawers and sides, on a more regular basis. And I plan to use baking soda on a clean, damp sponge rather than just a damp sponge to do the cleaning. And I plan to put all the kitchen sponges in the dishwasher every time I run a load of dishes.

The biggest change is how I will treat the counters. They need to be wiped down every time I use them, with a soapy sponge, and then rinsed, thoroughly. Before and after I put fresh food or a cutting board on the counter, I will use a disinfectant. My counters are stone, so I spray the surface with rubbing alcohol diluted with water and then wipe it dry with a clean towel.

And I remember another article, from years ago, that said the underside edge of the counter is seldom, if ever, cleaned and is filthy. Okay, that gets cleaned, too. May we all be comfortable with our compulsions.

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Autumn as Prelude

It’s time to get ready for winter. The days are still mild enough to enjoy being outside and there is a lot to take care of. My list stays the same from year to year. Keep the grass mowed. Rake the leaves. Caulk around windows and doors. Get the snow thrower and shovels ready. Put the storm windows in place. Get out the warm coats, boots, hats, gloves, and scarves. Put the window scrapers in the car.

Here in Jackson at the Cascades Park, I’ve been watching the geese get ready for travel. They are training in formation flying and the frequency and volume of their comm checks is easy to hear. The ducks are more mellow, but they will also leave soon for places warmer and snowless. While I enjoy watching them at a distance, I won’t miss the duck-duck-goose spatter they leave on the walkway.

Solitary heron at the shoreline.

Solitary heron at the shoreline.

I often notice a solitary heron standing near the overgrown shoreline. He will become a snow bird in the South very soon. I think he’s a blue heron, but I’m ready to be corrected. I never saw a mate; better luck next year.

Sunbathing turtles.

Sunbathing turtles.

There is quite a bit of open water and turtles are a common sight. Here in Michigan, they become dormant during the freezing month and wait in a burrow they dug in the muck. I don’t know if this pair are Blanding’s turtles, but Blanding’s do like weedy wetlands and ponds. They are easiest to spot on a sunny day when they sit out on logs, soaking up the rays.

I will remember all of this fondly when we become part of snow country.

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Romantic Spring Flower Combinations

White money plant and pink tulips are a sweet combination

White money plant and pink tulips are a sweet combination

If you like a calm and romantic mood in the garden, try pairing money plant (Lunaria annua) and pink tulips.

Money plant is available with either white or purple blooms that open in early May, depending on the spring weather. Match the timing with an early-May tulip. Try a stronger, deeper shade of pink if you are using the purple variety (Lunaria annua) and a more delicate pink for the white variety (L. annua var. albiflora).

Tulips like a sunny location and at least average soil. So does money plant, which grows in average to rich soil and partial to full sun. The blooms stay for a couple of weeks, and the seed pods are popular in decorating since they resemble coins. Money plant goes easily from seed. You can plant in the fall or the spring. It is a biennial. This years seeds sprout to become next years plants. This years plants will not return in the spring. It’s important that the seeds reach the soil, so avoid using mulch in this garden. The seed pods will blow in the wind to different locations and you can pot them up as gifts for your friends. You can also save seed pods in glassine envelopes for party favors.

Tulips are perennial in Michigan and can live for decades if they don’t become over-crowded or heavily browsed. If the blooms look less vigorous that you remember, dig up the bulbs after the leaves have turned yellow or brown and gone limp. Expect to see several bulbs instead of one. Plant all the bulbs that look healthy and discard the others in the trash. Tulips are usually planted at a depth equal to 3 times their height. Tulips planted too early are also easier for the squirrels to find      . Doug Green writing in Doug Green’s Garden recommends planting spring-blooming bulbs 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes. Since Michigan stretches from Zone 4a to 6a, you should plant when the ground in your yard freezes, not the mid-October date that is sometimes mentioned.

The leaves of both money plant and tulips will fade and dry out. Consider using a third plant in the garden. Look for annuals that will last until frost and hide the dying leaves. Pansies are a good choice. They are available in a variety of colors and like full sun.

Money plant seeds. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Money plant seeds. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

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Overcrowded Shrubs

Shrubs that touch wooden structures are troublemakers.

Shrubs that touch wooden structures are troublemakers.

Bushes and shrubs need room to grow, just like other plants. If you buy a young/small version of a shrub, you need to know how big it will get so the home you can give it has the correct sun exposure, moisture, drainage, soil conditions, air circulation, and room to spread out.

The shrub pictured was planted too close to the garage. Both roots and branches are crowded. The branches can be trimmed but the roots will be distorted as they seek out nutrients. Stressed roots can shorten the life of the shrub.

Also, plants should not touch wooden structures. Moisture from rain or leaf evaporation can be absorbed by the wood and crawling insects have a highway to potential shelter. Wood window frames on houses with brick or aluminum siding exteriors can also be damaged. Plants wick water onto the wood long after the rain stops and the sun comes out. Water shortens the life of painted surfaces and wood structures.

