Succession Planting ~ Days to Maturity

Plant All Varieties

One of the challenges in the home vegetable garden is the cycle most gardeners experience of feast or famine…Either nothing’s ready to harvest or you have so much of a single crop all at one time, that lots of good foods end up going to waste.  Succession planting is the common way to manage the garden, staggering plantings over several weeks instead of just one big planting that first nice warm day. An even easier way to stagger your harvests instead of going out every weekend to plant again is to plant different varieties of the vegetable…each of which has a different time to harvest.  On the back of every seed packet, there’s a little bit of vital information “days to maturity.”

Surprisingly, not every variety of vegetable takes the same period of time to be ready to eat. Taking my spring favorite, the green pea, the labels reveal that Alaska Pea is an early pea and is ready to eat in only 55 days.  At the other end of the spectrum, Green Arrow is a late-season pea…It takes 68 days to ripen.  Dwarf Gray, the pretty pink-flowered oriental pea, is ready right in the middle at 59 days.

If you plant all three varieties on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th and allowing some time for germination, by the last week in May, the Alaska will be ready for eating.  In early June, you’ll still be getting some Alaska but the Dwarf Grays will be ripening.  Another week or so and the Green Arrows finally start. You can keep the harvest going even longer by making sure to keep the peas picked…so they keep making new peas. After a good five weeks of peas, you’ll be ready for something new.

You can apply this technique to any vegetable…If you plant several varieties of lettuces on the same day, the loose varieties will be ready first. Then the slower heading varieties will begin plumping out and finally, a sturdy, late-season lettuce like Black-Seeded Simpson that can handle a little heat will round out the season.  An even easier way to plant lettuce is to plant a mix like the Heirloom Blend which includes several different kinds of lettuces with different maturities all in the same packet.  You can extend lettuce even longer by harvesting with a cut and come again method…Bring your scissors and cut off what you need for your salad.  The plant will regrow for next week’s salad.

So just a little, advanced planning with the backs of your seed packets will keep a nice steady supply of perfect fresh “local” vegetables on your table.  Fresh lettuce right from the garden is something beautiful to dream about during these cold winter days.

Last Frost – Counting the Days

How to Determine the Day in Your Area

The gardener’s mantra in winter is, “how many days until the last frost?” But if you ask three gardeners you know what the last frost date is in your area, I’ll bet you get three different answers. That’s because determining “average” last frost is a lot like betting. Scientists can’t really add up a bunch of dates and divide by the number of dates and get an “average.”  So they go for the technically more accurate “median” last frost and give you probabilities. You know probabilities….like the days that had an 80 percent probability of rain and the sun shone all day….or the picnic you planned on a day with 20% chance of precipitation and you got drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm. We just can’t definitively predict the weather.  And we can’t say….gee, global warming…I guess I can start my seeds early.

But good gamblers know how to hedge their bets….and that’s what we do with the last frost. We go to the official climate records at

There, you select your state, then find your city and look in the third column that lists the 90% probability for temperatures above 32 degrees.  That means that in the last 100 years they were keeping records, the temperatures went below 32 after that date only ten of those years. Good odds.

Hedging your bets though means being ready just in case. Ten of those years it did freeze after the magic 90% probability date.  And there are other variables. All those temperatures were recorded 5 feet above ground…meaning it might have been colder on the ground where your tender little basil was. And you know how many little micro-climates there are in your yard….the south-facing bed next to the house, the bed on the north side that doesn’t warm up till June. So pick your date…but have your frost blanket ready just in case! Here in Boulder, Colorado the 90% probability date we use is May 14th, but the actual last frost back in 1951 was June 3rd!

Get your big calendar out and circle your last frost date in red. Trackback each week and write in how many weeks left until the last frost….and you’ll easily know if it’s time to plant that packet of seed yet.  If you’re really an organized person, you can clip your seed packets to the appropriate week to plant. Or write the date for sowing on the front of your seed packet.

Count the days.  Here in Boulder, it’s 11 weeks until the last frost. Too soon to start tomatoes but about right for starting perennials, cold hardy herbs and onions.

