The Mysterious and Fascinating Life of Roots

imagesWhen we think of roots, most of us think of pale, fibrous, slimy-looking tubes whose only purpose is sucking water out of soil. If we’re gardeners or farmers, we also think of roots as food. But roots do much more than siphon water and provide food—they’re the cornerstone of plant function. And in many ways they are more fascinating than the leaves, blossoms, and fruits they help produce.

Of course, roots’ main job is to deliver water and minerals. They are, in essence, the starting point of the plant’s vascular system. But roots also serve as a plant’s anchor; act as a repository for carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins; and ensure the plant’s survival during the long cold winter months.

Often a root system occupies a larger space than the plant it supports, comprising up to one-third a plant’s overall mass, it’s total length reaching into the hundreds of miles! There are, generally speaking, two types of root systems: tap and diffuse. Tap systems are those with many smaller rootlets branching off a single, main root. (Think carrots and dandelions.) Diffuse systems are comprised of many thin roots which draw from even thinner and smaller rootlets (corn and rye).

Root health is in large part determined by soil quality. Roots require biologically-rich, well-aerated soils. Excessively waterlogged or compacted soils, or soils that are otherwise oxygen deficient, can lead to shallow root growth.

Roots also have an intriguing relationship with microorganisms. Rhizobium, a well-known soil bacteria, converts atmospheric nitrogen into an organic nitrogenous compound that acts as a fertilizer. These bacterial clusters present themselves as nodules on roots.

Some more fun root facts:

  • Roots grow from their tips, but only in warm weather.
  • By splitting rocks into smaller pieces, roots contribute to soil-creation.
  • Each root is covered with tiny hairs through which water and minerals are absorbed
  • The roots of a South African wild fig tree can exceed depths of 390 feet!
  • Eighty percent of all plant disorders are caused by root/soil problems.

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By |June 5th, 2015|News|Comments Off on The Mysterious and Fascinating Life of Roots

T’is the Season for Spring Mix

spring mixThe growing season is ramping up, and you know what that means: spring mix! Each year around this time, we see our first delicious harvest of this delicious crop. The variety of fresh tastes and textures are welcome after a long and cold winter. But just what is spring mix? And where does it come from?

Believe it or not, spring mix is a relatively new creation. It originated in Provence, France in the early 70’s under the name ‘Mesclun.’ (Europeans still refer to it as such, as do many American chefs). Traditional blends consist of chervil, arugula, dandelion, and endive. The term comes from the Provencal, ‘mesclar’ which means ‘mixture’. Farmers around Nice would each bring their own unique blend to local farmer’s markets, where they would be sold to the public.

In North America, Mesclun first appeared at farm stands back in the early 1980s. Here, the mix is generally comprised of baby lettuces and herbs, including red and green oak leaf, romaine, frisee, tatsoi, box choy, arugula, spinach, mizuna, mustard, or more.

At Blue Moon Acres, we use romaine, kale, mizuna, mustards, and chards in our spring mix. It’s a delicate, flavorful, colorful, and dynamic blend that not only makes for a delicious salad, but also goes great with sandwiches and wraps.

Full beds of lettuces that go into our Spring MixBut don’t take my word for it—swing by one of our markets today and try some for yourself!

By |May 22nd, 2015|News|Comments Off on T’is the Season for Spring Mix

What are Phytonutrients?

imagesSpend enough time reading health blogs and you’ll probably come across the word, ‘phytonutrients’. It’s a term that’s often used in conjunction with physical fitness and nutritional health. But what are phytonutrients? How do they work? And why should you care?

Phytonutrients are actually a little difficult to pin down. Google defines them as ‘a substance found in certain plants which is believed to be beneficial to human health and help prevent various diseases.’  Other websites describe them merely as nutrients that have been scientifically proven to provide health benefits. What is known about phytonutrients is that they are not related to fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and they provide huge health benefits.

Plant foods can contain more than 25,000 phytonutrients. Carotenoids, ellagic acid, flavonoids, resveratrol, glucosinolates, and phytoestrogens are just a few of the better known ones. Some act as antioxidants, some aid in immunity and eye health, some protect against cancer, some reduce risk of asthma and heart disease, and some have anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties.

