Five Spot: A wildflower for shade and for native bees

by Sandy Swegel

I love blue flowers so naturally I am enthused about our new “Blue Blazes” collection of seeds for eight different blue wildflowers. What really caught my attention is a little flower I’ve never seen growing that now I just have to have.

Nemophila maculata is white with single blue-purple spots on the tips of each of its five petals. So cute. Such an unusual design is believed to have evolved to capture the attention of native solitary bees. “Five Spot,” the flower’s common name, is an early cool-season annual flower that prefers shady moist areas. Although my garden in Colorado is pretty dry, shady areas under trees are well-watered in Spring where the snow is slow to melt in the shade. Perfect I think for a flower whose name Nemophila loosely translates as “woodland lover.”


I’m going to plant my five spots in an area with that has early Spring purple crocuses and early Summer blue columbine. I’m hoping Five Spot blooms just between those two.


Five Spot finishes blooming once the weather gets hot, but it leaves seeds to reappear next Spring. Now I have a new travel destination on my list: California’s Sierra Nevada in early Spring when fields of this sweet wildflower bloom naturally.




Photo credit

Grow for Flavor

by Sandy SwegelChioggia Beets

If you read just one gardening book this year, I have the perfect book for you. It’s a British gardening book and while growing conditions in merry old England aren’t anything like growing in hot arid Colorado, the advice here transcends climate. It’s about how to get the most flavor and nutrients by “how” you grow.

“Grow for Flavor: Tips and tricks to supercharge the flavor of homegrown harvests” doesn’t just repeat the advice on how to grow organically that is now found in many books or all over the internet. Author James Wong of the Royal Horticultural Society takes growing edibles to the next level by referencing scientific studies on how nutrient content and flavor molecules increase according to growing conditions and cooking methods.

Beets are one example.

If you want more antioxidants, roasting beets doubles their antioxidant levels compared to eating them raw.

If you want sweeter beets, sow them extra early. Sowing beets in cooler conditions leads to increased sweetness and more intense color.

If you aren’t fond of ‘earthy-tasting beets’ it’s the organic compound geosmin that gives that flavor. You can harvest early because young beets haven’t developed as much geosmin. Or you can put vinegar on the beets as my great grandparents did because the geosmin is degraded by acid.


If you juice beets for their cardiovascular benefits, the substances you want more of are nitrate and betalains. To get more of those, sow a mid-summer crop and fertilize with nitrogen to hike cardiovascular benefits by 300%

Another way to hike health benefits is to skimp on the water, Lack of water or ‘drought stress’ increases phytonutrients by 86% and makes beets richer in zinc and iron.

All this info is from just one page of the book so you can see why I love it. And I love my local librarian who procures such unusual books for our local library where I can read them for free!
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Why Grow From Seed

by Sandy Swegel

We all know it’s a good idea to grow from seed. Every winter I fantasize about the amazing garden I could have if I just got started earlier. And every year I somehow end up buying plants that I know I could have started on my own with a little more planning.

This year will be different she says. To strengthen my resolve and not fall into winter doldrums, here’s my list of Why Grow from Seed.

Native plants.
Native plants are better for pollinators, better for the environment, and more likely to survive and thrive in our yard.

No neonics
There’s only one way to be sure our plants haven’t been treated with pesticides that will hurt pollinators or poison your food. Grow it ourselves from seed. It’s also the best way to keep down unwanted pests like whitefly and thrips that thrive in crowded Big Ag type greenhouses and then come to live in our home gardens.

If we want a standard garden that looks like every other garden on the block, we buy plants where everybody else buys them. Beautiful but kinda conformist. Growing from seed gives us a nearly infinite palette of possibilities. I love having a garden where someone stops and asks “What is That amazing flower?”

More Flowers.

This is the obvious Number One reason to grow from seed. For just a couple bucks we get dozens or hundreds or thousands of plants. The gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens often let some reseeding annuals seed themselves all over until their acreage. Last year snapdragons were allowed to grow wherever the wind and birds planted the seeds. We can get the same effect at home. One $2.50 packet of snapdragons has over 14,000 seeds. That’s a lot of adorable low-care flowers to have throughout the garden.

