A Year of Surprises

by Sandy Swegel

People often ask how long do seeds last, but they usually are referring to seeds in packets.  The question I’m astonished by this year is “How long do seeds last in the soil?” Colorado is a pretty dry place and there aren’t that many plants that reseed prolifically the way that happens in warmer, more humid places.  But this year is a year of surprises.  Most years we are lucky if we get 20 inches of rain all year. But last September we had 17 inches of rain in one month and the highest annual precipitation ever recorded here.  All that moisture refilled our underground water reservoirs, remoistened soils desiccated by recent years of drought, and awakened seeds and roots that had long been dormant.

Since September, gardens have been a constant surprise for me. It started in October when Naked Lady bulbs I planted 6 years ago appeared. The bulbs had bloomed the first year I planted them and then never again.  I assumed they died….but somehow those small bulbs were deep in the ground just biding their time for the right conditions.

Yesterday I watched new blooms on pink columbines that were first planted 14 years ago. Those hybrid columbines gradually all reseeded to yellow but yesterday, about 20 feet from the original bed of pink columbines, a seed that had waited patiently in dormancy suddenly lept to life.  Pink! That seed had been brought by the wind or birds to a spot where it was just waiting for its moment.  Near the asparagus bed, tulip bulbs that had been planted too deep many years ago found their way to the surface and are now late bloomers blooming with the iris. A strawberry patch that had dwindled to just a few puny plants exploded three feet in every direction. Even weeds seem like old friends.  I thought I had successfully weeded horsetail out of the rock garden years ago but ten shoots are poking up through the snow in summer.  There is something so abundant about this year that I’m even happy to see the weeds.

I can’t wait to go hiking in the foothills this weekend.  Reports from around the state suggest that we are having a stellar wildflower year. All of Colorado is going to look just the pictures on our wildflower seed packets!!!

Photo Credits
Todd Caudle http://outtherecolorado.com/gallery/1735/pictures/281747


Less is More

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite things to do is spend other people’s money.  Or better said, to go shopping with them and encourage them to buy the cool things they want to buy.  I always covet plants and yet I know I don’t have the time or space to buy as many as I want, so it is fun to live vicariously through others. “Yes that Japanese maple would look beautiful by your front door.”  “You just have to get this hand-forged trellis, wooden ones are so dinky and break after awhile.” etc.

I’ll still encourage people to buy quality garden structures or funky garden art, but I’ve slowed down on encouraging them to buy lots of plants.  It was writing last week about biointensive gardening that reminded me. One of the themes of John Jeavons’ book is to create one garden bed and create it well (double dug, good soil amendments). Better to have one bed producing a lot of food than three beds barely eking out enough for dinner.

Plants need attention to establish, at least if you live in a difficult climate like Colorado.  You can’t just plant a bunch of plants and ignore them.  I know, I’ve accidentally killed a lot of plants that way.  You just end up guilty at the waste or feel like a failure as a gardener. So slow down before you buy out the garden center or plant out hundreds of seedlings. Just because it’s inexpensive to grow from seed doesn’t mean your work growing and planting isn’t valuable. We’ll leave for another day, and a bottle of scotch, the esoteric discussion of the karmic implications of killing plants.

How to Practice Less is More
Focus on one section of your garden for new plantings
Decide to spiff up just one area this year with new plants. I encouraged my friend to focus on the entry bed for now and later get plants for the rest of the yard. Many gardeners have “nursery” beds for new plants where they let them grow the first year.  They can remember to take care of the babies in the nursery.

Pick a learning theme of the year.
I kept twenty new plants alive and thriving the year I made an herb bed and planted twenty different herbs just to learn how they grew. (FYI, it’s easy to grow lots of ginger and one tansy plant is enough for the rest of your life.) Another year I focused on containers and planted containers of annuals each of one color in a matching pot.  So cute.  The focus on one kind of plant helped me be a better gardener.

I love one plant of every kind, but a designer friend showed me how cluttered and unattractive that can be.  Pick a few plants and repeat them and your garden will look professionally designed.  For example, in a perennial bed, plant one kind of grass as a “bones” of the bed and plant a few native flowers around the base of each grass.

