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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 26, 2007

BKW garden provides for the needy while helping students grow

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — An after-school program started last year at Berne-Knox-Westerlo has put down roots and is blossoming.

The BKW Connections after-school gardening program allows elementary and high school students to explore horticulture and also learn valuable team work and planning skills. Produce from the garden, located behind the elementary school, is delivered to Hilltown food pantries.

"We had a lot of produce that was almost sometimes overwhelming. We had a lot of tomatoes and a lot of beans last year," said Bonnie Conklin, a BKW elementary teacher.

"The point of the garden is to have this partnership with the resources in the community and to share the resources," said Linda Berquist, who runs BKW’s alternative education program.

Spearheaded by the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Voorheesville, the program was recently awarded a $250 grant from the Home Depot through the National Gardening Association.

Cornell donated two carts, which are used to organize and store tools. Cornell will also be matching the grant money, said Conklin.

Money will be used to purchase flowers to be placed around the garden’s perimeter and for children-sized tools, said Conklin.

"It teaches not only gardening skills"but also teamwork, self-esteem, and cooperation," said Matthew Canuteson of Families Together in Albany County.

Though torrential rains last June caused flooding throughout the Hilltowns, the garden wasn’t affected. It’s location atop a hill, Canuteson said, is "ideal" for a garden and allows for good drainage.

BKW students knew a lot about gardening, shared information with each other, and had the garden up and running quickly, said Berquist.

High school students educate the younger students, said Berquist. Last year, high-schoolers put down mulch, planted, and developed a plan for the types of produce and flowers they would grow.

"It’s their work to get it started," said Berquist, adding that the high-schoolers lay the foundation.

"That’s the tricky part," she said. "If the high-school students weren’t involved in the project, the garden probably wouldn’t exist," said Berquist.

Elementary students, who maintained the garden last summer — hoeing, weeding, watering, and picking vegetables — will probably be more involved in planting this spring, said Conklin. Elementary students learned about Native-American customs, and planted "The Three Sisters" — corn, squash, and beans, Conklin said.

Last fall, they grew Indian corn and pumpkins, and made a Native-American scarecrow out of turkey feathers, she said.

Donations have aided the program. Berne’s highway department donated mulch; the True Value in East Berne, Conklin said, is donating stain for a picket fence, planned to go up in May.

Conklin said the project organizers are looking for volunteers to put up the fence in May and for donations of paint, and posts; they are planning to decorate the garden with the school’s colors, she said. The fence, she said, will be painted maroon, and yellow flowers will be planted around the garden’s perimeter.

Virag says
Gardens stand for hope in a world where time blinks

By Rachel Dutil

Irene Virag takes inspiration from the earth.

The 51-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and 10-year breast-cancer survivor is a garden columnist for Newsday.

Virag views gardening as more than merely an enjoyable pastime. "It got me through the darkest days of my life," Virag told The Enterprise about the garden at her home on Long Island.

She sees the garden as a metaphor for life and death, for rebirth and survival.

Virag recently spoke at the 2007 garden show at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. She talked about gardening, told inspiring anecdotes, and proudly referred to herself as a survivor – "I’m a breast-cancer survivor" A 10-year survivor," she said.

Virag described the morning of her 41st birthday, when she realized without a medical diagnosis that she had breast cancer.

She said that she felt a lump on her breast and knew immediately what it meant, but she was too scared to physically mouth the words to her husband, Harvey Aronson.

She told of the loving birthday card he had left for her on her night stand, and the fear that encompassed her thoughts. And she also spoke of the healing she found in her garden.

When her diagnosis came, Virag was already gardening and writing Newsday’s garden column. She and her husband had been discussing expanding their garden, she remembered. Because of their property layout, they had decided that they needed to expand into the front yard, the best location for direct sunlight.

Virag didn’t want her diagnosis to stymie the garden of their dreams, she said. So she and her husband began designing it.

The first year of the garden was the first year of Virag’s treatment.

The garden became her sanctuary, where she went when she was feeling depressed or weary. The garden "was where I went to replenish my soul," said Virag.

"I found out what it’s like when you’re so weary you can barely move" I know what it’s like to search for hope in the blackness," Virag recalled for the listeners at the garden show.

"In a season of recovery, the garden provided hope," she added.

