Mexican Hat Plant … Ole’

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

What’s your favorite wildflower? When I ask that of people in Colorado, I often get answers like Columbine, a delightful airy flower found in the mountains. But when I go into people’s gardens and see what they actually grow, I often find the wonderful yellow and red Ratiba columnifera that some call Mexican Hat plant or Prairie Coneflower.

Anyone who has driven in the prairie has seen massive fields of these red and yellow flowers growing among the grasses.  This one to two-foot-high wildflower is perennial and sometimes doesn’t bloom until its second year. But once it starts blooming, it gives color and repeats blooms from midsummer to Fall. It does need some cold stratification for good germination. Everything else about the wildly hot-colored plant is easy. It grows in terrible soil. It will tolerate drought. Deer don’t like it. Ratiba likes sun but handles quite a bit of shade. It looks great mixed with grasses or in a summer garden with Black-eyed Susans and Purple Coneflower.

If just being cute and a sturdy plant isn’t enough, Ratiba is also an important food for native bees.

The only problem I have with this plant is getting the Mexican Hat Song out of my head!

Growing Tulips

Three Myths about Growing Tulips04.22.16

by Sandy Swegel

We are having a beautiful tulip year despite heavy snows. Trees broke in half, but the tulip stems were just short enough when it snowed that they didn’t break. Walking around the neighborhood in wonder at tulips under broken trees, I thought about how sturdy tulips really are. There are some false myths about how you have to coddle tulips, but they are easier than you think.

The Myths:
Myth One: Tulips don’t bloom in the shade.

Once again my neighbor who loves flowers but isn’t all that interested in working in the garden has an amazing garden bed even though she didn’t follow the rules. She planted tulips along the concrete foundation of the north side of her house. These tulips never get a single ray of sun winter or summer because of the high roof. They are never fed. They are now putting on their third year of beautiful bloom because they don’t know the rules!

Now I’m not advising you to plant in full shade, but I do regularly plant in areas that seems marginal. Tulips don’t need a full day of sun. Nor do they need sun during bloom time. I’ve seen beautiful tulips under shady deciduous trees because there’s plenty of sun for the growing tulip foliage before the tree leafs out.


Myth Two. You have to leave the leaves on them until they turn brown.

I’ve tested this myth for years now and it is indeed not true. You can cut off the foliage much sooner than you think. All those people who tie the dying foliage in cute knots could just cut the foliage off. An elderly neighbor who had the most beautiful tulips each year said that as soon as the foliage looks a little limp (but still green) it is no longer photosynthesizing enough to make food for the bulb and you can cut it down.

Myth Three: Tulips are perennials. Plant them once and have years of beauty.04.22.16b

Some tulips are perennials. The original species bulbs are perennial. But the fancier the flower, the less likely the tulip will come back. This is especially true of multicolored tulips. The tulip color “break” is cause by a virus. So the tulip is awesomely beautiful but is weakened by the virus and often dies that year. You need to plant those every year.

Some single color tulips are perennial in perfect conditions. But tulip varieties that thrive in one garden won’t return in other gardens. This is especially true if you have heavy clay soil that doesn’t drain well. My lucky neighbor with tulips in the shade lost all of the tulips that she planted in the hard-pan lawn in the full sun. The soil was horrible after 20 years of a neglected lawn and the root competition was too much. But they were beautiful the first year so she’s happy.

Tulips are such a delight of the Spring garden. Make a note in your calendar right now for next September: Plant more tulips!

How To Deal with Troublesome Pests In Container Gardens

Pests Control Tips

by Angela Thomas04.20.16a

Many gardeners choose to grow plants in containers for the ease of planting and for the convenience of placing the containers anywhere they want. Maintaining healthy plants in a container garden is no different from plants in a garden.

However, container plants need more care. Taking care of them slightly differs from regular plants. They have limited soil volume and are subject to more stress than garden plants which requires constant monitoring for pests. If you’re looking to save time and the stress of having to find the pests that may of intruded into your garden. It could it be worth checking out the best home security camera deals on the market to make finding the pests and what they’ve left behind easier for you.