So enjoy the season and the new plants…but make “Less is More” your mantra. Unless of course you have a full staff like Martha Stewart does.

Photo Credits:




What to Unplant

by Sandy Swegel

I’ve been watching my neighbor Tory’s vegetable garden with great interest this year. She worked as a farm intern (ie. Full-time farming, almost no money) the last couple of years and has brought farm techniques to her home garden. Yesterday as we enjoyed the latest harvest of arugula she announced it was time to dig these up and plant something else.  I was surprised since she just seeded these arugula in early March.

From a market farming perspective, you grow greens to harvest a lot of food quickly.  She seeded the arugula early and when they are big enough to harvest she cuts them to just an inch or so above the soil level.  Then she lets them grow again and the cycle repeats.  Plants grown like this produce a lot of food, but they also get tired and worn out.  The plant itself is depleted.  Tory made her decision to dig under the arugula because the plants weren’t growing as vigorously as before and, the biggest factor, they didn’t taste as good. Whether it was the hard fast growth or a recent week of warm weather, the arugula was getting a little too spicy.  It seems harsh, but if you want to keep eating from your garden, you have to unplant the less productive plants and know what to unplant.

Things I’ve unplanted this week:
Arugula that has been harvested three times and is losing vigor.HERB, Organic Arugula, Wild
Kale that had overwintered. It was great to have kale from last year’s plants, but the old woody stems are no longer producing as well as the new plants.
Radishes that got bitter.  A week of rain followed by a week of heat made huge bitter radishes. They look great but we crave sweet young vegetables.

Garden more productive and more beautiful.

In the perennial garden, I’ve been unplanting too.
Poppies that have spread everywhere.  They are at risk of becoming a weed.
Plants that have grown too big for where they are planted.
Plants that are blocking sprinkler heads.
Plants that I’ve never liked.

Gardeners are often loathe getting rid of plants. They feel sorry for them.  They’ve come to know them as friends.  But there is a time and season for every plant and a good gardener learns to be a little ruthless. If you want to have succession gardening, you have to create the empty space for the next plant. It may seem harsh, but you have to declutter and make space for new growth!




by Sandy Swegel

My favorite foraging is for the elder plant…both the elderflowers now and the elderberries later in summer.  I adore elderberries in jam or sauce and that’s my primary use for the berries (in addition to a medicinal elixir.)  But once I knew the location of sufficient elderberry bushes and trees that I could risk taking the flowers also, I became a big fan of elderflower drinks.  Especially champagne. Who wouldn’t love do-it-yourself-in-a-few-weeks champagne?

Making elderflower cordial or champagne is super easy and has only a few guidelines:

-Find a good plant, preferably not on a busy road where it picks up car exhaust and pollutants.

-Pick the flowers earlier in the day. (I don’t think you have to actually make sure the dew is still hanging from the blossoms.)

-Process the flowers right away.  Experience has taught me the flowers spoil easily. Things that don’t work:  keeping the flowers in the car all day while you run errands; keeping the flowers in the refrigerator (they brown), leaving the flowers in a bucket of water for a day.  Just process them within a couple hours of picking for best flavor.

There are lots of recipes online, but the basic recipe is flower bunches, sugar, acid (either lemon juice or vinegar.) You don’t have to add yeast…there are usually plenty of wild yeasts on the blossoms…although connoisseurs use champagne yeast from the brewing store.

Here’s an easy recipe: http://www.farminmypocket.co.uk/harvest/home-brewing/elderflower-champagne-recipe

Here’s a recipe that uses champagne yeast: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jun/01/how-to-make-elderflower-champagne

Last year I was very happy making elderflower cordials…which is the same basic recipe but it’s ready in just two days.  But it doesn’t have bubbles, so now that I know I can turn elderflowers into a delightful drink, I’m aiming for bubbles this year.

Elderflower cordial http://britishfood.about.com/od/recipeindex/r/efowercordial.htm





Tackling Weeds

by Sandy Swegel


Our friend and blog reader CJ recently sent us some great suggestions about tackling weeds when you are absolutely overwhelmed by weeds on your property.  She has a large hilly country property that is atop a mesa so weed seeds fly in from miles around.  Her gardens are xeriscaped and mulched which helps discourage weeds, but last Fall’s flooding here in Colorado has created a bumper crop of tall lush weeds that threaten to take over everything.

