Tulips & Pansies

Wildflower Seeds

By Sandy Swegel

Bulbs are a favorite of mine because their beauty is so intense in the garden.  But bulbs can be made even more striking by planting them with beautiful pansies or violas.  Tulips & Pansies, I think of it as beauty now….with little pansy plants bringing color all Fall amid fallen leaves, beauty all winter as at least a few pansies will continue to stick their heads through the snow to shine in the winter sun.  And then there is the spectacular beauty of the Spring display as bulbs bloom over a Spring carpet of pansies.

The simple way to plant this orchestra of tulips & pansies or bulbs and pansies is to pick a single color of tulip bulb and a single color of matching pansy or viola.  My favorite is yellow tulips (or daffodils) over a sea of azure blue violas.  White tulips over deep red pansies invoke a small gasp in passersby.  Lavender tulips over white pansies create an elegance reminiscent of old Europe.

It’s very easy to make these little vignettes, even if you only have a tiny corner of your garden available.  At it’s tiniest, you can take a two-foot square area of your garden and dig a hole in the center and plant seven tall tulips in a circle. Fill the soil in and plant 12 or so pansies in a grid above and about a foot beyond the centered tulips.  For less than $15 you will have a tiny explosion of beauty in your little area.  Or both tulips and pansies can be planted together in a container that is overwintered in a protected (but still cold) spot.

If you have a bigger garden and a bigger budget, planting equidistant (spread the tulips out about evenly) over a larger area and plant the violas or pansies in an even grid over the same area so that they grow into a mat by Spring.   Then let some of the Fall leaves lay over the pansies creating little warm moist micro-climates that will bloom well into late Fall and even sporadically if there’s snow in the winter.

Enjoy!  And take pictures. And back them up twice. I recently lost thousands of pictures including the tulips and pansies I loved because the backup hard drive failed…and I didn’t have hard copies. Alas, the digital world is as ephemeral as tulips under a hot sun.

Photo Credits:


Plant Some Mustards

Certified Organic Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Did you have fungus problems in your garden this year? Maybe powdery mildew on the squash? Or fungal blight on the tomatoes? One very natural way to treat your soil (rather than try to kill the fungus once it’s on next years’ leaves) is to plant some mustards. Mustard planted now or in early spring, and then cut up and turned into the soil, acts as a “biofumigant” that can kill the unhealthy fungus that has made a home in your soil.

A big plus of planting it now is that you might get cute little plants now that will be a lush cover crop for winter. Some mustards turn a pretty purple once it gets cold. Some plants will die if you are in a very cold or dry area, but often mustards manage to survive and put out yellow flowers in Spring that are excellent first foods for bees.

Another excellent reason to plant mustards now is that just a few spicy leaves go a long way to making a salad interesting. I especially like the curls of the Japanese mustard mizuna. Mizuna pairs beautifully with the richness of feta cheese, some red onions, and a sweeter vegetable like cucumber. Yesterday a friend served a wonderful mustard salad with the last red raspberries of the year.



Photo credit: foodandstyle.com/mizuna-and-cucumber-salad-with-red-onions-feta-tarragon-and-champagne-vinaigrette/

Ancient Wisdom from Women who Grew Vegetables

Buffalo Bird Woman

by Sandy Swegel 

I learned the story this week of Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa Indian born around 1839 in the Dakotas. She and the women of her tribe were the ones who did all the farming from breaking hard ground to heavy harvesting and transporting. Toward the end of her life, she gave interviews about how her people had farmed sunflowers and corn and beans, and how they preserved and even seasoned them. It was the work of women. Her stories always start with phrases like, “My two mothers and my sister and I went out to the field…” or “My grandmother Turtle would break the hard new ground with a stick.”

But Buffalo Bird Woman was also a scientist in her approach and gives detailed information about creating soil fertility (and softening the ground), about the timing and order of planting. Unlike the stories we hear of other tribes planting beans and corn and squash into single holes, the Hidatsas had an elaborate system that included sunflowers. They also planted in rows and pre-sprouted their corn and had a strict timing system.

Here was how you knew when to plant corn:
“We knew when corn planting time came by observing the leaves of the wild gooseberry bushes. This bush is the first of the woods to leaf in the spring. Old women of the village were going to the woods daily to gather firewood; and when they saw that the wild gooseberry bushes were almost in full leaf, they said, “It is time for you to begin planting corn!”

I think you’ll find it delightful to meet Buffalo Bird Woman. There is a children’s book based on her childhood called Buffalo Bird Girl.

