When the Garden Stops Making Free Food!

by Sandy Swegel

The hard freeze is upon us here in Colorado.  We’re scurrying to save and process the last of the harvest.  Counters are full of green tomatoes. Winter squash line the shelves of the mudroom. But fresh organic food coming in from the garden is dwindling.  The time of buckets of lemon cucumbers in the walkway is over. (How does that plant produce so much fruit?) Despite good intentions of growing most of our own food, it is time to return to regular shopping at the grocery store.

Paying for food after getting all those zucchinis for free all summer can be a little depressing—especially if you end up paying $1.50 for a tiny little zucchini. For a while, I thought I was just getting old and turning into my Depression-baby grandmother who always complained about things being so expensive.  Even though she had money in the bank and a good social security check coming, later in life she took to having just two little chicken wings for dinner. That’s what I felt like going shopping this week as I bought just one onion, one squash and two pears when I went shopping.  Prices seemed so high.

Turns out prices really are high.  It’s not reported much on the news, but the cost of living is increasing and food prices are worse than the general economy. Since 2006, the consumer price index has risen 14% but the price of food has gone up 20% in the past six years.  Ouch.

So what do you do?  Besides planting even more vegetables and fruit next year, you have to watch what you buy. And you need to remember to keep buying organic produce even though it is relatively more expensive.

Prices are higher now than when you bought groceries last winter. But don’t compensate by eating pesticide-contaminated food.  The Environmental Working Group puts out a list every year of the foods that have the most pesticides even after they have been thoroughly washed.  They call the worst ones the “Dirty Dozen.”  Most of our staple foods are on the dirty list:  apples, celery, kale (!), cucumbers, and zucchini.  If you do have to save money this winter and buying non-organic food seems the only way to go, at least choose foods least likely to be full of pesticides…the items on their “Clean Fifteen” list.

And grow more food next summer!

Dirty Dozen: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ Data on food prices:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-august/price-inflation-for-food-outpacing-many-other-spending-categories.aspx#.Um5XtvmsgWc

Do Be Bitter

by Sandy Swegel

One doesn’t often go to a plant lecture and find oneself roaring with laughter, but that’s what happened this month when I went to see Amy Stewart at the Denver Botanic Gardens.  She is a gifted and entertaining writer and her stories about her latest book, The Drunken Botanist, could put her on the late night stand-up comedy stage.  You probably recognize Stewart’s name from previous books on earthworms (The Earth Moved) and flowers (Flower Confidential).  The Drunken Botanist is about the botanical origins of our favorite alcohol beverages. Many of her side stories are about plants as flavorings and medicines and I was intrigued by many of her ideas about bitters.

Bitter flavors and foods are coming back into favor after our long consumptive love affair with sugar.  Sweet is great, but bitter flavors stimulate the digestive system and offer depth and intensity to our foods and drinks.

Traditionally, we get our bitters at the beginning or the end of our meals. Amy Stewart starts her salads with an arugula-baby green mix and then adds leaves of other bitter greens and herbs to create a culinary digestive treat. Being a drunken botanist, she also likes to end her meals with bitter aperitifs like Campari or herbal liqueurs or drinks with Angostura bitters which are made from gentian root.

As you’re planning next year’s garden, be sure to include a range of bitters that are easy to grow. Chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio, and endive are excellent wildish greens that can be part of salads before meals.  Some bitter herbs you can snip into your salads include yarrow, rue, chamomile and peppermint. It may be just accidental, but many bitter leaves are also colorful (radicchio) or interestingly shaped (arugula). We must whet our appetite with our eyes as well as with bitter flavors.

In Amy’s honor, I served after-dinner drinks of soda water with splashes of bitter liquors. While toasting friends, I remembered that in another time, the enthusiastic toast “to your health” or “a votre sante” wasn’t just a good wish, but really described the medicinal benefit of a good bitter drink.

Amy Stewart’s webpage: http://drunkenbotanist.com/

If you want to learn more about the medicinal value of bitters as a digestive aid and even protector against diabetes and other illnesses, read the Weston Price Institute’s report.  http://www.westonaprice.org/basics/bitters-the-revival-of-a-forgotten-flavor

Photo credit http://the-bitter-truth.com/tag/jerry-thomas-bitters/ http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2009/02/recipe-for-salad-of-bitter-greens-with.html

4 FREE Season Extenders

by Sandy Swegel

We’ve had a couple of snows in Boulder now so it’s pretty hard to pretend the garden season isn’t over for most of us.  Too late for seeding fall crops or putting up a big hoop house.  But while we can’t extend the growing season, there are still sneaky ways to extend the season to harvest food and herbs.