You must regularly inspect the foliage, bloom, and fruits to find out signs of infestation. You must also examine the underside of the leaves and stems as some insects hide in those places.
If the plants have any infected or dead leaves, you must immediately remove them. If you find few yellow leaves are on the bottom of the stem, do not worry as they naturally occur when the plants grow.

Mix a few drops of mild detergent in water and wash the foliage. Container plants will benefit from this if you repeat it every month.

If the infestation does not respond to soapy water, you may have to use commercial pesticides that are designed to control specific pests. These days manufacturers offer alternatives to chemical pesticides so visit the local store and buy the products if infestation continues. While using such products, you must always follow the instructions, and they must be kept out of reach of children.

To avoid pest infestations, do not reuse the soil especially if the plants were affected by bacteria. Even though the soil looks fine, it might be contaminated or have insect eggs which are hard to see. This infographic on natural pest control methods can give you the ideas to get it done on your own. However, if you would prefer to get some professional help, rather then do it by yourself, then you could always check out someone like pest control Des Moines.


Clean containers will be helpful to prevent problems. When you are going to start a new planting, scrub the pots and containers using liquid detergent and water. To reuse an infested pot, soak it in a solution of one part household bleach to ten parts water for about an hour. Rinse all the pots thoroughly and dry them in sunlight before planting. Keep in mind that the area around the containers should also be clean as dirty surroundings is a way through which pests attack plants. After using the tools to treat the infested plant, thoroughly wash them, before you use it on other plants.

Healthy plants can fight off pests that attack them. So make sure you give the plants adequate sunlight, organic fertilizers, and water. There must be proper space between plants so that there will be enough air circulation. If pests infest a plant, keep them away from the rest of the plants because they will infest the healthy ones too.Many pests infect container grown plants especially spider mites. Stressed plants are most likely to be attacked by pests than healthy ones. So regularly monitor plants so that you will be able to detect problems in the early stages.

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Rules You Can’t Break

Some Rules You Can’t Break

by Sandy Swegel


Nature is a fierce taskmaster. We can bend many rules by starting seeds in our basements under lights or planting tomatoes in Walls of Water in the snow. But there are definite limits to how much nature will bend to our will and when we’ve just gone too far. A warm early Spring and now a deadly April blizzard have brought to mind who really makes the rules here…and it’s not gardeners.

Laws of Time and Space that can’t be broken.

Six weeks before last frost
The rule of thumb for cool season plants is to seed six weeks before last frost. April 1st is 6 weeks before our last frost, but a warm spell had impatient gardeners planting peas in February. Some peas did come up but many more rotted under the sodden snows and rains. Others were eaten by birds and mice. Most people had to replant.

After danger of frost has past
Really. 72 degrees in early April is not a reason to break this law. My eager neighbor planted green beans a couple of weeks ago. It was very warm and they sprouted and started to grow. They all turned brown and died in our below-freezing temperatures this weekend.

Snow on Crabapple Blossoms


Days to Harvest
Well, I’ve tried the squash planting experiments and learned what the seed packets say. It takes 100 days to get my favorite butternut squash ripe before killing frosts in the Fall. I cannot procrastinate and not get the seeds planted until June 14th like I did two years ago. No amount of heat or sun or fertilizer speeds up the natural process of development. The squashes were beautiful but immature and not edible. Nature doesn’t forgive procrastinators no matter how well-intentioned.

Fruit tree flowering
The law of time sadly broken this weekend was by people who plant trees that bloom early. In eastern Colorado, one of the frequently planted and least productive fruit trees is the apricot. It buds and blooms in very early Spring and hopes are raised for a grand harvest. Then inevitably there are April freezes and all the flowers freeze. We get apricots maybe every seven to ten years. It just doesn’t make sense to plant them. But now with more global warming-induced fluctuating temperatures, we are going to have the same problems with our reliable fruit trees: apples, plums and pears. A warm Spring brought all the fruit trees into full bloom last week….when the trees are most susceptible to killing frosts. It may be as cold as 24 degrees tonight which could me no backyard or local fruit this year…the second year in a row. We have to begin choosing very late budding trees to handle climate change.


