July 6, 2011


Know what’s in your food: Garden

Cortland gardener plants wide variety of crops, says self-sufficiency is the way to go

GardenBob Ellis/staff photographer
Steve Muka, right, and his son, Phil, stand in their North Church Street vegetable garden on June 28.

Living and Leisure Editor

Steve Muka likes to know where his food comes from — and that’s right from his own garden.
“I like the idea that you can be totally self-sufficient,” he said. “You don’t need a field in California to provide your lettuce.”
The Cortland man, with a lot of help from his son, Phil, are enjoying the sense of self-sufficiency they have from vegetables growing on their property.
“I would like more people to try growing their own food,” said Steve Muka, a landlord in town.
He and his family — wife Cheryl, son Phil and daughter Natalie — buy organic food they can’t grow, buy meat raised locally from an area farmer, and hunt deer for venison that they eat.
“We have been hunting forever,” Muka said.
Muka also cans his vegetables, and freezing a little, to have homegrown food through the year.
“Canning is easy. I went online to Google canning vegetables. There are videos and self-help websites to learn from. When you buy a pressure canner, there are directions inside. I have been using it for two years,” he said.
A “wonderful” website Muka relies on for resources is He wants to connect with area gardeners and is on the lookout for a garden club to access.
Six years ago, Steve and Phil Muka, a graduate of SUNY Canton with a degree in alternative and renewable energy, put in a 15-by-60 foot garden at one of Muka’s properties. Phil helped plant and does most of the weeding.
This year, the two planted summer, butternut and acorn squash, cantaloupe, Swiss chard, brussel sprouts, three different kinds of carrots, kale, potatoes, three to four varieties of tomatoes, lettuce and some corn, as well as onions, a first this year on this plot.
Steve put in his own seed in mid-March, raising his plants in his basement under fluorescent light. He also saves his own seeds to plant again when possible and is very careful about the seeds he does buy, making sure they are heirloom, nonhybrid varieties. He steers clear of genetically modified seeds.
“One thing I really want to try, do it in the fall, is garlic. Almost all the garlic in stores come from China,” he said.
He’s also experimenting with a crazy variety of corn, Aztec, which is supposed to grow 24 feet. At another apartment complex, the Mukas have a 20-by-50 foot plot, growing corn and squash.
“We get about 400 pounds of winter squash,” said Steve Muka. “You throw it into your basement and it lasts all winter,” he said.
The two do not use any pesticides.
“It’s good soil. We put a lot of leaves in and rototill them,” Muka said.“We never have any problem with devastation with insects. They eat a little and we eat the rest. It’s almost fair. What you don’t want is a crop where there are no bugs eating it, or bugs eating a little and dying. That’s scary,” he said.
Muka became more concerned about healthy food and not eating food treated with pesticides in the last few years. His parents have always had a garden and his mother always canned. Plus last year, they saved $1,000 in food costs from gardening.
“It’s fun and it’s relaxing,” he said.
Phil Muka is finding it rewarding, he said, and gardening has become part of the ritual of spring for him. He weeds once a week, using a special device that looks like a hoe but is like a hollow square.
“Part of it is so my kids will learn from it,” said Steve Muka. “They will know it’s not that tough to feed yourself.”
The two are consistently successful with green beans, summer squash and tomatoes (except for last year’s blight).
“My dad, who has gardened for 55 years in Ithaca, they never had a blight like this in all those years, except last year. He lost all his tomatoes, too,” Steve Muka said.
Yearly challenges are eggplants and peppers: “But we planted them anyway,” said Phil Muka.
“It’s a learning process. We are still learning,” said Steve Muka. “I want to try and start them earlier indoors, so they grown bigger. ... I’ll probably start them in February next year.”
Their experiment with fava beans “didn’t do that well. We planted it again this year, just to see,” said Steve Muka.
“We are going to get the soil tested this year,” said Phil. The two want to see how they can get the most out of their land.
Steve Muka advised people new to gardening to start small and grow a few vegetables.
“It’s not too late to start a garden,” he said. “Even in the middle of July. You can plant green beans, summer squash, lettuce and spinach. You can still get a great crop.”

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