Thursday, September 24, 2015

Let's Go To The County Fair

Harvest festivals have ancient roots, but the county agricultural fair is the American forerunner of today’s fall celebrations. They’re especially prevalent in New England, where most towns have some sort of fall country fair.

State, regional and county fairs offer all kinds of good family fun (and, of course, plenty of deep fried indulgences). But they also remain one of the best places to connect with the country’s rural roots, as fairs showcase farms and agriculture of all kinds.

Much of the entertainment at the fair is connected to farming in some way – pig scrambles and the like. The 4-H Club farm animal shows give the public a chance to see how there are differences between food animals on the hoof. Spend time talking with those 4-H Club members in the animal barns, and you’ll discover the care and joy that kids take in raising their livestock and poultry.

Other state and county fair events showcase farming traditions. New England’s ox and steer pulls show where horsepower originated. (There’s still time to catch ox pulls at Maine’s largest fair, the Fryeburg Fair, or the Rochester Fair in New Hampshire). Competitive fair rodeos, especially in the South and West, showcase classic cowboy skills still employed on ranches. The fair season is still in full swing across Texas, as the East Texas State Fair celebrates 100 years in Tyler, and the Panhandle South Plains Fair features plenty of entertainment in Lubbock.

Fairs and fall festivals also give attenders the chance to connect with where their food comes from – and we’re not just talking fried pies and funnel cakes. Home arts contests show the best produce from local fields and classic food preservation methods. And many more farms, especially those focused on local foods, or “farm to table,” are using fairs and festivals to showcase their offerings.

Even local farmers markets take on a more festive feel in the fall, as vendor booths come alive with pumpkins, winter squash of all shapes and sizes, mums and other ornamentals – not to mention sweet lettuce and greens, carrots and other cold-season crops.

Big E in Massachusetts
So whether it’s a huge display, like the Big E in Massachusetts, or your hometown’s fall country fair, take your family to the fair. It’s the best place in the fall to connect with the country’s rural roots – and to see how farmers of all ages, all across the country, are still growing the finest and most delicious food.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Invest in Fall for a Beautiful Spring Lawn

When it comes to yard care, spring gets plenty of press – but what you do in the fall can get your yardscape ready for next spring. Use these reminders to invest lovely autumn mornings, evenings and weekends toward a beautiful spring.

Remember to Water

The first week of September is shaping up hotter and drier than normal in many regions. Keep evergreens and other perennials primed for a healthy winter by considering supplemental watering in September. Evaporation can still be an issue in September, so water in the early morning to let moisture soak in.

Sow the Seed

Turfgrass is best seeded in the fall. There’s still time, through mid-September, to prep the soil and sow for new seedings in most regions. Fall overseeding is another yard chore that will pay dividends come next year. Consider overseeding with grass species different from the most prominent in your turf; lawn diversity can guard against some disease pressure.

Watch for Diseases

Speaking of disease pressure, cool and wet fall weather will bring it on. Fungi causing “fairy rings,” powdery mildew, and rusts on grasses are three common fall yard invaders. Mowing to proper heights can help keep grass rusts at bay during fall.

Keep it Clean

Too many leaves and grass clippings on the yard during winter are a liability. Thick organic matter left in a yard can encourage snow molds and patchy lawn growth come spring.
Your Cyclone Rake can help turn your leaves and other organic matter into a yard and garden asset. Deliver leaves to the compost pile or spread them thinly onto gardens or beds, for the winter, to be incorporated into the soil in the spring.

Fertilize, Spray According to Preference

Applying one pound of actual nitrogen, per 1,000 square feet of lawn, can promote healthy grass growth and a thicker lawn. Consider two fall fertilizers applications about six weeks apart at this rate. Both organic and conventional fertilizers are available.
Yard owners using herbicides can get the best control of broadleaf weeds (like dandelions!) through a fall application. Always follow all label requirements, and use an herbicide product that combines “active ingredients” to improve the effect of weed control.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

5 Ways to Improve Your Homes Curb Appeal: An Infographic

Looking to improve your home's curb appeal? Learn five easy ways to do so this summer in the infographic from Cyclone Rake blow.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Composting 101

Composting is good for your soil. Making compost from grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste and other non-fatty organic matter turns raw organic matter into fluffy, nutrient-fortified, soil improving compost. Compost is also good for the soil beyond your backyard, recycling instead of disposing yard and kitchen wastes.