And why do we want more flowers? My first impulse is because they’re just so pretty. But as I happened to read on the front page of our website this morning in big red letters:

“Remember, the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”


First seeds to plant in the New Year

by Sandy Swegwel

Winter Solstice has come and gone, so it’s safe to start planting outdoors.

And the first seeds to plant outside in cold climates are POPPIES!

My farmer friend gave me the best advice on how to seed poppies: the night before a big snow go outside and strew the seeds on top of old snow or dry earth. Let Mother Nature do the rest.


Under the blanket of snow that’s about to fall, the poppy seeds will be insulated and get a nice cold spell. As the snow melts the seeds will be nicely hydrated. Warm spells will stimulate germination at exactly the right time. The first flowers show up for me in May. Plant a mix of different poppies like the “Parade of Poppies” and you’ll have poppies of some sort till frost.

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Plants as Conversation Starters

by Sandy Swegel

One of the awkward parts of the holiday season is ending up at gatherings where you only know the person you came with and everyone else is a stranger. There’s always the option of getting a plate of food and finding a comfortable chair to sit in and people watch but it can be awkward. I recently had a great time at a party I was going where I didn’t know many people or have much in common with them and it was entirely thanks to plants. So I know you’re supposed to bring a small gift when you are invited to a dinner, but wine or even grocery store flowers can set you back $15- 20 and I’m frugal or cheap or broke, depending on my mindset that day. So I’ve taken to making my own flower arrangements from gathered natural items and thrift store vases. These can turn out quite creative and cute (I used ornamental cabbages as the center “flowers” recently.) or so unusual that my family says things like “What weird thing is that?”

So at this recent party, the hostess took my cabbage flower and evergreen arrangement politely said thank you and put it on an out-of-the-way table. I sat on a comfortable chair with a plate of food and stumbled over small talk. As my mind idly looked around the room I looked up at the ceiling and saw a stray ivy vine tacked up along the beams near the high ceiling. Its pot was on a narrow ledge about ten feet high and I blurted out without thinking, “Who gets up to water that pot?” The husband came over and said proudly, “That’s my job.” And together the two of them started an animated story about this little vine had grown over 40 feet long in just the past year and now was entwined across the ceiling like a spider web or halo over their living space. We had a great bonding conversation about the marvels of this ordinary little vine and its impact on their lives as they had to find new places to attach it every month. They appreciated that I noticed and admired it too.

The nice part of this brief encounter was later in the evening when the hostess stood by the little arrangement I brought and looked at anew and commented how beautiful the cabbage and juniper berries were.

It was a win-win-win situation. We came to appreciate each other in a new way because of how we each appreciated nature. And the ivy? Well, you know how vain plants are…it loved being the center of attention.


You can use plants as a conversation starter in your own home by having unusual plants like a string of pearls or bloomers most people aren’t familiar with like a clivia. At other people’s homes, you can just take a moment to remark on the plants that grow there. Turns out the plants we live with and manage to keep alive are important to us.


Gifts FOR the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Growing up in the South, we always had a wrapped gift under the tree just in case we needed an extra gift. This was in part a combination of Southern graciousness and straight-out guilt. What if someone brought us a gift and we didn’t get one for them? Or what if someone brought a guest to Christmas and we felt sad that everyone was opening presents except that person. The extra gift was just perfect to make the holidays smooth and happy for everyone.

This year I’m thinking I need gifts under the tree for the one who gives me so many gifts but I don’t have anything for them. The Earth. The Garden. Gaia. Mother Nature. Whatever name you use.

I was reflecting on the many lists of “Gifts from the Garden” like jellies and preserves, or flower arrangements, or just the pine cones I use instead of bows in gift wrapping. And I thought of all the food the earth gave me. And the daily gift of earthly beauty.

Nature provides naturally for herself so I’m not sure what to give her. Other cultures have traditional gifts in their spiritual rituals. Native Americans offer tobacco or burnt sage, cedar or sweetgrass. Some Hindu traditions offer rice and ghee in fire rituals.

