Best Ways to Learn to be a Better Gardener

I was browsing through the Amazon best-selling gardening books, thinking of possible gifts for gardeners. So many of the books are truly beautiful and full of information, but information isn’t as hard to find as it used to be.  A quick Google search can teach you all you really need to know about growing, say, brussels sprouts.  So I asked myself the question, what’s the best way to learn how to be a better gardener.

The common denominator of the gardening resources I continue to learn from is that they are based on observation and lots of practice.  The writers or researchers have spent a lifetime observing plants or soil or the gardener and have used careful observation backed with science or practice to come to good recommendations.

Here are my favorite sources that I refer to year after year:

For tending flowers and perennials, the best book is Tracy Di-Sabato-Aust’s Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques. Her advice on pruning and grouping plants and deadheading creates long seasons of spectacular color.

For winter gardening, Eliot Coleman is the man. If he can grow fresh vegetables year round in Maine without supplemental power, you can too. His Winter Harvest Handbook explains it in great detail.

For dealing with pests and bugs, an online source is my go-to place. UC-Davis maintains an extraordinary database of “integrated pest management” that has cultural and organic and traditional chemical ways of treating almost every problem you could have.

For planning your vegetable garden, John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) continues to be the best way to design your vegetable garden and decide what and how much to plant to become self-sufficient.

And finally, to prepare your food, I have old favorites and an online favorite.  Rosalind Creasy’s 1982 Cooking From the Garden is a constant source of inspiration.  Her latest book “Rosalind Creasy’s Recipes from the Garden” has excellent recipes for turning your garden produce into culinary delights.

My second favorite inspiration is the New York Times’ many food columnists. Recipes are all conveniently online.

If you prefer to use these sources, you can have the things people most often want from their gardens:  More Color. More Beauty. Healthy Food, and Easy Recipes to turn their produce and fruit into sublimely Delicious Food.

Bring the Outdoors In

 by Sandy Swegel

If early freezes haven’t killed all your plants, there’s still time to think about bringing some of your favorite plants indoors. You can bring in plants that thrive indoors to live on a sunny windowsill or you can bring in plants that will otherwise die and that you don’t want to lose, to overwinter in your cold garage.

First things First. The first thing before any plant comes indoors is to make sure it doesn’t have bugs or diseases.  Fall often brings outbreaks of aphids so if your plant is full of aphids, treat the pests first:  hose off the bugs, or soak the entire plant, roots and soil and all in some soapy water. Once cleaned up, you can cut it to size if needed and bring it to a sunny spot.

Watering is Different Inside My rosemary plant needs almost no supplemental water when it’s growing outside in the ground.  I’ve killed more than a couple of rosemary by assuming that’s the same conditions indoors.  The stress of heat and dry air of being indoors in a pot demands that I coddle the rosemary indoors a little and never ever let the soil dry out.

Saving plants in the dark in the garage. 

Dahlias can be lifted. Pots of bulbs for spring can be planted and stored.  Even geraniums can be kept in moist peat and overwintered to bloom again next year. That’s what the Swiss do…they aren’t about to repurchase all those geraniums than hang from balconies every year.  If you live in a very dry climate, you may have to water the dormant plants every month so the soil doesn’t desiccate. 

Plants that thrive indoors for me.

Geraniums Continual color, almost no bugs, and forgiving if I forget to water. Great in sunny windows.

Angel wing begonia I keep these in an indirect sun situation and water weekly.  They bloom and bloom all winter.

Coleus All the wild colored coleus and other foliage plants will do well in bright conditions if you keep snipping off the seed heads.  They can handle lower light but might get buggy.

Bougainvillea is my favorite. Its natural bloom time is winter and it is a stellar performer. Messy though since it drops a zillion dead blossoms.

Hibiscus. So pretty, so ever blooming in a sunny spot.  So likely to get hundreds of aphids. Keep washing the aphids off and hibiscus will make you smile all year.  Some dogs love to eat the spent flowers….they’re edible so it doesn’t hurt them unless you’re using chemicals to treat the aphids.

An Herb Pot Nothing beats fresh herbs for winter roasted vegetables and savory dishes. Rosemary, oregano, thyme all thrive with light.

Winter doesn’t have to be cold and gray….bring some outdoor color and pizazz in.

