Ignoring what “they” say.

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun.  She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ.  And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say:  Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones who don’t do what “they” say without thinking about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”

 

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

What a Plant Knows

Back when I was a teenager, summer reading was all about pulp fiction and romantic novels, except for the summer when I read everything Arthur C. Clarke ever published.  Now that I use podcasts for pulp novels and nonfiction, I can spend summer on eccentric or unusual new books.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses is my latest extraordinary discovery.

Author Daniel Chamovitz points out that it has been over three decades(!) since Secret Lives of Plants was published and there has been lots of hard scientific research about plants since then.  Chamovitz emphasizes over and over that plants DON’T experience the world as humans do, but they do sense the world in their own ways.

Some tidbits from this provocative book:

Plants are aware of the world around them.

They can “see” in that they differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lights (better than we can, incidentally).

They can “smell” in that they are aware of aromas and minute amounts of chemical compounds in the air.

They can “touch” and respond differently to different kinds of touch.

They are aware of the past and can remember past infections and conditions and change their physiology based on those memories.

They can communicate with other plants and warn them of predators.

And my favorite:  plants dance…all plants move in a great spiral when they grow and when they adapt to their environment.Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

This book isn’t a metaphysical exploration of plants. It is a long scientific discussion of specific plant actions and reactions. For people like me who want to know why plants do things…why they thrive and survive sometimes and why they wither and die sometimes, ‘What a Plant Knows’ is a great treasure.

If Plants Could Walk

by Sandy Swegel

They’d run for their lives!  This week anyway.  Extreme weather conditions prevail here in Colorado and throughout the country.  Here in Boulder, we’re enduring day after day of record-setting temps over 100.  Plants are crisping just from the 4% humidity.  And as we learned in our last severe drought in 2002, no matter how much city water you irrigate with, plants don’t do as well with irrigation as they do with natural water from rain.  If my plants had legs this week, they would mosey on over to the shade next to the irrigation ditch for respite.

While we bake in the heat, my sister took her annual vacation to Florida so she could sit on the beach in the middle of Tropical Storm Debby.  Plants in some areas of the Gulf Coast desperately yearn for legs this week.  If only they could walk they would get out of the downpour of hard pelting rain and lift their feet out of the bog and mire that soil has become with excessive rain.  How’s a plant supposed to live when its roots are stuck in wet muck putrifying in the heat.

The happiest plants in dire weather can be the ones in containers with a doting human around.  My neighbor nudges her containers on wheels into the shade when the western sun is too debilitating.  Even her tomato loves the respite from the blazing sun.  Unlike my spinach, hers isn’t bolting because now that summer is upon us, she moved her containers of greens under the apple trees where cooling misters cool the greens enough they don’t have to bolt yet…and the apples grow big with the bit of extra water from the misters. One pot of summer greens was fortunate and moved inside into the air conditioning in a sunroom so the family could enjoy sweet lettuce greens a little longer.

Alas, for plants without feet, all you can do is offer some respite from the weather.  Shade cloth or row cover judiciously placed now might save some plants facing death from heat exhaustion.  If that’s not possible, a judicious mid-day misting sometimes helps.  The water mist may help the plant survive desiccation and it certainly helps perk up the gardener.

Plants that really need feet this week are the ones burning to death in the Colorado wildfires.  There are eight major wildfires in Colorado and over half of the wild-fire fighting crews in the US are in Colorado now.  We are so grateful to the men and women who come from near and far to battle out-of-control wildfires in 100-degree temps in heavy gear.  Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.

Survive the Heat

by Sandy Swegel

It’s hot hot hot here in Colorado and to make it worse, smoke from the wildfires out of control has caused local authorities to issue “stay indoors” advisories.  We’re all suffering, plants especially since they can’t get up and come inside away from the heat and particulate pollution.  How can we help our plants when they are stressed?

Don’t overwater.  A little extra water is good now, especially since air humidity is almost nonexistent, but you can easily kill your plants with overwatering.  Droopy leaves can also mean intense air heat, not just lack of water in the soil.  Put your finger in the soil to see if it is really dry before you water again.

Recognize Heat Stress.  The easiest way to recognize heat stress in plants is to wait until after it is cool in the evening.  If the plant perks up and stands tall again, you have confirmation that the plant was droopy because it was trying to conserve water loss to evaporation.

Make Some Shade.  It can easily be 15 degrees cooler in the shade.  You can make some temporary shade for your plants with shade cloth, row cover or burlap.  If you have coffee roasting companies near you, they usually have lots of free burlap coffee bags.  Last year my neighbor had enough row cover for one section of peas.  Those peas produced for another two weeks, while the uncovered peas just went to seed.

Mist mid-day.  Another neighbor has magnificent salad greens throughout much of the summer and says it’s because she waters/mists every day at 1 pm.  Just like in the grocery produce section, little misters come on for two minutes and cool everything down.  Scientifically, I know that humidity is gone quickly and misting should only work if you do it every hour, but her greens are pretty amazing.

Be More Vigilant for Pests.  Any stress such as heat on a plant makes them more susceptible to pests.  Keep an eye out for more pests than usual.  Hosing aphids off gives the plant and the gardener a little more humidity.

Mulch, if needed.  A couple inches straw or grass clippings will hold water in the soil and cool the roots.  If you didn’t mulch earlier, now is a good time to start.