Aronson, a former senior editor at Newsday, said that he and his wife have "found the right niche," in gardening, adding that Virag means flower in Hungarian. Virag said that it was sort of destiny that she became so attached to flowers and gardening.

She grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., and, until she moved into her Long Island house about 15 years ago, "I was a serial killer of house plants," she joked.

Virag and Aronson purchased their home from people who enjoyed gardening, and Virag said that her "mission was to learn enough to know what was in my yard, and not kill it."

She became a novice gardener, and later, a garden columnist.

In 1984, she had been on the team at Newsday that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of a child with spina bifida.

In her column, which runs in the Newsday Sunday feature magazine, Virag writes about people as well as plants. "It’s really about what gardens mean in people’s life," she told The Enterprise.

"I think the best gardens go hand and trowel with the people they represent," Virag told the group who gathered at the garden show to hear her speak. "Gardeners put down personal roots when they plant," she said.

The garden at her home that provided a sanctuary for Virag during her "darkest days," and allowed her to "feel hope" and to see the "beauty and the bounty" in life, has "been that way ever since," she said.

She still considers her garden to be "a sign of hope for the future," she said, and a place where she goes to get charged up and replenished.

Gardens are a constant reminder that spring comes again and life goes on, Virag said. The rhythm of nature, Virag refers to as the cycle of the seasons.

"In life, as in the garden, time blinks," she said. "You go from just living your life, to wondering how long it will last."

Virag believes that, in this world, "We need all the beauty we can get."

She spoke of visiting the gardens at Battery Park City in the days following the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001. The gardens were covered in eight inches of dust in some areas, she said.

Dedicated people wearing respirators and rubber boots were working around the clock to clean things up, she remembered. "I saw hope," Virag said of the experience. "As long as we can plant, the healing can continue."

Kitchen remodeling: Cooking up elegance

By Jarrett Carroll

A kitchen.

Although it serves a simple and basic function in the home, it is often much more than a place to cook. Many homes today feature the kitchen as the centerpiece to the entire house, with granite and marble countertops, hardwood cabinets, and chrome appliances.

With countertop "islands," multiple ovens, and a plethora of new gadgets to use, the modern-day kitchen is more efficient and user-friendly then ever.

A local cabinet wholesale supplier says that one of the trends in kitchen renovation is a movement toward "solid surface" counters and away from traditional "laminate top" counters.

When it comes to kitchens, he says, the more cabinets, the better.

David Morin, owner of DWM Kitchens in Guilderland Center, has been creating kitchen designs for homeowners and selling wholesale cabinetry for the past 32 years. He works with hundreds of contractors in eight different counties to breathe new life into older kitchens.

"One of the trends that I’ve seen in the last few years is that people are opting for more solid surface countertops like granite and marble," Morin said. "The laminate counter used to be 90-percent of the business; now it’s hardly used in new renovations."

Business tends to be heavier for Morin in spring as the new construction season starts and home-improvement projects have begun. However, he said, the kitchen business is a year-round endeavor with most homeowners.

Morin sells all three types of cabinets: stock, semi-custom, and fully-custom made.

The custom cabinets are the most expensive to buy, but Morin said he doesn’t usually recommend them unless the homeowner is well informed.

"I usually try to talk people out of fully-custom, unless they really know what they’re getting into," he said. "With the right builder, you can take stock cabinets and create a really beautiful and unique kitchen for half the price."

Fully-custom cabinets can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"A couple of years ago, I sold a full-custom kitchen to Edie Falco for her Catskill get-away," Morin said, referring to the actress who plays "Mrs. Soprano" on HBO’s The Sopranos. "It cost her $40,000, just for the cabinets alone."

However, Morin said, a typical 10-by-12-foot "L-shaped" kitchen can be fully remodeled for less than $3,500.

Prices can vary greatly, he said, because of several variables such as the wood type used in the cabinets, appliances added, and the materials used for the counters. The more you add, the higher the price, he said.

The solid-surface countertops like Corian, marble, and granite increase the price, he said. Typical kitchen renovations range between $4,500 and $6,500, Morin said.

"Because I’ve done this for so many years and I know so many builders and remodelers," said Morin, "I know the ideal guy for every particular project, no matter what kind of job it is."