Managing Drought

Boulder is arguably the center of the meteorological world…NOAA, NIST, NCAR and other great scientific centers that study and forecast weather are located here.  I went to a lecture this week with three lead scientists talking about water and drought conditions this year and into the future.  As you can guess…no one said firmly….”this is what next year will look like.”  At best the forecasts were…either it’s going to be an “OK” winter or it’s going to be dry.  No one was forecasting massive snows that would replenish our water tables and reservoirs. 

Two things made our life more difficult this year from a weather and garden perspective: early bloom times and high temperatures. We had both of these events this year combined with an epic drought across the country.  Even if we start getting more rain and snow, it will take several years for our trees and our soils to recover from this year’s drought.

What you can do in the Garden this Fall before Winter comes:

Make sure everything is well-watered going into winter.  Don’t just rely on snow to help the plants get through…the plants and trees have the best chance of survival if they are well watered before soil freezes.

After the soil freezes, put more compost or mulch on your garden.  Keep that soil good and frozen all winter and protected from desiccation of winter winds.  If you’re in an area where there’s still time to get fall cover crops in…get them in now. Last year’s dry hot February and March was tough on soil and plants.

Spend some time this winter thinking about water use in your yard and whether you might find areas you can make more xeric to help spare the water you do have for other thirstier areas.  Lots of us had sticker shock this year when the water bills came. We have some good mixes of drought-tolerant wildflowers that will let you have flowers and not have to pay high water bills.

And Pray for Rain.

Drought Monitor:

Pumpkins, They’re not just Decorations!

by Sandy Swegel

I thought I had a great bargain when I found organic butternut squash at the grocery today for only $.99 per pound.  I was in definite sticker shock when the squash rang up over $4.75.  Well worth it for high-quality food of course, but suddenly, all those pumpkin and squash decorations I’m seeing around town look like they ought to be food for me and not just for the squirrels.  My neighbor starts cleaning up after holidays the minute the holiday is over…so on November 1st I loitered in her driveway and offered to carry off that large uncut pumpkin she had decorated the front porch.  At .99 cent/pound, it was at least a $25 value.

There are lots of ways to cook pumpkin, but like most winter vegetables I find roasting makes the flavor sublime.  I decided to cut the pumpkin in thick slices as I’ve heard they do in France, marinate the slices in olive oil and rosemary, garlic and oregano, and roast in the oven for 45 minutes or so.  Just as yummy as the butternut squash I cook that way. And free!

Once I started prowling the web for French recipes for pumpkin, I found what I will do with another big section of that pumpkin:  French fries. Well, officially they are called “Chips de Citrouille.”  A traditional French recipe has you them in milk, dredge them in flour seasoned with salt, and deep fry in a cup of oil for two minutes per side.  You can make lots of variations without gluten or even bake them instead.

Yum. Now what to do with a big pile of pumpkin seeds!

Food Swap!

by Sandy Swegel

A group of people who really like to eat interesting food has gotten together with a group of people who really like to cook and preserve interesting food and they’ve come up with a simple ingenious way to make each other happy.  Host a Food Swap!

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the people who do the most cooking and food preparation often don’t eat that much?  By the time the meal comes, they’re not all that interested in the final product.  Either they’ve been nibbling along the way, or they’ve already mentally started their next menu idea.  My friend Julia is like that.  Her pantry shelves are filled with rows and rows of preserves or exotic liqueurs and vinegars that she creates from Farmer’s Market produce she buys each week or gathers while out foraging after she does her high-tech computer job all day. Food is the medium for her art.

Fortunately, her friend Eve knew a lot of people like Julia, and other people who had small market farms and other people who simply loved to eat.  So each month, Eve organizes Food Swaps in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. Everyone brings what they do best or what they happen to have.  Last month’s swap items included:

Preserves from Julia
Fermented summer vegetable preserves
Winter Squash and leeks from a market farmer
Homemade vanilla extract
Fresh lard from a pig farmer
Crusty artisan breads
Soups:  grass-fed-beef minestrone and vegetarian split pea soup
Chilies preserved in vodka
Homemade tamales

Everyone gathers at a rotating local venue, spends the first half hour eying up each other’s products and swapping recipes or gardening secrets, then they decide what they want to swap.  If you want something from somebody who doesn’t want what you have…you find somebody with something they do want.  It’s a big but organized free for all….and amazingly everybody goes home happy with culinary treasures for the month.

Consider setting something up for your community or there might be something already going on.

Check Out:

Food Swap Network.

If you’re in Colorado, join us at Mile High Swappers.

And here’s a video from an Indiana Food Swap.