Linguine Carbonara with Cauliflower, Peas & Pancetta

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

Linguine Carbonara From the Gardens of Mike Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

Ingredients:   3/4 pound linguine 4 ounces pancetta or 4 slices bacon, chopped 1 head cauliflower 1/2 cup peas (preferably fresh) 2 teaspoons olive oil 1/4 cup half and half or milk 2 egg yolks, beaten 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese Salt & black pepper

Directions:             Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions, reserving ½ cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.   Add 1 teaspoon olive oil to a large skillet and brown the pancetta over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until crisp, 5 to 8 minutes; transfer to a plate.   Add another teaspoon of olive oil, cauliflower, peas, ½ cup reserved water, a dash of salt and black pepper, to the drippings in the skillet. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, covered, until the water has evaporated and the cauliflower and peas are almost tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, tossing occasionally, until golden brown and tender, 4 to 5 minutes more.   In a small bowl, whisk 2 egg yolks and half and half/milk together. Add the cauliflower, peas, egg yolks, and Parmesan to the pasta and toss to coat over low heat. Cook until sauce thickens. Top with additional black pepper. Enjoy!   Fresh from Mike’s yard: cauliflower and peas, and today’s eggs.

Gardening on Top of the World

…with Penn Parmenter!

Baskets of Beauty

Food is beautiful.  I love growing hanging baskets of beautifully colored lettuces and greens. They make a wonderful winter gift and I promise you – if you show up to your next dinner party with a full-blown basket of edible beauty – you will win the night.  It won’t be ‘re-gifted’ the way that bottle of wine that travels around your circles does. Use a pretty bowlful of living greens as the centerpiece on the table and just pick and eat them with your dinner! I always find myself admiring the basketfuls of color – dangerous because if you don’t keep cutting them they can slow down and age out right before your eyes!  So cut them an inch above the crown regularly to keep vigorous growth happening. When spring comes – I simply take them outside and hang them in the trees where they are protected from hail, hot sun and wind. As for types – I often make my own mesclun (salad mixture) – starting with colorful lettuce favorites, herbs, brassicas and other greens like claytonia, nasturtium, mache, arugula and cilantro.  Use your artistic eye to pair stunning colors and textures. Or I’ll try some ready-made BBB Mesclun Mix and at this time of year they will grow so quickly I’ll be back in just a minute to write about how good it was. And take pictures of it too – because food is so beautiful.

Simple Instructions on How To Direct Sow a Container.

1. Find the container of your choice – I use the old hanging Petunia baskets from the super-market rolling around my backyard.

2.  Choose a filler like Pine needle mulch, leaf mold or potting soil and fill the container ¾ full.

3.  Moisten your soil-less seed starting mix – I use Coir, perlite and wet it with a liquid kelp solution – a wonder fertilizer – and fill the remaining ¼ of the container.

4.  Sow seeds like BBB’s Gourmet Salad Blend, Speckles Bibb, Freckles Romaine, radish, basil, cilantro, seedling pea, claytonia, mustards, etc.

5. Cover the fine seed with a fine amount of seed starting mix and the larger seed with more.

6.  Use your hand to gently press down the soil-less mix for good seed-to-soil contact.  This is crucial for good germination. 

7.  Gently sprinkle kelp solution on the surface – don’t wash away seeds.

8.  Cover with plastic, newspaper or glass to keep steady moisture – I use a produce bag, which floats on top of the plants as they germinate.  For newspaper – keep it wet, and remove as soon as germination begins, for plastic, I leave it on a little longer to keep everybody germinating.

9.  Lettuces like it cool, basil likes it warm, so place the basket accordingly. Under lights is helpful too but not necessary. Skylights work well with a direct-sown basket.

10. Remove the plastic whenever you like.

11. Enjoy – cut often.

12. Plant another container to keep it coming!

Written by Penn Parmenter Copyright © 2013

Super Easy Seed Starting: The Baggie Method

Seed Starting Tips

Are you insecure about seed starting? Or uncertain if your old seed is still good? The easiest, fastest way to germinate seeds is one actually developed by a scientist and involves a paper towel and a baggie. Not very hi-tech…but very reliable and easy. Dr. Norman Deno used this method to document the germination of seeds of over 5000 different plants. His three books on his life’s work of Seed Germination have recently been made available to the public domain in the USDA National Agriculture Library:

You’ll find more complicated versions of the baggie method on the internet, but this is the simplest and easiest. My only variation is that I store the baggies with the seeds and paper towels on top of the refrigerator where it is warm.

