New Ideas for Your Garden

From Carolina Lukac, Garden Education Manager & Libby Weiland, Statewide Network Coordinator

Aronia melanocarpa, Black Chokeberry

Here at the VCGN office we’re flipping through our notebooks for all of those tidbits we gathered over the winter months—favorite activities, inspiring ideas, new resources—so that we can share them with you! Here are a few of those morsels, gleaned from the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference. Enjoy and happy planting!

Aronia is trending.  Aronia berries are the up and coming Vermont-grown superfood.  Also known as Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa is a perennial shrub with extraordinary medicinal properties.  Aronia berries have the highest concentration of antioxidants of any fruit, with exponentially more antioxidants than blueberries and cranberries.  The list of aronia’s health benefits is extensive and well worth looking into (immune-boosting, improves circulation, prevents diabetes, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, maintains urinary tract health, etc.).  Although their very astringent and sour taste will keep you from eating the berries raw, aronia juice is delightful when mixed with apple cider.  And fortunately for us gardeners, aronia is an attractive fruit-bearing shrub that grows well in partial shade. Interested in planting or tasting aronia? Several nurseries in Central Vermont sell aronia berry shrubs, including The Farm Between – www.thefarmbetween.com.  Look for their stand at the summer Burlington Farmer’s Market where they sell their delicious aronia and apple cider juice.

Family Room’s Rainbow Garden, Burlington

Eat a rainbow.  Anthocyanins are the type of antioxidant responsible for the deep red/purple color of berries, including aronia.  Anthocyanins are one of many phytonutrients found in plants; other plant-based chemical compounds with high nutrient value include carotenoids, lycopene, and quercetin.  Carotenoids give orange foods their color, lycopene is responsible for the yellow through red color of fruits such as tomatoes, and high levels of quercetin are found in white-colored vegetables such as onions and garlic.  Not only do phytonutrients give plants their rich pigment, they also provide numerous health benefits to consumers. The best way to increase your intake of phytonutrients is by eating a rainbow – or making sure you consume a colorful variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains.  Plant a rainbow-themed garden this season and engage children through the world of colors. Read stories featuring rainbows, organize color scavenger hunts, and highlight the health benefits of phytonutrients found in a colorful garden harvest.

Blue Orchard Mason Bee home (photo by Campobello Island Mason Bees)

Blue Orchard Mason Bees – One-third of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators for successful production. With a shifting climate that brings pollinators out of dormancy earlier than the flowers that they pollinate, both our crop production and the pollinators we depend on are at risk. One solution to bringing plants and their pollinators back in sync with one another: raise pollinators in your garden. One of the pollinator species that is relatively simple to raise and native to Vermont, is Osmia lignaria, the Blue Orchard Mason Bee. By refrigerating bee cocoons through the winter, you can manage the timing of their release so that it matches associated blooms. These bees are particularly good pollinators for fruit trees. Also, their home is easy to build and a fun addition to any garden landscape. Here’s a simple video that gives great instructions—Introduction to Mason Bees. Another easy way to encourage pollinators and increase their habitat is by planting pollinator gardens.  Learn more about planting for pollinators and how to get connected to the movement at https://vcgn.org/what-we-do/wild-for-pollinators/.

Mycorrhiza in gardens! Mycorrhiza—fungal networks known to share nutrients and support communication between trees in the forest—are also present in our humble vegetable gardens.  Through some basic soil-building techniques you can increase mycorrhiza in your soil that will help plants resist pests and diseases, increase drought intolerance and support overall plant health. A few favorite quick tips:

  • Disturb soil less. Practice no-till or low-till gardening to avoid breaking up mycorrhizal networks.
  • No bare ground. Practice intensive gardening where possible and seed cover crops on fallow beds—this will help you keep a moist environment for growth of fungi and protect your soil from disturbance.
  • Fungal carryover. When your fruiting crops are done producing at the end of the season, rather than pulling the plants up and disturbing the root system, cut your crops at soil level to keep mycorrhizal fungus present in the soil for the next season.
  • Serve tea to your plants. Compost tea and mycorrhizal-promoting herbal garden teas will encourage the presence of these beneficial fungi in your garden. Here are simple instructions for “How to Make Compost Tea.”

For a quick read on benefits and strategies for promoting mycorrhiza in your garden read this Mother Earth News article on “Creating Your Own Mycorrhiza.”  If you want to dive deeper into the chemistry of these miraculous fungi, check out Michael Phillips’ book, Mycorrhizal Planet.