Bringing his laptop to the job site, Morin uses specialized software to print out renderings of what new kitchens will look like, along with color and counter samples.

"I bring the showroom to the customer," he said.

Spring Cleaning Tips from the Queen of the Household

By Ellen Zunon

Just imagine: It is April 1891 and your husband has come home with a brand new book to help you with your spring cleaning. The title page announces: Queen of the Household: A Carefully Classified and Alphabetically Arranged Repository of Useful Information on Subjects that Constantly Arise in the Daily Life of Every Housekeeper.

Indeed, the heavy volume, all 737 pages of it, is chock full of recipes for all occasions, laundry tips, hints on cleaning furniture and woodwork, child care, home remedies for common ailments, "many uses of common things" — and a whole chapter on fancy ways to fold napkins.

The book was written by Mrs. M.W. Ellsworth, also known as the Queen of the Household, published by her husband, and sold all through the United States by traveling salesmen. The edition I have was published in Detroit in 1891, and must have been purchased by my great-grandparents the year after my grandmother was born.

Now it is tattered, torn, and stained in spots, which bears witness not only to its advanced age, but also to the fact that it must have been used a lot. I picture Mrs. Ellsworth, née Tinnie Olmsted, as the Martha Stewart of her day, but her advice and instructions seem much more down-to-earth than those of today’s domestic diva. In fact, as her husband’s preface states, the book is "rigidly economical, thoroughly practical, with short but plain directions, and nothing put into it simply to fill [it] up.

No-till farming and gardening saves time and fuel and helps the soil

By Jo E. Prout

The spring planting season is upon us, but farmers and gardeners have alternatives to traditionally-tilled plots, according to experts at Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization.

Environmentally-friendly farming and gardening methods can actually improve soil health, and increase yields. Reduced-tillage practices, which have been used for 30 years in this country, have improved since they were first introduced, according to Thomas Kilcer, a Cornell Cooperative Extension plant and soils specialist for Rensselaer, Albany, and Schenectady counties.

The methods vary, but each results in less tillage, causing less harm to the soil, and even improving the soil by building up organic matter. An inch of top soil can take up to 100 years to develop. Run-off from plowed fields can wash away nutrients or, worse, remove the precious topsoil altogether.

Some innovative farmers are now practicing no-till, and zone- or strip-till methods.

"No-till planting is coming closer to what nature does. Nature doesn’t turn all of the soil over," Kilcer said. "We can build the organic matter levels in the soil. It helps the ability to not go anaerobic. Keeping soil from washing away is the reason for no-till. The mold-board plow was mainly to kill the weeds."

No-till works "very well," Kilcer said. The farmer opens a little slit in the soil, puts in the seed and fertilizer, and uses a herbicide that breaks down quickly.

Early on, many farmers rejected no-till practices because it was difficult to control weeds.

"Now that we have a range of herbicides that are safer [than 30 years ago], we can control the weeds," said Kilcer.

Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm in Holtwood, Pa., is an educator and speaker with SARE. He has successfully used no-till practices on up to 200 acres of vegetables on his farm for 30 years. His neighbors have slowly followed suit.

"There is a consistent increase of usage of no-till, but that did not happen until I was successful for 10 years," Groff said. "In my immediate neighborhood, no-till acreage has increased to nearly half of all acres planted. In Lancaster County, no-till is over 20 percent now. No-till is increasing around the United States."


Besides the savings to the soil health, and a decrease in soil compaction from the many traditional passes over the fields needed with traditional plowing, no-till practices offer "huge fuel savings" to farmers, Kilcer said. Energy costs can be cut to one-tenth those of regular mold-board plowing. Traditional plowing moves two million pounds of soil in every acre.

"That was a lot of energy. With no-till, we don’t have to move that," Kilcer said.

Local farmer Timothy Stanton of Feura Farm in Feura Bush uses strip-till methods, where only the row being planted is disturbed, rather than the whole field. Stanton said that one of the biggest benefits to him is the time savings.

"You go across the field once, and then plant," he said. Traditionally, several passes to plow, furrow, and prepare the soil are needed.

"The biggest benefit of this whole thing is it’s better for the soil," Stanton said. Reduced-tillage stops erosion and does not damage worms in the soil.

