Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Grilled peaches three ways

by cathym on July 3, 2020

by Cathy Monrad

Summer is here and along with it, the height of grilling season. Grilled peaches can be used as an ingredient in any course from appetizer to dessert.

Perfectly grill a peach

  1. 1. Set grill to medium-high heat, 350°F–450°F.
  2. Oil grate thoroughly.
  3. Place peach halves or wedges on grill. Close lid. 
  4. Allow peaches to sear for about 3 minutes. Flip peaches over to sear remaining side. 
  5. Remove from grill and enjoy.

Toast baguette slices.
Smear slices with mascarpone, then drizzle with honey. 
Add grilled peach wedge on top and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.


Add grilled peaches, blueberries, and feta or goat cheese to mixed greens. Add grilled chicken for a main course. Top with your favorite dressing.


Top grilled peach halves with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on top.

Cathy Monrad is the graphic designer for Upstate Gardeners’ Journal.


Seven steps to a weather-resilient garden

by cathym on July 3, 2020

by Judy Bigelow

Weather-resilient plants are those that can withstand extremes in weather and thrive long-term under these conditions. Whether you are planning a new garden or want to fortify an existing garden that is suffering from drought, flooding, unpredictable frosts, heat waves, or storm damage, the following guidelines should help improve the survival rate of your plants.

Identify microclimates in your garden. Microclimates are localized areas that have their own temperature range, moisture level, and air circulation. They are created by southern (warmer) versus northern (colder) exposure, location in full sun or shade, water drainage and soil type, terrain and slopes, and proximity to water bodies, trees, and man-made structures such as buildings. There can be a wide range of different microclimates within your backyard. For example, you may notice that certain plants growing next to a fence or at the bottom of a slope often get damaged by late spring frosts or an early fall frost. This is called a frost pocket and is caused by cold air sinking downward and being trapped by the fence, creating a natural bowl effect. You might also notice that next to your house, which absorbs heat during the day and radiates heat at night, you can grow more tender plants. Urban areas with clustered buildings and dark pavement can act as heat islands. 

Take advantage of microclimates. This rosemary isn’t hardy in our area, but it survived last winter tucked into a protective nook.

Keep a garden journal. Record your observations about the microclimates in your backyard and which areas seem most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. At the same time, do a site assessment in which you determine how much sun the garden beds receive, what type of soil you have (sandy, loam, or clay) and its drainage, and the physical terrain. A sunny site will be warmer and dry out more quickly than a shaded one. Clay soil holds more moisture than sandy but has poorer drainage. Low-lying areas are usually wetter and have less air circulation than the top of a hill. Look for other factors, such as runoff of storm water from gutters and paved or hardscaped surfaces than can cause periodic flooding. Coastal areas may be more prone to damage caused by salt water and high winds. 

For an existing garden, be sure to also record which plants have performed the best over several years and which ones have not done well or have died. What are potential threats and current problems? Are the right plants in the right sites? Is a soil test needed?

Make a plan. For a new garden, it’s a good idea to draw a sketch of the overall design with approximate dimensions and notations of any issues you’ve discovered during your site assessment. Do contact utility companies before you dig to avoid hitting underground lines. Plant selections should be appropriate not only for your USDA climate zone, but also for the microclimate and conditions of the site. To further ensure durability, plants should be low maintenance, reliable, and disease resistant. Many native plants possess these qualities and attract native species of pollinators and other beneficials. Biodiversity of plants, which means a wide variety of plant species, will increase the chance of success of the garden because of reduced risk of disease and pests and less competition for the same nutrients. Locally grown plants are generally best suited to your USDA climate zone and their transportation uses less fossil fuel. Before you buy a plant, find out if it’s aggressive and might take over the garden and examine it to make sure it’s healthy. 

To make improvements in an existing garden, decide what issues need to be addressed. If intermittent flooding is a problem, a simple fix might be to redirect downspouts. On steep slopes, a swale or ditch could be dug to channel water away. Chronically wet sites might benefit from the installation of French drains or conversion into rain gardens. Dry sites, whether sunny or heavily canopied by trees, require drought-tolerant plant selection and good mulching. Windy sites may need a windbreak and plants that are flexible and resist storm damage. Frost pockets often have temperatures lower than the regional USDA climate zone and should have cold-hardy plantings. Beds suffering from excessive summer heat can be partially shaded by plantings of trees and shrubs nearby. 