There are many other laws that can’t be broken. Anyone who has forgotten to thin the carrots knows you can’t break Laws of Space and expect normal carrots….instead you have hundreds of carrots thinner than chopsticks. I tried breaking the Laws of Light and Dark by falling for beautiful pineapple sage at the garden center. It only blooms when the days get short. Our days get short about a week before Fall frost….so the plant sat without bloom most of the summer until a fabulous October display and then frost.

To be happy, successful gardeners, we must notice how nature works and try to work with her, not against her. Climate change is discouraging to say the least, but we can adapt.


Two ways to have more birds in your yard

Gardening Tips

by Sandy Swegel

I was chatting with a local bird habitat specialist hoping for some tips on what I could plant or build that would attract more birds to my new garden. I was surprised as she struggled to think of flowers that might work. Then she blurted: “The biggest obstacle to birds in the garden is the humans.” If the humans would just quit “improving” the garden, more birds would automatically come.

Don’t deadhead so much.

She elaborated, the first most important thing to do for birds is to quit deadheading so much and leave the seed heads of spent flowers on the plant so the seeds can mature. You can do some deadheading to keep your plants making more flowers, but especially at the end of the plant’s season, you need to leave the seeds on. I used to throw the seed heads into a corner of the garden near a bird feeder, but I learned that birds don’t like to eat off the ground unless they are desperate. They like to land on the top of the seed stalk and bend over and pull the seeds out one by one. Up on top of the plant, they feel safer from predators and can fly off at a moment’s notice.



Learn to Tolerate Some Pests

The other mistake gardeners make that discourages birds is being too diligent about getting rid of all the pests and larvae in the garden. Leaving some pests may damage a few plants, but birds need caterpillars and bugs in the spring to feed their hungry babies. A pest-free garden is not a healthy habitat. And you won’t have to worry about the pests overtaking your garden in most cases because the birds are going to eat them!

So to attract more birds to your garden, let your garden look a little more unruly. I did get a couple of plant ideas of seeds birds particularly like: coreopsis, sunflowers, coneflowers and cosmos are all seed heads that birds consider especially yummy.



Two Ways to Guarantee Your Outdoor Seeds Grow

Seed Starting

by Sandy SwegelPre-sprouting seeds

The next few weeks are crucial for new gardeners. Every year in Spring, first-time gardeners buy some seeds and dig up a garden on the first really warm weekend and sprinkle the seeds out. Then they wait. For some, within the month, weather conditions will be good and they’ll have their first garden seedlings and they will be totally hooked on the magic of gardening.

For others, something bad happens that the newbies don’t know about. They don’t realize they have to water. Or a couple of hot days come and burn the new seedlings to a crisp. Maybe the neighborhood crows watch you plant and come to eat every last pea. Sometimes the soil is cold and it’s just too early to germinate seeds. These newbie gardeners lose hope and say they just have a black thumb and give up gardening.

If you’ve had failures but are still willing to give a garden from seed a try, I have two techniques that virtually guarantee your seeds will germinate outdoors. These are especially good ideas if you’ve given up trying to grow some things because they never work for you. For years I just thought I was broccoli-impaired until I tried these hints.

First of course, you have to start your garden bed.


You can till and/or turn the soil by hand but you don’t have too if the soil is not solid concrete.
Dig out the weeds. Get the roots if you can.
Take a rake and make the soil level and a bit smoothed out.
Water soil with a soft sprayer if the soil is dry.
Sprinkle seed over the soil. How much seed and how far apart is written in the little print on the packet.
Pat the seed lightly with your hands so there is contact between the seed and the soil. Bury the seed slightly if the packet says so.

If you live in someplace humid and warm, that’s enough. Your seeds should come up.