If you have more weeds on your property than you have hours in the day to pull, here are her suggestions.

First, I tackle any weed that is threatening the life of a plant I care about.
I weed an area around the plant perimeter. This doesn’t take too long, and often is the first weeding I do in the spring.

Second, I must give priority to any weed that is going to seed.
Especially if it is upwind from my beds.   Downwind, given our terrain, I don’t care too much.   I just weeded cheatgrass and that thin sticky thing with tiny yellow flowers along the driveway berm.  Got the whole thing weeded in a little over an hour.

Third, I weed where the weeds bother me…as in, if something is getting ready to bloom, I don’t want to stare through a bunch of weeds to see it.  So I try to be aware of focal points, and where the eye is naturally drawn to.

Finally, with noxious weeds, my rule is just to get rid of them before they release seeds, at all costs, but not necessarily as a first priority if they are still flowering.   (and yes, I left the donkey tail this year until now because it is the first thing in my garden for the pollinators, along with the dandelions.)

Of course, sometimes when I just need a rush, I go out and pull the biggest weeds I can find, so after 30 minutes I have this pile twelve feet high and feel like I’ve really accomplished something.   :  )

Thanks to CJ for sharing her wisdom of many years of living on the windblown high plains.  I love the idea of the adrenaline rush from a frenzy of pulling big weeds.  I do love doing that too!



Photo credit http://bikesandbirds.blogspot.com/2010/07/weeds.html




Spring Tune-up for your Drip Irrigation

by Sandy Swegel

For gardeners in dry climates, irrigation is a necessary evil.  Irrigation makes growing possible, but it can be a

royal pain trying to keep it intact and actually watering the plants it is intended to water.  You will have fewer problems with your irrigation (and thus fewer dying plants) if you take the time in Spring to tune-up your drip system.

To tune-up your drip system, wait for a fine day in Spring after there has been a dry period, and manually turn your drip system on and run it for about 15 minutes.

Here’s your check list:

 Obvious leaks and holes.  This is easy….a big spray of water up in the air is the surest sign an emitter has popped out of its hole or a line has been accidentally cut.  I use the little flags on sticks to mark places that will need repair.

 Dislocated or broken lines. The reason you run the drip system for 15 minutes before you start to check individual plants is so you will easily be able to see the spreading moisture in the soil under each dripper.  If you can physically see a little drip line but no water, then the line is clogged or has been dislocated from the main supply line.  How does this happen?  Squirrels and dogs disconnect lines when they run through the garden.  Little creatures like mice have figured out that water runs through these lines and a little nibbling on the tubing provides a water supply from the water left in the line.  Most of the time you just reconnect the tubing and are done.

 Clogged emitters.  Sometimes emitters just break but most of the time an emitter that’s not emitting is just clogged.  Tiny insects have figured out this water source too….and sometimes lay eggs right in the emitter tip, which from their perspective is probably a nice moist cave. Usually just taking the emitter and blowing into it is enough to clear the line.  I’ve also seen plant roots grow up a tube looking for water.

 Sliced lines.  This is from human error.  A garden full of tiny drip lines and sprinkler supply lines shallowly buried means the gardener accidentally slices through the irrigation system, sometimes not realizing it.  A big puddle of water instead of the small moist area around an emitter is your clue.  Just fix it and resolve not to dig in the garden without checking for the location of the irrigation line.

Spring tuning your irrigation can be tedious, but well worth it in terms of keeping your plants alive.  While you’re at the task, this is a good time to check the times on your controller.  Sometimes in August and September when it’s hot and dry, we crank up the length of time the irrigation runs….Plants don’t usually need so much water in Spring, so you can save water and money by having different run times in Spring and Summer.

Drip irrigation is still my favorite way to water frugally.  You get water to the roots without having the waste of high pressure sprayers over spraying and watering the street.  Sprayers also encourage fungus from the moisture sitting on the leaves.  Installing a drip system requires us to get in touch with our Inner Engineer, but it’s a very successfully way to water if you just do a Spring Tune-up.


Photo: http://www.dripirrigation.com/drip_irrigation_tutorial