Prepare the site. For a new garden, the least labor-intensive method of dealing with turf is not to remove it, but to incorporate it into a soil building process. In the no-till or “lasagna” method, sheets of newspaper or cardboard are laid down over the lawn with successive layers of compost and biodegradable, undyed mulch. This method is most economical in not requiring the purchase of soil amendments because the topsoil is preserved and the grass gets converted into nutrients. Although sustainable, this method will take several months to fully break down the turf. Meanwhile, holes can be punched through the sheet layer and plants dug into place. For details, see the Oregon State University Extension Service website on sheet mulching.

In amending the conditions of an existing garden, regardless of the problems or soil type, compost is always a good solution. It improves soil structure and aeration, drainage of wet, clay soils, retention of moisture in dry, sandy soil, and moderation of soil temperature. In addition, compost enriches the soil with nutrients and microbes that produce a healthy growing medium for plants. When turning compost into the soil, minimize disturbance of soil layers and take care not to injure roots of established plants. 

Planting and mulching. Do your homework on the plants you have selected as to their mature size and tendency to spread. Allow sufficient space between them for growth and proper air circulation. Be aware of the path of the sun and how taller plants might shade shorter plants and the soil throughout the day. Once plants are arranged and in the ground, water well and then spread mulch over the entire bed, keeping it a few inches from the stems and trunks. Mulching not only inhibits weeds, but also reduces moisture loss from the soil. Dry sites are best covered with undyed wood mulch (black mulch absorbs heat and can increase local temperature), chopped leaf mulch, or other natural, sustainable mulches. Extra mulch, such as seedless straw, applied before winter can insulate the ground and help prevent freeze-thaw cycles in the soil that cause upheaval of shallow-rooted plants. In spring, remember to thin out the mulch so emerging plants aren’t smothered, and the soil can warm up.

All of the above applies to an existing garden bed that is undergoing renovation or reorganization. When moving plants to a more suitable location, try to time this when they are near dormancy, in early spring or fall. This will lessen the stress, especially if they are already struggling.

Proper mulching helps to suppress weeds.

Maintenance and protection. Water management is essential, especially for new plants. To help them establish a robust root system, provide a minimum of one inch of water per week. Use a rain gauge, moisture sensor, or the “finger test” to determine when watering needs to be done. To decrease evaporation losses, water early in the morning and at ground level to thoroughly soak the soil surrounding the roots. This efficacious practice, as opposed to overhead sprinkling, conserves water and lowers your water bill. Rain barrels can collect excess rainwater runoff from gutters helping to prevent erosion and flooding in borders next to the house. On a dry day, this stored rain barrel water can be distributed via perforated soaker hoses laid around the garden. 

To enhance the resilience of the garden to extreme weather, additional measures may be taken. Row cover, made of a lightweight white material, can protect plants from either frost or excessive heat. It also has the feature of shielding vegetables from pests, such as flea beetles. Other strategies to prevent frost damage include cold frames, newspaper cones (around roses), and overturned pots to cover individual plants that are removed the next morning once the air has warmed. Shrubs that are susceptible to cold winter wind damage can be protected with burlap wraps, piles of conifer boughs (recycle your Christmas tree), or temporary windbreak barriers. Trees that are at risk of storm damage and breakage, particularly if they are close to a residence, should be correctly pruned.

Soaker hoses help with water management.

Monitoring and evaluation. Throughout all four seasons of the year, continue to monitor the garden beds and make notes in your journal. Keep track of the conditions of the microclimates, as well as precipitation and extreme weather events, to see how the garden is holding up. Then make an evaluation. Are the plants vigorous and attractive in appearance? Is the garden flourishing and do some plants need to be divided? Were there any unexpected weather events and how did the plants fare? What other issues, such as weeds, pests, diseases, or poor soil, need to be attended in an ongoing manner? Have new problems arisen or does an old problem require a more proactive approach? 