"That’s a really important thing for your soil, is earthworms," Stanton said.

Kilcer said that two sample areas from a local farm using both traditional and reduced-tillage methods were compared for earthworm populations. In the plowed 30-square-foot area, two large night crawlers were found. (Smaller worms were not included in the counts.) In the no-till area of the same size, between 50 and 60 large earthworms were found.

"Worms are important," Kilcer said. "They drill holes down through the soil which allow water in and out. They chew up the soil and leave compost for plants to use." Full-scale plowing breaks up the airflow in the soil and smothers the worms, Kilcer said.


One deterrent to some farmers is the cost of new equipment for reduced-tillage.

"The biggest problem we had was the machine. It was really expensive," Stanton said. He began using reduced-tillage methods two years ago. The first year, he and his other interested farmers borrowed the necessary equipment from a dealer. Last year, he bought his own for about $12,000.

A shank on the equipment goes down in the soil, then discs disturb a small band of soil where the farmer will plant.

Kilcer said that newer planters need only minor modifications. A Schenectady County farmer, he said, converted a new planter for about $1,500, Kilcer said. "He said he’d pay it back in one week of fuel savings," Kilcer said.

Gardeners with a backyard plot, rather than acres of crops, can still practice no-till or reduced-till methods, Kilcer said. When grabbing a hand-held cultivator, Kilcer said, gardeners should remember "less is always more." Gardeners can use weed barriers to keep weeds from growing through. The newer barriers sold at garden stores let water through but not sunlight, he said. Gardeners cut slits in the barriers and plant through them.

"No-till can work in any scale, as the fundamental principles are the same," Groff said. "You have to adapt to your given situation, though. The reason why some farmers make it work and others can’t is complex. However, it is educating oneself, attention to details, and a higher level of management that is a common denominator of those who succeed."

The type of tillage to use is not one-size-fits-all, Kilcer said. "There’s no perfect system, like there’s no perfect crop." Fields coming out of hay and into corn will do well with no-till, but the soil breaks down after the first crop and strip-tillage should be used then, as should rotation from row crops to grass, Kilcer said.

"Rotation is an old, old practice that still works," he said.

Stanton converted 80 percent of his Feura Bush farm to strip-tilled crops, and he may do more this year. Last year, he put in 40 acres of sweet corn, and 10 acres of pumpkins. Previously, he had grown no-till field corn, but the method had its disadvantages.

"It never worked very well with sweet corn," Stanton said. He moved to strip-tilling afterward, and his yield has only been slightly less than what he would have gotten with traditional plowing. Stanton, however, said that the time savings with only one pass with the equipment more than made up for the insignificant reduction in yield.

"Overall, it’s going to be less expensive," Stanton said. "It’s not as much time, that’s for sure."

Weed control is important in the strips not tilled. "You have to be a little more diligent," Stanton said.

Crops with long growing seasons need warm earth earlier, and traditional plowing accomplishes that. Stanton said that he is still not convinced that he can put in his early crops using reduced-till methods, but he said, "We’re trying it."

No-till methods have been used in the Midwest for soybean and field corn crops for years, Stanton said, but the methods are now being applied here in the Northeast.

"Sloping land [receives] some of the most benefits of no-tilling because it reduces soil erosion," Groff said. "An added advantage is that you don't have to pick up rocks that get plowed up by tillage."

"It’s kind of exciting because it’s a win-win situation," Stanton said. "It’s going to help us with time and help the crop, and it’s really going to help the soil." He said that reduced-till methods are environmentally friendly and farmer friendly.

Year-round methods

Cover crops add to the health of the soil, and they can be planted using no-till methods, also.

"The best thing for soil health is always having something growing on the field," Kilcer said. After a corn crop, he said, a farmer can use a winter rye like triticale. A farmer can also plant a grass crop with a soil-building root system after a vegetable crop.

Groff agrees. On his website www.cedarmeadowfarm.com, he writes extensively about the uses of cover crops, which he grows on his fields.

"Farming isn’t as simple as people think. It can be very complicated," Kilcer said. "Farmers do care very much about their soil. Farmers who don’t take care of it don’t stay in business very long."

He suggested that gardeners or farmers with questions about reduced-tillage methods contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County at 765-3500. "They have an excellent Master Gardener program," he said.

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