In Dr. Deno’s words and drawings:

Basic Procedure. The only materials needed for the basic procedure are (A) ScotTowels, a high wet strength paper towel made by the Scott Paper Company; (B) Baggies. a polyethylene bag made by the Mobil Chemical Company; and (C) Pilot extra fine point permanent markers made by the Pilot Corporation of America. A perforated section of paper towel is torn off and folded in half three times in alternating directions to give a rectangular pad 2.5 x 4.5 inches. The name of the species and any other information is written on the outside of the pad with the Pilot marker. The final (third) fold is opened, and the towel is moistened with water. The seeds are sprinkled on the moist open pad. The third fold is closed and the whole thing placed in a Baggie. Fold the Baggie several times so that evaporation of water from the towel is inhibited, yet leaving ample access to air to ensure aerobic conditions. The following drawings illustrate this procedure.

Dr. Deno gave credit for this method to Margery Edgren at an annual meeting of the American Rock Garden Society.

Drawings from Seed Germination Theory and Practice by Dr. Norman Deno, Second Edition. 1993.

See more photos:

Winter Watering Decision Matrix

How To Make The Right Choice

Yesterday was a glorious snow day. There was light fluffy snow falling steadily all day. It gathered about three inches on the car, but this morning, winds have reduced what’s on the ground to a rather negligible half inch. That great day of snow is going to amount to almost no actual water getting into the ground. In dry climates like Colorado, the snow evaporates under relentless winds or high sun and after a day of warm sun, it won’t be muddy or wet in the garden…except in little north side niches.

The taunting appearance of moisture is one of the reasons I made my own winter watering decision matrix…so I would have a methodical approach of deciding when to water in winter and not just let visual clues like ”it snowed all day” decide whether watering is necessary.

So here’s my Decision Matrix for Wintering Watering:

Has it been dry without significant precipitation or snow cover for the last two weeks and/or have the temperatures been warmer than usual?

If yes, the next step is to walk outside and ask,

“Is the ground frozen?”

If the soil is frozen, winter watering doesn’t help anything. Any water would just roll off the soil and not do the plants any good.  Go back inside.

I usually wait until a couple of days of warmer or sunnier mid-day temps and repeat the “Is the ground frozen?” question in the afternoon.

When the soil is thawed, then the next question is,

Did I plant new plants in 2012? If the answer is yes….then you need to winter water those plants once a month during dry times.  This is true for new trees, bushes and perennials.  You need a good slow soak right at the root ball.

Now move to other parts of the garden with older plants and ask, “When I put my finger in the soil, is it moist one inch down?  You’re checking the soil here….not just the mulch on top of the soil.  If it’s still moist, then go back inside and leave the water in the aquifers.

If the soil is dry an inch down, water now to save the lives of your plants and especially your trees which have suffered greatly with drought in most of the country over the last year.

Water slowly so it can seep into the soil.  A good rule of thumb is 10 gallons of water per inch of stem caliper.  If you have one of those root watering spikes….insert it shallowly…less then six inches….most roots are rather shallow and you don’t want to water under the roots.

Here are resources: a winter watering fact sheet, and the US Drought Index.  Most of the country is under greater drought now than it was a year ago. In Colorado after the drought in 2002, we lost many of our trees the following years….because the impact of one year of drought stresses trees and plants for years. So this is the time to save your landscape. Don’t water on top of snow or frozen soil….but keep your decision matrix in mind as we finish out this winter.

Floriferous! Designing with Annuals

Our Favorite Wildflower Seeds

More color. More flowers. These are the most common requests I hear from clients and friends who have lovely gardens full of perennials but whose gardens at certain times of the year still look a bit too green. Annuals planted in large drifts or patches is an easy and very colorful answer. And with certain annuals, they reseed themselves so it’s almost as if they are perennials…you don’t have to do much to get them to return each year.

To get this effect of a burst of color in your garden, you’ll want to try a “specimen planting”. This is an intense patch of just one type of flower. It can be many different colors of the flower but just one kind of flower gives a vivid look.

Here are my favorite specimen plantings:

Cosmos bipinnatus in a tall mix of pink, white and crimson is a favorite in gardens.  They grow about waist high and don’t really need deadheading.  There’s something old-fashioned and timeless about cosmos that people love to have them as regulars in their yards.

Four O-clocks.  I was excited to see this new addition to the catalog this year.  Not as ubiquitous as cosmos, they are a magnificent part of a garden, especially when planted somewhere you can see them outside your kitchen window when you’re preparing dinner. They really do stay closed during the day and open around 4 pm.  They aren’t adapted to daylight savings time….so it might be more like 5 pm in your yard.

Zinnias.  These are the annuals you wish you planted, come mid-summer. Each bloom lasts a long time, is perfect for cutting, and the specimen planting provides a tall sturdy vibrant color.  Another old-time favorite for a good reason: they are great flowers.