Native plants, like this mildweed, are often sturdy and resiliant.

Gardening is always a work in progress and is further challenged by a changing climate. Keen observations of variable weather patterns and how they affect your garden microclimates will help you to modify your landscape or to adapt as necessary. Choosing sturdy, resilient plants over the finicky, short-lived exotics will save you money and frustration and is a key to success. By following these seven steps, you will be on your way to becoming a resilient gardener.

Judy Bigelow is a Master Gardener, CCE Monroe County.


My pathway through community gardens

by cathym on July 3, 2020

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton 

For about ten years, the author did garden design, installation, and maintenance in greater Rochester. Courtyard gardens were especially fun and rewarding.

I have a community garden to thank for getting me into horticulture in the first place. I was twenty and living in an egalitarian community (secular commune) of about 100 people in central Virginia. Tom was a rare visitor my age who’d come from Northern California for a three-week stay. He was super fired up about growing vegetables. The first crop we bonded over was spinach. Tom was very, very excited about spinach.  

I was fired up about Tom, so I followed him into the fields, and as we spent time tending the rows and talking, his enthusiasm for the vegetables sparked something in me. I had hoped Tom would become a member of the community and provide the romance my life there was missing. Devastatingly, he decided not to stay, but I nursed my broken heart by throwing myself deeper into vegetable cultivation.  

The community’s garden and grounds manager, the lovely Jake, was very kind to me during that time when I felt so raw. Jake, who grew up on a working farm, moved three times as fast as anyone else. He decided what to grow and he delegated tasks, but owing to his superior energy and efficiency, he also did the lion’s share of the work. Because of his dominance of the gardening realm there, I could see that I was only going to advance so far in my horticultural knowledge and opportunities. Also, I really needed to be around more people my age.  

In the summer of 1990, I got a position as a gardener at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. We were given room, board, access to some workshops, and $200/week. This seemed like a dream for twenty-year-old Michelle. A woman named Sue headed things up, and she and I and one other seasonal person divided the work. 

The author in 2019.

I made compost with scraps from the institute’s kitchen. I learned how to build a three-bin compost unit (fun side note: when my husband and I went to the Omega grounds to walk around more than twenty years later, the bin was still there). I tried not to fork snake eggs when I pitchforked leaf mulch into the first of the three bins. I gave tours of the garden to well-heeled and gracious New Agers from New York City. In late summer I loved to give them raw corn to shuck and taste, and sometimes there’d be a corn husk completely filled with the black spores and white goo of the corn smut fungus. That was reliably a graphic and fun gross-out for everyone involved. (I’ve since learned that corn smut is called huitlacoche in Mexico and is eaten as a delicacy there. Also, you gotta love how plant pathologists name things so forthrightly, a là nipple gall, butt rot, scabs, and cankers.) 

Even though there were dozens and dozens of staff and several hundred participants coming through every week, I was lonely at Omega, too … lonely in a sea of people. I was a member of a community, but I never felt like I belonged. That wasn’t Omega’s fault. There was actually so much going on all the time there that my introverted nervous system was overwhelmed. I remember a lot of therapeutic crying in the garden shed in the evenings, until my roommate left her internship early and then, praise heaven, I had my own rustic room to cry in.   

In the fall I headed back to my home state of Virginia and got hired by an organic vegetable farm in metropolitan Washington, D.C. There, a community of mostly Bolivian workers had established themselves in affordable living arrangements and would remain year-round. Within a few minutes of being hired, as I was being given a tour of the operation, I saw this really handsome tall fellow stand up and look my direction. That was the sweet jack-of-all-trades Oscar, who loved babies and animals and Bolivian folk dancing. To my parents’ shock, he and I got married after knowing each other for six weeks. I don’t recommend that. Nonetheless, we continued to date for several years after the annulment, and he was extremely kind and helpful to me and my family during some very stressful times.  

The author’s most successful community garden plot year owed to a confluence of factors: going no-till (therefore, not churning up weed seeds), procuring the region’s most lovingly produced seedlings, mulching beds and paths very heavily, staying on top of the few audacious weeds that poked through said mulch, abundant rainfall and moderate temps that summer, and not being on the board at the time.