Insects show determination in their search for new living space and food sources. There is an ad on TV about how a pest control company stops ants from reaching a roof via tree branches by alternating the chemicals they use. Why not trim the tree so the branches don’t rest on or come close to the roof. Bushes that touch roofs, windows, and outer walls are highways for crawling insects.

The description on the tag for new shrubs includes their height and width at maturity. There may be a range of sizes because bushes grow better in more ideal places. Both the width and shape of the growth is important to the appearance of the plant in the landscape, the harmonious effect of plant combinations, and the space available for the shrub and its neighbors. Make sure that nearby buildings are included in your planning.

After allowing for the mature size of shrubs, a newly planted area may look sparse. Try using annual flowers or potted shrubs until the new plants are big enough to make an impact. Dwarf evergreens, like spruce and boxwood, do well in containers and can winter over if they are moved to a location that receives adequate moisture and protection from winds. The height of the container plus the height of the bush makes them good fill-in candidates. Plastic containers will withstand many a Michigan winter and are easier to move than heavier cement pots.

Mature shrubs add to the value of your home if they are healthy and add beauty to the landscape. Protect your investment in shrubs and they will work hard for you.

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Living Birdfeeders


I don’t offer seeds as bird food, but I have several small trees that provide local birds a treat.

There is a native Amelanchier in my front yard. This multi-stemmed tree is also called serviceberry, Juneberry and shadblow. It’s a versatile addition to the landscape that leafs out in April or May and produces small white flowers follow by berries that mature in June.

The ripe blue/purple berries are a favorite of neighborhood robins. The berries are people friendly and popular in jams and jellies cooked with enough sugar to tone down their tartness. If you want to try them, consider covering the trees with netting to ward off the birds. The tree pictured was stripped in two days.

The red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is another multi-stemmed tree that produces an edible berry, this one is white. The birds love them, too. And the osier berries ripen later than the serviceberries.

I also have two Pagoda dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia). They grow as single-trunk trees because I prune away the suckers. Their blue-black berries will ripen in a few more weeks.

Consider the benefits of a flowering tree that produces fruit you don’t have to clean up after. There are no stains on the sidewalk. There are no rotting pieces on the ground. There are only happy birds.

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Taking Care of the Home Garden Orchard

It's time to thin the blossoms on your apple trees. Image by EllenM1 at

It’s time to thin the blossoms on your apple trees. Image by EllenM1 at

I was talking to Roy Prentice, Farm Manager at Tollgate Farm, about the fruit season coming up in Michigan. Roy reminded me of the need to thin fruit trees this year. If you have two or two dozen fruit trees on your property, you should know the benefits of thinning.

2012 was unkind to Michigan’s fruit trees. The early thaw/late frost killed a lot of buds. Many trees produced little or no good fruit. The trees will accommodate their own survival and produce a bumper crop this year. Many blossoms mean lots of fruit, but the fruit will be smaller than normal.

You may be happy with small fruit, but there is another effect that won’t make you smile. Alternate fruit bearing refers to trees that produce a lot of fruit in one year and almost no fruit the next year. Plant scientists say that the tree energy expended to mature a lot of fruit reduces the energy available to initiate flower buds for the following spring. So, if this year’s crop is heavy, next year’s crop will be small. You need to thin the trees.

Many fruit bearing trees are thinned just after the blossoms fall. If you are unsure about the current timing for your specific trees, check with your local extension service. There are several sprays available. You can also manually thin the trees.

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We All Live Downstream

There is solid pollution you can see and chemical pollution you can't see.  Image by Anthony Easton at

There is solid pollution you can see and chemical pollution you can’t see. Image by Anthony Easton at

The recent heavy rains prompted Chicago officials to divert the Chicago River and the sewage it carried into Lake Michigan. Kenosha also dumped its sewage directly into Lake Michigan. Those decisions kept black water out of people basements, but they put raw sewage and untreated wastewater into the lake.

There have been many articles about agricultural runoff carried by the Maumee and other rivers going into Lake Erie. Farms and irrigation are a natural pairing. If pollutants are in the river, they will be in the downstream lake. Since Lake Erie is downstream from Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron, it receives an abundance of contaminants.

Rivers and streams travel to a lake which travels to an ocean. Pollution reaching the ocean is dangerous to marine life and the creatures who rely on that marine life for food. Contaminated marine food chains can harm land and air animals who eat tainted fish and plant life. Oceans are sensitive to pollution and people depend on the oceans. The quality of human life depends on the quality of ocean water.

When we talk about water, we all live downstream.

Michiganders have a special relationship to water. We also have a special responsibility. Please be aware and involved in water quality issues in your city or town. Think of water quality as a basic city service, like fire and police protection, like roads maintenance. Raise your voice at city and town meetings to let elected officials know you want dependable basic city services to be a priority when they are spending our tax dollars.