What can we modern Americans offer? A shamanic friend tells me the gift itself isn’t as important as the intention behind the gift. My intention is gratitude and acknowledging that my relationship with Nature is two-way…not just us receiving but also us giving. I haven’t decided yet what to give, but here are some of the gifts I’m considering:

Gifts For the Garden

A Gift for the birds. A feeder for the tiny birds that live in the tree across the street. Or a birdbath heater to provide water when the temperatures are far below freezing in January. The nearest lake or creek or ditch is over a mile away.


A Little Bag of Leaves. This is a symbolic gift to represent all the leaves I left unraked this year in out-of-the-way places….behind the shed, under the deck, in the garden beds…to provide winter homes for the crickets and ladybugs and all the beneficial insects…and even the aphids.

A Bigger Compost Bucket. I love to compost but sometimes in winter, it’s easier just to let things go down the disposal or put it in the City Yard Waste container. It’s still getting recycled, but the garden that gives me so much would probably appreciate extra food for its microbes and earthworms.

A Heart-shaped Stone. A friend collects these while hiking. She has at least twenty rocks in natural heart shapes that she’s run across over the years. She puts them under a tree to remind the earth how much she loves it and appreciates it.

A Little Pair of Shoes. Something for dolls or some discarded kids’ shoes. This would be a reminder to me to walk more often and leave the car at home.

You get the idea. What gift would you like to give Nature in Appreciation this year?

Holiday Gifts for Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

There’s something about winter coming on that sparks the desire to garden. Suddenly we think of all the things we wish we had grown. Or we remember how nice it was to always have a vegetable or flower bouquet to give away. And now what. We want to grow and create to give something.

These are the gifts that I’m giving that I can grow indoors quickly in time for the holidays.

Flowering Amaryllis
A lucky visit to the garden center showed me this year’s casual gift. Amaryllis bulbs already starting to bud right in the box were on sale at 50% off. Amaryllis are ridiculously easy to grow…in soil or in water. I soaked the roots of the bulbs overnight and potted them in plan plastic pots and put them on the windowsill. Once they bloom, I wrap the pot in holiday wrap, add a bow and have awesome gifts ready to go.

Fresh pots of basil.
If you soak basil seeds overnight and plant them densely in clean potting soil in a warm place they’ll germinate very fast. Keep them in a sunny spot or under lights and in two weeks they will be a vigorous aromatic patch of basil micro greens that make a great winter gift.


Vase of coleus
Before your coleus freezes, take lots of cuttings of the most beautiful leaves. Put several stems in a mixed vase. It will be a beautiful arrangement (the reds are quite poinsettia-like.). This is the perfect gift for people who say they have a brown thumb…they just have to monthly refill the water. Those with green thumbs will have rooted plants next Spring.

My favorite gift idea a gardening friend gave last year is pretty hard-core. It is a gift from a serious gardener to another serious gardener. The gift? A bucket of goat manure pellets. Goat manure is one of the best manures…dry, no weeds and not very smelly. I love my eccentric gardening buddies!

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Garden and Grow Flowers all Winter Long

by Sandy Swegel

For gardeners foolish enough to live where winter takes hold and the ground freezes, the time between first frost and last frost can be very long. Some gardeners are wise enough to welcome the break from the work of the garden and enjoy the natural flow of the seasons. Others like me start longing for a greenhouse or dream of living in warm tropical climates. I fantasize about building a mobile greenhouse I could drive down south to grow all winter and drive back to Colorado next Spring. I mourn the death of geraniums in beautiful pots and the brown frozen leaves of basil.

Before you lug dozens of plants into your living room where they mostly suffer until they succumb to low light and pests, make a plan for how to garden your indoor area.

If you have good indoor southern exposure…

Blooming plants like geranium, Hibiscus, Bougainvillea and Mandevilla will put on winter-long displays of flowers. Often by January, the dry air and lack of circulation will cause aphid explosions, and you’ll need to give the plants a quick shower or deal with the aphids in some other way before they get completely disgusting. Fragrant plants like rosemary will also thrive and even bloom if you keep them well-watered. Plants that didn’t need much water outdoors have different needs indoors and will probably need to be watered twice a week.


Low light windows…
Winter is the time to move cyclamen and African violets out of the direct winter sun to the north or east windows to keep them happy. Begonias also do well in lower light.
Cuttings of coleus bring in lots of foliage color. Coleus plants are so attractive in pots but expensive to buy. Simple jars of water will keep the coleus happy and grow roots so you have plants next Spring.