Check containers to see if they needed to be watered twice a day.

Protect the gardener.  Drinks lots of water.  Getting dehydrated is easy and the gardener needs a clear head so he/she can take care of the garden. Wear hats and sunscreen.  And now in Colorado, wear a dust mask to prevent inhaling too much smoke from fires 90 miles away.

The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

Rifling through the garden in the early sunrise hour this morning, I paused to look up at the morning sky that looked just like the ones in Renaissance paintings.  Following the beauty to the earth, I saw for the first time this year my garden in full growth and fertility.  I got a glimpse not just of weeds and tiny seedlings but of orach in its vibrant purple color and arugula in bloom.  Peas and favas are reaching for the sky and putting out delicate blooms.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in just a few hours.  I did pull a few weeds and start some more chard seeds on a blank patch.  But I got bundles of fresh greens for my morning juice, leeks to put in the crockpot for dinner, and magnificent lettuce for an evening salad.  The garden today has begun to return much more than I have put into it.  Tomatoes are still in walls of water and many plants are tiny, but the lovely routine of the season has started.

From now, I’ll settle into my 15 minute morning routine, slightly amended with today’s revelation.

Look up at the big sky. Look at the vitality of life between the sky and the earth.
Pull the big weeds.
Harvest the food for the day.
Fill the empty spots with new seeds or plants.
Water what is dry.
Look once more in gratitude and wonder at the big sky.

There will be times I spend more time in the garden because it’s fun or an ambitious project is taking hold.  And there may be times when I’m not keeping up with the pests or weeds that sneak in and there will be some remedial work.  But for the most part, if I am consistent in my 15-minute daily routine, my time in the garden will never be a chore but will be invigorating and full of nourishment and inspiration for the day.

Tough Love

by Sandy Swegel

Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under a light, your plants have one or two sets of true leaves. You can’t wait to have a big beautiful and blooming plant.  Now you have to be brave.  You have to take that nice tall plant and cut it down.  Ouch.

The result of this tough love is that you get better, bigger, stronger plants.  The gardening term is “pinching back” because you want to get “branching.”  When you pinch back your one main stem, the plant responds by sending up two stems. Presto chango, you have doubled your plant.  Let the plant grow another two sets of leaves on each new stem and again pinch back to the first set of leaves. Now where you once had one measly little stem, you have four stems growing out and a strong bush plant.

This works especially well with basil and other herb foliage plants.  It’s also amazing with petunias and annuals you want lots of flowers from.  Even if you’re buying plants from the store, pinching back can be a good idea. When the commercial growers are producing plants for sale, they want a plant that has a flower as soon as possible because even one flower makes a plant sell. If that plant is spindly or just very full you have to be strong and even pinch back that flower.

Pinching back is only for plants whose stems are branching,  It doesn’t work for herbs like parsley or flowers like lilies.  With perennials, it’s best to pinch back before the first flower buds have started.  The only other time I don’t pinch back is when I’m willing to sacrifice the greater good of the plant for the instant gratification of flowers.  Sometimes I just need a flower RIGHT NOW.

Knowing how plants act and react is the secret to having a beautiful garden.  You can learn about how plants behave by observing them and noticing things like how they branch when you pinch back a set of leaves. There are good scientific reasons the plants are doing what they are doing.  Scientifically, you are “interrupting apical dominance” and stimulating “axillary buds.” If you want to understand plant behavior more thoroughly, one way to do that is to read Brian Capon’s book, “Botany for Gardeners”  It explains plant physiology with words and pictures that are easy to understand.
www.amazon.com/Botany-Gardeners-Third-Brian-Capon/dp/160469095X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

Feed Me

by Sandy Swegel

It’s a fact of all young growing things.  They need food.  And while big hungry plants like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors can loudly demand their food, the young seedlings you have growing on windowsills are no less insistent and starving.  Most potting soils and seedling mixes come with a tiny amount of fertilizer to get seedlings off to a good start the first couple of weeks.  But then comes the day when were vigorous seedlings now no longer look so good.  My pepper plants are making this point to me right now.  I’ve been watching them grow their first true leaves and finally their second set of true leaves. I’m ready for them to get off the windowsill and out of the garden but, until now, growth seemed a little slow.  Then yesterday as I walked in, I noticed how yellowy the peppers looked.  Hmmm. I checked the water and wondered briefly about some kind of fungus when I had the “duh” moment.  I hadn’t fed them at all.  I had switched to a new “organic” seedling mix this year and it probably didn’t have as much nitrogen in the mix, since “organic” mixes can’t just use cheap synthetic nitrogen.

 

Seedlings aren’t all that particular about what you feed them.  Just that they get some food.  Later in the garden, their roots will gather food from the soil and plants growing in good soil will also take in nitrogen in the air.  But right now, they’re just growing in tap water.  So I just mixed in some liquid kelp to make a weak fertilizing solution.  Fish emulsion or any “grow” natural fertilizer will work at a weak concentration level. Don’t need to overwhelm them.  I expect that by my dinnertime tonight (water-soluble fertilizers can work quickly) the tiny pepper leaves will green up with tomorrow’s warm sun, the seedlings will perk up and soon be ready for the move into the nutrient-rich garden soil.