Chinese Asters. This is another new addition to the catalog this year that inspires me.  Midsummer and fall, in particular, are times that don’t have the variety of colors people desire.  The perennials of this time tend to the yellow/orange range  Chinese asters are a great burst of purples and pinks and creamy whites that have large flower heads that make them perfect for cutting. They’ll handle full sun, but I’ve seen asters thrive in areas with dappled shade where just a little shade enhances their color in the blazingAugust sun.

These four are my current favorites for annual specimen plantings. Add in other annuals like poppies mixed throughout the garden and maybe the calendula mix in the vegetable garden, and your garden will “pop” all season long.

What’s Growing on my Windowsill?

How To Still Grow Outside

It’s still too early to start seeds indoors in Colorado, but I’m yearning for fresh growing things instead of the brown stubble of winter that greets me outdoors. My growing space is an unheated solarium that dips down to 40 degrees at night but warms up to the 70s and 80s during sunny days.  Last month, I started three containers that now are steadily producing that vibrant spring green color.

Pea greens.  These give me special pleasure because I like the taste of peas and because tiny containers of pea shoots in the grocery store cost $4.99. I snip these for stir-fry or to toss into the juicer.

Microgreens. Yeah! Salad. They aren’t big enough for eating yet but it’s joyful to recognize tiny beets and lettuces growing on my sill.  Hardly any work involved….I just opened the pack of seeds and spread them on some potting soil. I’ll clip them in another two weeks or so and let them keep growing till outdoor greens are ready.

Wheatgrass. My little flat of wheatgrass is just beautiful with its promise of spring meadows. I put some into the juicer, give some to the chickens who love spring grass, and let the rest keep growing a mini field in the house.

Now if I were a hunter like my sister’s Texas family is, it would be much easier to provide my own food in winter. Yesterday, I opened my front door to find at least 100 Canada geese walking around my suburban yard.  If I had been fast, I could have caught one with my hands, they were that close.

Garden Makeover in One Step

How To Dramatically Improve Your Gardening Space

This is now the amazing third year I’ve written twice a week for this blog and I’ve heard the question before: how do you come up with ideas for so many posts? One answer is that I simply look at what I am doing in one of the dozen gardens that I take care of weekly and write about that. Other times, that seems boring and I give up and go to bed and set the alarm early to write in the morning. As I fall asleep, I beg the dream catcher gods to present me with a perfect topic by morning. It took a while for this to work reliably, but now I can count on a mini-gardening dream just before I wake up in the morning.

In this morning’s dream, I visited the garden of a longtime client who had passed away two years ago. I don’t always like to visit gardens I once cared for because I have separation anxiety about letting go of plants I cared for so long, but last night’s dream showed me the perfect easy Garden Makeover that can dramatically improve your gardening space.

The new homeowners had hired an arborist as arborist services can assist with managing all their trees. The property was about 45 years old and had a lovely tree canopy but also some major breaks from early snow last year. The arborist came and deftly removed trees that were in decline, thinned crossing or broken branches, dramatically trimmed large branches that might break from snow in the future, and even convinced the owners to remove a big Siberian elm (a weed tree here).

I barely recognized the yard. Most of us don’t call an arborist until winds or snow bring some huge chunk of a tree down, hopefully not on our roof or car. As these professionals have experience in tree removal services, you know that you and your garden are in the best hands possible. There was no way that I could have done this on my own. And the trees hadn’t looked really bad. But the newly trimmed dream garden looked amazingly better with light coming in on a perennial garden area that had to rely on foliage for color because the shade had gotten deep. Everything looked cleaner and less full of the clutter of dead or crossing branches. Dappled shade is beautiful, lets flowers bloom, and plays light tricks with the sun. The monstrous Siberian elm will be missed, but for a small residential lot, the Montmorency cherry will be much more appropriate and yummy. Over in the corner, the arborist even left a hollowed out trunk core of the elm standing near the fence. This will make a perfect fairy garden area for the homeowner’s kids. I thought that was a rather vivid touch for a five-minute dream.

Arborists, like so many homeownership tasks, can be expensive. However, their consultations are usually free if you are a do-it-yourselfer and want to do some of the work yourself. I advise my clients to have their arborist come every two years to spread the work and expense out. Any money spent on old large trees will be a good investment in protecting your roof and car. And of course, you can get the free mulch from your ground up trees.