The rosemary is in the southern window. You can harvest the thyme from outdoors all winter as long as you can push aside leaves or snow. Tender herbs like basil and oregano are another story. I haven’t had much luck bringing them indoors…they bolt or get buggy. I have had great luck seeding narrow windowsill pots densely and enjoying the young leaves as microgreens.

Forcing bulbs…
Amaryllis are great to start now. Setting aside a few bulbs from Fall plantings can occupy your gardeners’ heart for weeks in January and February. Not all bulbs force so there is some experimentation here and some bulbs will need a cooling period in your frig or cold garage. But little daffodils inside in late January give great joy.


Forcing stems…
Make a mental note now of what spring flowering trees and shrubs there are in your yard or neighborhood. In late winter after a warm spell, you can see the new buds swell on woody stems. Cut those stems and bring them indoors.

Winter doesn’t have to be long and gray. You can garden inside all season long.

Miss Priss the Bougainvillea, Good To Grow, Liza’s plants

Fall Blooming Bulbs and Corms

by Sandy Swegel

Colchicums! These huge flowers of Fall are still some of my absolute favorite flowers that I look forward to each year. They grow with virtually no attention and have thrived in a shady, pretty dry hosta garden that lacks color so much of the year. It’s been seven years since I planted them and I’ve never lifted them to divide because they look better and better every year! The only problem with colchicums is that you have to plan ahead and order them usually by mail order no later than August. Few garden centers stock them because they are so eager to bloom, they often bloom right in the box.

Colchicum Water Lily is the biggest and showiest and sells out every year from all the bulb catalogs. I first planted it in a shade bed next to a pond with water lilies because it looks just like a giant water-lily rising above the shady ground covers. It’s a fun plant because most garden visitors have never seen it and gasp breathlessly with “What is that flower?!”

A second colchicum I love is “Giant.” It has big single flowers and comes up sooner. Garden blogger Kathy Purdy made the most beautiful display of Giants I’ve ever seen by planting them densely along a low stone fence. In the fall garden with foliage changing and leaves falling, you need big showy flowers to catch attention.

Colchicums come in a range of colors including whites that are luminescent under Fall full moons…but the purple-pinks have my heart.


Finally, my third favorite Fall bloomer, also purple but much more diminutive is Crocus sativus. This is among the smallest of the fall crocuses, but you get real saffron from it. Not a lot, but ten bulbs I planted four years ago in heavy clay soil have multiplied to twenty and provide enough saffron for about three meals. It’s another delightful plant of fall that I watch with great anticipation for its surprise entry every September.


Sandy Swegel

Ask Me Anything

by Sandy Swegel

Ask me Anything

About gardening that is. That’s what I tell people when I’m looking for blog ideas or a little fun.

So the answer this week in the form of a question was from my friend Jim:

“Why do sunflowers follow the sun but then all die facing the same way?”

That was a puzzler. I had to look that one up…fortunately there was just an article in August in the journal Science.


Sunflowers do follow the sun as long as they are still growing. The start off facing east and follow through the day facing west at sunset. Overnight, they grow and face east by sunrise.

This has long been known to gardeners and scientists…but Science answered WHY they do it. Because flowers that face the sun are warmer and attract more pollinators than those facing away from the sun. Well, that’s a good way to make sure you are pollinated. Very clever Mother Nature.

But then there’s the question of why they all face East when they die. It’s actually much simpler than that. Sunflowers only follow the sun as long as they are growing. Once they reach their full mature height, they no longer grow taller. The main stem thickens and hardens and no longer moves with the sun. It stops in a position facing East. So that’s naturally where it dies. Why? Again, it’s just to entice the pollinators. An east-facing flower warms up earlier and stays warmer longer during the day when most pollinators are feeding.

The one exception to this rule? Wild sunflowers. They have so many small flowers at all kinds of angles, they face every which way. Their leaves tend to follow the sun while growing, but the flowers are all over the place.


So, thanks for the question, Jim.

Next! Ask me anything you’ve wondered about gardening.