The Science... Very Cool

Like any good gardening practice, the key to making great compost in your backyard is to understand some of the science behind the process and practically apply that science in your own situation. As it turns out, the science behind heating up a compost pile is, to put it one way, very cool.

Many different microorganisms – not to mention bigger critters like earthworms – will decompose the wastes in your compost pile. But your compost pile’s best friends are aerobic bacteria. It would take 25,000 of them laid end-to-end on a rule to make one inch. Aerobic bacteria are the most efficient at breaking down organic wastes into original elemental components. For more about them, and an easy-to-read description of composting science, check out an excellent explanation from the University of Illinois at

Good Composting Practices

Aerobic bacteria use nitrogen and carbon while they break down organic matter. Your goal is to create a great environment in your compost pile for aerobes. Follow these “good composting practices” for some sure success.
Collected Leaves

  • Compost plant matter like leaves, grass clippings, yard and garden waste.
  • Compost kitchen waste from fruits and vegetables and eggshells.
  • Don’t compost fatty wastes (meats, oils), ashes or pet droppings.
    Collected Grass Clippings
  • Some homeowners, with access to manure from disease-free livestock and poultry, may choose to add layers of nitrogen-rich manure or barn muck.
  • Build your compost pile with about two-thirds “browns” (leaves, etc.) and one-third “green” (grass clippings, fruit and vegetable waste). This ratio promotes the 25:1 carbon-nitrogen ratio preferred by aerobic bacteria.
Your aerobes will enjoy it if your raw compost materials are properly prepared. Make sure to use the mulched leaves and grass clippings you have collected with your Cyclone Rake! The chopped up leaves have more surface area for the microbes to feast. Layer the materials, based on the size of your pile, alternating browns and greens.

A compost pile with the right brown-green ratio is low-maintenance, so long as two things are provided: air and water. Aerobic bacteria do best with plenty of oxygen, and they utilize organic materials dissolved in water. A 40 to 60 percent moisture content is ideal; the more “browns” in a pile (especially wood chips and straw mulch), the wetter the pile should be.
  • Water collected from dehumidifiers and rain barrels can help
    keep the pile moist
  • Moisten the pile as you turn it to distribute water evenly
  • If you live near a microbrewery (or brew your own), wet brewers
    grains can be a fr
    ee, moist addition to the compost pile
Turning the pile keeps the pile from compacting. Some composters like to install a PVC pipe, with holes drilled in it, in the center of the compost pile. Others like to use a cylinder of chicken wire or even a bundle of sticks to help air circulation.

Finally, a word about temperature. As the microorganisms do their thing, temperatures rise in the compost pile. You can pay a lot of attention to your compost pile’s temperature, even purchasing a compost thermometer! A “hotter” pile will decompose faster, but this is not too much of a worry in the summer months. If you have the right mix to begin with, and regularly turn the pile, the temperature will stay in the range preferred by the most productive aerobes.

Once the compost is finished, it will be fluffy and black. Add it to your beds and gardens, turning it into the soil. Keep some of the “finished” compost in your pile to help jumpstart the next batch.

If you are interested and want more information about the science behind composting, be sure to check out resources available from your local Extension office or the link above from the University of Illinois.

Happy Composting!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Get Ready To Compost!

The weather has warmed up, and you have run out of excuses to finally build that compost bin – a magical contraption that you’ve heard turns yard waste and kitchen scraps into fluffy, nutrient-dense, black gold. Whether you’re most interested in form or function, a compost bin is a valuable – and even attractive – addition to the backyard.

Composting guidelines – and free plans for composter construction – are available from the Extension service in many states. What type of composter you choose depends on how much money you wish to spend, how much space you have for the composter and how much raw material you’re generating for composting.

Barrel-style Composter
For smaller yards, a barrel-style composter may be a good fit. This composter relies on frequently turning the raw wastes to make compost. Barrel composters are available for purchase from many gardening companies, but it is relatively inexpensive to make your own, especially if you can find a cheap or free barrel. Hint: look for one that has hauled non-toxic or food-grade ingredients.

Check out the plans for barrel composters, and other composters, from the University of Wisconsin Extension at Smaller yards and homeowners might also check out self-contained worm composters; consult university plans for good guidelines.