Nearly all plant foods contain phytonutrients, but some contain more than others. Fruits and veggies that have a deep, rich color—blueberries, blackberries, red cabbage, collards, and spinach—are good sources. But so too are certain off-white vegetables: garlic, onions, and leeks have loads of phytonutrients. As do red and pink fruits and veggies—tomatoes, guava, and watermelon.

images (1)To increase your uptake of these important nutrients, add extra fruits and vegetables to your salads, stews, pot roasts, and chili. Drinking a green smoothie with kale, cherries, spinach and almond milk also helps. As does the regular consumption of plant-based protein shakes mixed with blueberries.

The bottom line is this: the more phytonutrients you consume, the healthier you’ll be and feel!

By |May 8th, 2015|News|Comments Off on What are Phytonutrients?

How to Grow Better-Tasting Vegetables!

fruit 2Everybody’s had that one piece of fruit or vegetable whose taste just knocked their socks off. Mine was a blackberry given to me by Chef Jess at Triumph Brewery New Hope: it was at the peak of ripeness, perfectly sweet, utterly memorable.

But how do you grow tasty fruits and vegetables yourself? What’s the secret?

Turns out there are a variety of factors.

The first deals with climate. Make sure the plants you intend to grow are appropriate for your particular climate, microclimate, and growing season. This sounds obvious, but can make a huge difference where taste is concerned. Root crops and leafy vegetables prefer moist, cool conditions; and melons and most nightshade prefer sunny and warm weather. Planting your fruits and veggies in ill-suited microclimates will inevitably lead to an inferior-tasting crop.

Another consideration is the age at which you harvest.  Harvesting immediately after maturation—especially true of root crops—tends to provide a fresher, ‘brighter’ tasting crop. This window is generally narrow, so make sure you’re checking your garden daily!

Of course, the plant’s genetic background also makes a huge difference. Seed brands chosen for outstanding taste often make an enormous difference. However, while selecting for taste, breeders have often inadvertently bred out essential nutrients in the process.

The most important determinant of taste, however, is soil. In short, the better one cares for one’s soil, the better tasting one’s fruits and veggies.  A crop grown in healthy soil will have consistently higher sugar levels, and will also have higher diffusion levels. (Diffusion is a measurement of the dissolved solids within a particular plant, including flavor, nutrients, and aromas.)  To improve your soil health, follow the tips in our blog: It’s the Soil Stupid.

veggie 2Growing excellent-tasting fruits and vegetables does involve a little extra work, but is well worth the effort!

By |April 24th, 2015|News|Comments Off on How to Grow Better-Tasting Vegetables!

What is Permaculture?

downloadPermaculture is one of those words that gets tossed around almost as often as ‘sustainable’—and is perhaps just as misunderstood. But just what is Permaculture? It sounds intimidating, as if it were some complicated growing practice that only someone with a doctorate in horticulture could understand. But the basic tenants of Permaculture are surprisingly simple, if not downright obvious.

Permaculture is defined as “an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems.” The term was first coined by Bill Millisons and David Holmgren, the originators of the modern Permaculture movement. Basically, Permaculture is the practice of a.) working with nature to avoid unnecessary labor, and b.) incorporating one’s crops within the existing environmental backdrop. Where agriculture requires the destruction of the landbase to accomplish its ends, Permaculture works within that landbase.

Like nature, Permaculture works in layers. That is, different species that grow to different heights are planted together, creating special ‘microclimates’ which are optimal for each particular plant. These layers include the canopy, understory, shrubs, herbaceous (plants that die each winter), soil surface and ground cover, and the rhizosphere (the root layers). By arranging plants within appropriate layers, you can diminish the need for watering, irrigation, and pest- and disease-control.

Permaculture also makes use of guilds. In Permaculture, guilds are groups of species where each individual plant provides a unique set of diverse functions that work in conjunction with the whole. These can include more than just plants—insects and animals too. In the same way that a traditional ‘guild’ involves individuals working toward a common goal, so too do Permaculture guilds involve a synergistic collaboration with the goal of mutual betterment.

download (1)Another feature of Permaculture is zones. Zones are ways of organizing design elements on the basis of the frequency of human use, as well as plant or animal needs. Basically what this means is those plants that need the most attention—or that would be used the most—are planted closest to your house.  This is Zone 1. (Zone 0 is your house). The zones continue spiraling outward, until Zone 5 is reached, which is a wilderness area.

For thousands of years, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest made use of Permaculture principals to great effect. With traditional agriculture saddled with so many problems, a mass switch to Permaculture might just be what our ailing planet needs.

By |April 10th, 2015|News|Comments Off on What is Permaculture?