Spanish filled the air in that farm community, and I delighted in that. Thanks to beloved early childhood neighbors who were from Ecuador and spoke Spanish while I played with their kids, I had a good ear for it and was able to join in conversations. However, on the occasions when Oscar and his sister and brother-in-law didn’t want me to understand what was being said, they would speak Quechua, their third language. Sneaky. 

Oscar and I went to a lot of parties hosted by Bolivians where everyone danced—I mean everyone—there were no chairs around the room. That was fun, although I did have to learn the ways in which our cultures were different and stop centering my own. Arriving at one party, the host greeted me smilingly with, “Hello Michelle! You are fatter than before.” I slinked off to the corner to cry, but Oscar gently explained to me that in his culture, observations of fatness or thinness carried neutral weight. They weren’t insults. (American culture would benefit greatly from getting on board with this.) 

I joined my first official community garden—a grid of plots in a field—in Reston, Virginia. 

My garden neighbor said, “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” The garden did start out swimmingly, with a pretty mandala-like design, but ironically, since I’d started going back to school to study horticulture, I stopped going to the community garden regularly. All of a sudden, the weeds were horror-movie tall. 

Oscar helped me clean the plot out, and I came away with a miserable case of poison ivy. That’s when I knew that there were limitations on my gardening freedom. I could/cannot afford to wade around in bleeping poison ivy. I am very careful about this. So imagine when my surprise when I got it a couple of years ago in January—JANUARY!—from snuggling with my friend’s newly adopted husky. SNUGGLING WITH AN ADORABLE DOG! It’s just so unfair. 

The author’s favorite sunflowers (‘Chocolate Cherry’) from her erstwhile community garden plot.

My first long-term experience with community gardens was after moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010 to be with my then-new husband. We marveled at how at this community garden seemed to be deeply inhabited, with semi-permanent structures like pergolas, sculptures, elaborate fancy-rustic fences, and even a swing! We got a plot and found out that the reason people had settled so thoroughly into their plots was that unlike most community gardens where the entire area gets plowed every spring, in this one, folks could keep their same plot year after year. 

That was cool, since it seemed to generate all this creativity, but it turned out to have a major downside: entitlement. The longer people had their plots, the more inflexible they became. Especially in cases of people like the board member who was an inveterate hoarder. His board member status served as a cover for his gradually filling plot after plot with junk. 

“Snaps“ to these snaps! ‘Rocket Red’ (left side of the bouquet) is the author’s favorite annual.

He was a good-hearted person who truly liked to be helpful to other people—and I felt for him, because he seemed powerless over his illness—but the garbage accumulation was really hard to deal with. When the board finally started to present him with a timetable of “This plot has to be cleaned up by x date, and this other plot has to be cleaned by x date (repeat several times over) or you have to leave,” I was ending my service on the board. Selfishly, I was relieved, because I knew the situation that had come to a boil was going to scald people, and it did. I did very much admire the tenacity of the board president and the board in seeing things through … as I jumped ship.     

Being on the board, I learned about how many long-term squabbles neighboring gardeners were carrying on (if you weren’t on the board, you’d be blissfully unaware.) 

Based on observing those dramas, I can offer some specific advice on how to be a good community garden member: 

  • Keep your fence lines extra clean of weeds, as a courtesy to your neighbors.
  • Research plants first so you don’t plant something invasive that everyone has to deal with for years to come.
  • If you can’t keep up with your plot, ask the board for help rather than letting things get really overgrown. 
  • Don’t build berms that are five feet high at their apex and provide a den for rats. If your garden neighbors say they are seeing rats, don’t deny their reality. 
  • Don’t leave the community hoses on when you leave, flooding your neighbors’ gardens. One wouldn’t think this would need to be said. 
  • Leave your adorable dog at home. 
  • Don’t install an industrial metal fence that is so tall it makes your plot look like a mini penitentiary. 
  • Don’t camp out or get drunk in your plot. 
  • Most importantly, never, never join the board. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.