There are two things we have to protect our gardens from, Frost and Critters.

Here in Zone 5 our daytime temperatures are still well above freezing and downright balmy in the 60s at times. But nighttime dips to the 30s can ruin vegetables and fruits still on the vine that otherwise might keep growing in warm daytime weather.

My 4 totally FREE season extenders to protect against frost are:

Old worn bed sheets (love the flannel ones with cartoon characters) lightly laid over anything that might be hurt by freezing. This includes vegetables (like green beans and squashes) and herbs.

Plastic bags of leaves Last week I reminded us to leave leaves on the garden bed….so these are bags of leaves your neighbor left out for the garbage. 🙂  Just quickly throw the bags over root vegetables as temperatures keep dropping to keep the ground from freezing.  As long as you can dig in the soil, your carrots and turnips and beets are still yummy!  Two bags of leaves squeezed around the basil patch are keeping basil alive.

Upside-down garbage cans I’m keeping a pepper plant going in cold temperatures (I want them to turn red) by putting clean garbage can upside down over it at night.  It doesn’t take much to protect against 29 degrees cold…just a pocket of air.

The Most Important Season Extender in my Neighborhood: A Roll of Chicken Wire. This fourth season extender is free only because I robbed it from a dumpster years ago!

The biggest obstacle right now to extending the season for squash to pumpkins are the (expletive deleted) squirrels and raccoons.  They love nothing better than sitting down to dinner on my pumpkins and gnawing holes through to get to the seeds.  A barrier of chicken wire hooped and secured over the ripening fruit is the only hope.

Plants in my free season extenders aren’t growing much….but they are still alive and producing nutrients…better than their fate in the back of my refrigerator.

Photo Credits: http://www.ruralintelligence.com/index.php/style_section/style_articles_garden/garden_an_early_frosthttp://www.ourhabitatgarden.org/habitat/seeds.html

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

by Sandy Swegel

And the nominees are:

Asters, Asters and Asters. I am always entranced by asters. They offer intense color at summer’s end and an alternative to the perfect rounded chrysanthemums you see for sale everywhere.  I don’t have many asters because sometimes they just dry up in late summer heat or they flop all over because I was too busy with the tomatoes to stake them…This year the asters bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.  Even wild asters were beautiful.  The Aster novae-angliae is a wonderful performer that does well even in partial shade.  Included with the nominees this year is the Daisy Aster, not a real aster but an Erigeron, but I have it lined along the edge of the garden where it has formed a mat of little white flowers for months this year.  Next year, I’m trying all of the blue asters.  They are just magnificent this year leaning through the neighbor’s chain link fence.

Yellow Columbine Always a good performer, yellow columbine is still pumping out flowers this fall. One little plant will probably get the “Most Determined” award by managing to seed itself and then grow up through the juniper. Yellow Columbine and Blue Scabiosa have competed in past years for being both the earliest and latest bloomers.

Red Salvias The blue salvias were nice enough this year, but the red salvias rule this fall, having tall bright flower heads in full bloom, glorious when highlighted by the gold foliage of nearby trees and shrubs.  The Salvia coccinea in the wildflower garden and the Salvia greggii and Salvia splendens in containers are competing for who can be the most vivid.

Agastache Hummingbirds and bees love the red salvias, but the agastaches must be very tasty this year.  A couple of weeks ago some wild winds had knocked over the agastache so I went out to try to stake them up a bit.  The bees that were out there happily feeding had a definite opinion. Their hum changed from a happy “I’m just eating and going here and there” to a menacing “Don’t touch my dinner” as I was jostling the plants and I decided the flowers looked just great, leaning over the nearby echninacea.

The judge for the garden awards isn’t very impartial, so the asters will probably win because they haven’t gotten any awards in recent years, but I think all four of these flowers would look fabulous planted together in a wildish meadow type design.

Primping for Winter Interest

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers. You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.  Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may. I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed.  The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be. It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself. I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.