If you live someplace dry or with fluctuating temperature or you’ve had failures in the past, try these two success techniques:



Lay a sheet of row cover loosely over the seeded bed. You want it nice and loose so the plants can grow and the row cover lifts with them. I use some heavy rocks to hold down the row cover so it doesn’t blow away. The row cover helps the seeds stay moist enough to germinate and raises the soil temperature a few degrees so the seeds germinate faster.

Water with the soft sprayer. Note….I water right on top of the row cover. You don’t have to lift it to water underneath often causing the seeds to float away. It’s permeable so the water makes its way through.

#2 PRE-SOAK AND PRE-GERMINATE the difficult seeds.

Pea sproutsSeeds like peas or carrots respond well if soak them in warm water in a bowl overnight, drain them, then plant. The soaking activates the enzymes that break the seed coat and speeds up germination. If it’s a seed you really have trouble with, you can put the seeds on a wet paper towel in a baggie and wait a few days until you see the sprouts.

These two shortcuts…pre-germination and row cover…work for me all the time. And I get better germination which means I get more plants per packet of seeds and save even more money.

Now go out and grow some food and flowers!


Photo credits:

Growing for Chickens

What to grow for your chickens

By Sandy Swegel

Reading our Facebook posts lately on how yummy eggs from backyard chickens are got me thinking about what makes homegrown eggs taste so much better than store eggs.

A varied diet helps a lot. Commercial chickens pretty much get a straight corn-based diet with vitamins and minerals added in. Happy home chickens can still eat commercial food, but they usually get lots of food scraps too. That’s when the eggs start tasting better. When the chickens get lots of protein like bugs and worms, that’s when the eggs get really good.

Here’s what my chickens love:

Kitchen Scraps

Any and all scraps go to the chicken. Even meat if it is cooked. (The shocking secret I learned about chickens is that their favorite food is chicken….especially the scraps from fried chicken.) Chickens aren’t terribly smart in general, but they are savvy about food. If something is moldy or too full of pungent foods like onions, they just scratch it aside looking for bits of fruit or tomatoes or meat. Their favorite foods are things kids like. Noodles are a big hit. So are cherry tomatoes.

Weeds and Garden Waste

All the crab grass, dandelions, seed heads, dock leaves, grass clippings, etc go into the chicken run. They go for the greens and seeds first and push the other stuff around. Grass is apparently yummier in the Spring than in mid-summer when they just look at me and say “Meh.”


This is the best secret to having delicious eggs….lots of proteins especially from living crawling things. All those kitchen scraps and weeds that don’t get eaten get raked into the corner and turn into compost with lots of earthworms. At some point in their random scratching, the chickens figure this out and turn the compost pile with great delight. Somehow plenty of earthworms manage to survive. I throw in extra bugs too: slugs, cabbage worms, box elder bugs, maggots, anything I don’t want in the garden. One other icky-to-think-about critter they really love to eat are mice.

Spent beer grains

Our local breweries put out their spent grains and hops for farmers and gardeners to recycle. These grains are usually a bit fermented which makes the chickens very very happy. The fermentation adds extra nutrition, happy, slightly drunken chickens make delicious eggs.

More greens

My chickens have to stay in a fenced run because of the large number of foxes and coyotes in our area. So I plant food all around the edges of the run so they can reach their heads through the fence to nibble but not actually destroy the plants by pulling them up. Currently growing are comfrey, chard (their favorite, I think they like the salt), kale, and wild grasses and dandelions (they like the flowers).

So plant for your chickens and they will reward you with the best-tasting eggs and lots of entertainment.

Photo credits:—compost-bins-in-chicken-run.htm

Grow your own Thyme Plugs

Certified Organic Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

One of the more intrigue new seeds we are carrying is Creeping Thyme. We all love the romantic look of a stone path with thyme filling in the crevices between the stone. Thyme lawns have also become popular as a low-water way to have a patch of green. You can’t play soccer on your thyme lawn, but you can walk across it. The best part is that in most gardens, the thyme grows so thickly that only a few weeds pop through.