Wire Mesh Compost Bin
The wire mesh bin is one of the simplest – and least expensive - compost bins. It involves encircling galvanized garden mesh (chicken wire) and piling your yard waste inside. There are lots of variations on this kind of bin; bins made from wooden snow fence are similar. Some basic plans are available from the University of Missouri at

Smaller bins can cost around $100 – or much less. A common design for a standalone compost bin, which may take months to break down materials, is a 3’ x 3’ or 4’ x 4’ wood slat bin. One common design uses leftover shipping pallets for construction. The key for this bin, like any good composter, is making sure the compost structure has openings for air to circulate.

3-bin Wood and Wire Composter
If you have more space, lots of compostable materials and a bigger budget, consider a three-bin wood and wire unit.This unit depends on turning and moving the composting materials from bin to bin, depending on the stage of decomposition.

The construction materials for a three-bin unit may be matched to your existing construction and landscape. Serious vegetable gardeners and homeowners generating compostable materials during much of the year enjoy the three-bin system. A design is available from Cornell University, which has posted a PDF file with various composter designs at

For more information, check out the composter page and review compost basics at

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Your Guide to Composting Leaves: An Infographic

Learn how you can save money and turn your fall leaves into spring flowers and plant food in the infographic below.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Better Lawns and Gardens Using the Right Fertilizers and Pesticides

It’s spring, and lawn and garden centers – as well as other big box retailers – are lining up shelf after shelf of fertilizer, soil amendments, weed killers and insect controls. So we thought it would be a good idea to review the basics before spending time and money on products to improve the lawn and landscape.

Fertilizers provide three essential nutrients for plants: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). The three numbers on a fertilizer label (like 10-10-10) tell how much N, P and K are available per 100 pounds of the fertilizer. Fertilizers come from different sources; most commercial fertilizers are produced using relatively low-cost, large-scale chemical processes. A wide variety of organic fertilizers are also available; these are usually more costly and often contain ingredients derived from animal proteins, byproducts of the rendering process.

Knowing what kind of fertilizer you need starts with knowing the nutrient content of your soil, and the nutrient requirements of your turf, landscape or garden. Soil testing will help you determine the soil’s needs; a good soil test will let you know how much fertilizer to apply. After that, fertilizer choices are largely based on your personal preferences, budget and landscape situation. One thing to watch: avoid over applying fertilizer or applying in situations when the nutrients are likely to leach or run off the soil, rather than soaking in and feeding your plants.

Soil amendments may contain nutrients; but amendments are usually applied to promote soil and plant health. For example, incorporating compost into a garden bed will provide some nutrient boost, but compost also increases organic matter in the soil and the soil’s ability to retain and drain water. Some soil amendments, like lime and sulfur, are added to change soil pH.

Herbicides (weed killers) may kill a broad spectrum of plants or more specific kinds of plants. Common lawn herbicides killing more specific plants include broadleaf weed killers and crabgrass inhibitors. Caution is urged when applying herbicides, especially broad spectrum herbicides, as they can affect both target and non-target plants.

Insecticides are substances that kill bugs! Like herbicides, insecticides may either kill a broad spectrum of insect life – pests as well as insects that can be beneficial to the garden – or be targeted more specifically (think: wasp killer). Biological insecticides usually involve materials and organisms that are derived from organic sources. An example is Bacillus thuringienesis bacteria, which can control caterpillars that invade broccoli, cauliflower and other garden crops.

No matter what kind of product you choose to apply to your lawn or garden, follow these “Good Practices” for responsible application:

1. Know what you need to “fix” or control – and apply the proper product rate to meet that need. Over application wastes product – and your money – and can even create potentially toxic levels of nutrients and pesticides in the environment.

2. Follow product labels. Always. Using products “off-label” is against the law.

3. Understand resistance. Weeds and insects can develop resistance to herbicides and insecticides. That means that what works this year may not work next year. Alternating products and methods of control will help avoid this problem.

4. Don’t underestimate elbow grease. Taking a little extra time to dig out problem weeds in a garden bed – or even a lawn – is a form of “mechanical” control. Really pesky weeds may require a mix of both herbicidal control and cultivation. Also, using a lawn vacuum like a Cyclone Rake will help. It collects the weed seeds as you are mowing – keeping them from spreading themselves around the yard.  Some insects may even be controlled by trapping – or plucking them off the plants they are attempting to munch!