There are even recipes for good warrior food like sunflower-seed balls.

Buffalo Bird Woman’s story of the practice of agriculture among her people is available free online at the Upenn digital library: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html

An interview with her was also included in the PBS series, The Sky Above Us.” http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/program/episodes/eight/tospeak.htm
At the end of her life, the practices of her people modernized into Western ways, she bragged:

I think our old way of raising corn is better than the new way taught us by white men. Last year, our agent held an agricultural fair… and we Indians competed for prizes for the best corn. The corn which I sent to the fair took the first prize… I cultivated the corn exactly as in the old times, with a hoe.
Buffalo Bird Woman


How to Become a Plant Nerd

How to Become a Plant Nerd

by Sandy Swegel

You know you are a Plant Nerd When…
(Or How to Become a Plant Nerd)

You know every garden starts with graph paper. You draw a scale drawing with trees and fences.

You create an Excel file listing the times to seed and days to harvest. Your file shows when to plant second crops for fall veggies.

You automate your garden
You put a timer on for watering. Your smartphone calendar alerts you six weeks before the last frost. You have to use a moisture sensor to know when to water.

You know the scientific names of your weeds.

You make the most of what you have.
You never plant in rows…you know it’s more efficient to plant densely in quadrants. If space is limited, you grow vertically. If all you have is a balcony to grow on you figure out how to make a hydroponic system out of a Rubbermaid container.

Your garden is full of experiments.
You test everything before you believe it. You have one section of peas planted with inoculant and one section planted without inoculant to see if it matters. You plant carrots with tomatoes and measure yield to see if it made a differences

You collect data.
You have a max-min thermometer to see the actual temperature in your yard. You write down how many days it took pepper seeds to germinate. You record when the apple trees blossomed and when you got your first tomato. You weigh your giant pumpkin to see if it weighs more than you do.

You make use of technology.
You use frost cloth and low tunnels to extend your season, and red plastic mulch to increase tomato yield.


You have taste testings to see which tomato tastes better.

You know the variety names of the vegetables you eat.

You love problems in the garden because it means you get to come up with a solution!

In other words, you garden smarter not harder.

You’re my superhero.


Photo Credit:  http://www.pinterest.com/pin/174796029262705028/




The Indecisive Gardener

How to Make Decisions in Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Making decisions about where to plant things in the garden is one of my biggest challenges.  Hard to imagine when I spend most of my time in other people’s gardens. But because I rent, my own garden is a blank slate.  And that makes it really hard for me to know what to plant where. I know what the plants need but I can’t decide who should live next to whom or even make simple decisions about succession planting.

If you’re an indecisive gardener, whether you’re a new gardener and aren’t sure where things go, or because like me there are so many possibilities you just can’t decide, here are a couple strategies I use:

Square Foot Gardening is the friend of new and indecisive gardeners.  You can just make the garden squares and plant whatever happens to be in your hand at the moment.  Mel Bartholomew who invented the idea of square foot gardening has simplified plant spacing in his latest refinements of the process.  Each square is still a 12-inch square.  Little plants go 16 to a square, medium plants 9 to a square. Large plants 4 to a square and really large plants 1 to a square.  I can just fill a square and move on to the next square.  Hardly any decisions except to remember to put the tomatoes to the back of the garden where they don’t block the sun.

I love herbs but worry about where to put them so they are in the right conditions and so that the perennials ones survive without taking over. In my mind, I divide the herbs into categories: Mediterranean herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano), invasive herbs (mint, lemon balm), and tender herbs (basil).

 Mediterranean herbs go in the hottest driest part of the garden with more sun and not so much water because the flavors of these herbs are best if they aren’t pampered with too much good water and soil.  Invasive herbs go next to concrete…either a wall or a sidewalk….somewhere there is a natural limit to how far they can spread. Tender herbs go in the vegetable garden.

These are the most difficult ones to decide on. Many a perennial has languished in its tight pot waiting for me to decide where to put it.  I learned from another indecisive gardener that the perfect place is a “Nursery Bed.”  The nursery bed is for the plants that are young and need extra attention and for the ones that don’t yet have a home in a permanent bed.  They’ll eventually graduate to the grown-up garden, but now they at least have a home in the ground in the nursery bed where they get some extra attention too.

 Don’t let the desire to have a perfect garden or the fear of making a mistake keep you from having a great garden.  Set some simple rules like these. And if that doesn’t work…then the whole yard can be the “nursery bed!” 


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