It can be quite a challenge to start a thyme lawn or patio though. The plants you purchase generally are in large pots and it’s not easy to shake off the dirt and try to smoosh the plant between the pavers. It’s also pretty expensive to cover a long walkway.

You can definitely try direct seeding and sprinkling the thyme seeds in the areas you want the groundcover to grow. This works well in England or in coastal areas. This hasn’t worked well for me because Colorado is arid and it takes daily watering to get the seeds to germinate. Naturally then, lots of weed seeds germinate before the thyme comes up. There is an easy solution for people who like to grow from seed. Grow your own thyme plant and thyme plugs.


Plug trays are the size of a normal planting flat but each flat has cells for 128 plants. Sometimes garden centers sell plug trays or you can find them on the internet. I got some that my garden center was throwing out….they use them to plant into the larger pots they sell. You can also use those little six packs annuals come in. Fill your plug tray with seed germinating mix and put one or two seeds into each cell. Grow under lights or outdoors if it’s warm enough. In just weeks after germinating you end up with an entire tray of perfect little well-rooted plants that easily fit into the spaces in your patio. If you’re planting a lawn, you can place the plugs on a grid 4-8 inches apart and they’ll grow to a mat this year. Each packet of thyme seeds has 600 seeds in it so you could a LOT of thyme plugs for a couple bucks!

Growing your own thyme plugs is easy. The hardest part is being sure to weed the area you are planting really well. But it’s the last time you’ll have to do such a big weeding there….once the thyme grows in, it blocks most weeds. Yippee. No weeding on your patio. Or if you’re planting a lawn…no more mowing.

Photo Credits

Tomato Lovers: It’s Time! Make Your Decisions!

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

If you don’t already have your tomatoes growing….this is The Day. April 1st is my official day to start my tomatoes indoors. I’m in Zone 5 and last frost is six weeks away. You may start yours earlier if you live in a warmer place or have walls of water or other season extenders. No matter where you are, if you want tomatoes and haven’t seeded them yet…Do It Now. Or start a new variety or two because come late summer, we can’t possibly have too many tomatoes.

How to Decide What Tomato to grow.

Gardeners used to have only about five different varieties of tomatoes available to them. Now there are literally hundreds. Here are the tomato seeds we carry and the reason why you might grow each of them:


Everybody knows this tomato. It’s the perfect big slice for hamburgers on the grill. It’s a manly tomato….a big sturdy tomato that holds up on the grill and on sandwiches.

Black Krim

This is my favorite tomato. It has a rich heirloom taste like many of the black tomatoes and it pumps out lots of medium-sized tomatoes. This makes it perfect for eating right off of the plant on a hot summer day. Earlier than some heirlooms.

Cherokee Purple

Cherokee isn’t just a marketing name. This is an heirloom tomato saved by the Cherokee people pre-1890s. Another black tomato with great taste. Gnarly looking tomatoes, too, which makes it even more interesting.

Amish Paste, Organic

This is a “paste” tomato. It’s very meaty and not too watery. It’s ideal for making sauces. Because it is so meaty, it’s also excellent for sun-drying. It is determinate, so most of the fruit ripens at the same time which is perfect for canning.

Aunt Ruby’s German Green

Remember to label this one in your garden. I spent one year waiting for them to turn red. Why grow green tomatoes? Because they have a unique flavor that is fresh and sweet. The flavor is lighter than the dark tomatoes. Aunt Ruby’s German Green is often a winner is our back yard taste tests.

Pink Brandywine

Brandywine is well known as an heirloom that defines what tomatoes “used to taste like.” These are big delicious fruit. Their growing season is a little longer so you have to be patient….but then they produce lots of tomatoes. And give this plant more space. It’s a giant.

Red Pear

Red pears are smaller pear-shaped tomatoes and are an heirloom dating back to colonial times. Pear tomatoes taste like regular tomatoes but are really prolific. In the olden days, people preserved them as “tomato figs.”