Sow Your Poppies Now!

Every year, there’s one packet of seed I always spread.  More important than tomatoes or basil, my two favorite vegetables, I never forget to sow a pack of poppies.  I use the Parade of Poppies mix liberally in a couple of different areas…one is a long fifty foot long, six-foot wide wildflower area along the road that’s minimally watered.  I love the bachelor buttons and asters and columbines in the wildflower area…but I always want more poppies so I sweeten the poppy mix each year by overseeding sometime between Winter Solstice and St. Patrick’s Day, preferably the night before a big snow so the snow can hide the seeds from birds and mice and the melting snow will hydrate the seeds and cause them to sprout.

I sprinkle some of the poppy seeds in the perennial bed where the daffodils and lilacs grow mostly untended.  The poppies bring bits of apricot and red and pink color that make the beds sparkle.

My favorite poppies are the Icelandic, alpine and Shirley poppies for their color and elegance and especially for how some of them will follow the sun through the course of the day, just like sunflowers do.

The California and Mexican poppies are the hard workers of the summer garden, putting out oranges and yellows even in the rocks along the hot sidewalk in August.  I’ve let them spread themselves in the xeric garden on the edges of the purple Russian sage where they always make me smile.

Try some poppies in your garden this year. Later, after seedheads form, you can collect the seeds from your favorite colors and spread them in hidden spots in your yard so they’ll surprise you next year.

Hundreds of Vegetables

The holiday season always involves lots of cooking. Each time I’m shopping for food I find myself thinking, I could have grown that.  A big winter squash cost me $5 the other day. And paying $2 for parsley that practically grows itself suddenly seems crazy.  As I think about January resolutions for dieting and really like the Plant Nutrient Dense Diets, I’m kicking myself for not having more vegetables still harvestable or in the freezer. So next to my grocery list on the refrigerator, I’m making my list of the vegetables I’m buying so that I have a more rational way to make a list of seeds to buy to grow for next year’s vegetable garden.

Things I wish I coulda woulda shoulda grown more of:

Beets.  Several parties I’ve been to have had roasted beet dishes. So yummy and easy. And beets are nutritious and great juicers. With a little extra mulch protection, they survive most of the year I should have at least two beets per person per week of the year. I need at least a hundred beets for me.

Carrots. Such a good juicer as well as cooked vegetables…I need at least three carrots per person per week.  150 carrots just for me.

Onions.  Duh, Another easy to grow plant that I use almost every day….4 onions per person per week is 200 onions.

Tomatoes.  It wasn’t a great tomato year so it’s not surprising I’ve gone through most of my stored tomatoes already.  I didn’t notice how often I rely on diced or stewed tomatoes in my recipes.  I need at least 2 16 ounce cans of chopped tomatoes per week.  100 “cans” of chopped paste potatoes.

Cooked Greens.  This year I preserved kale and chard and collards by steaming them and then freezing them already cooked.  I’m eating twice as many greens now than usual because they are already cooked and ready to be served as a side dish or added last minute to soups.  Cooked, frozen greens:  At least 3 pounds per person per week. 150 pounds of greens.

Peas.  I love peas. Why don’t I have more in the freezer or dehydrator? One pound of peas per week. 50 pounds of peas.

Fruit.  Frozen and dehydrated fruits are my favorites in winter.  I’ve gone through all but two jars of my tart cherries.  I was tired of picking and pitting cherries in the summer….but now I’d happily do that work since I can’t buy any tart cherries now.  I should have a pound per week of fruit preserved for the winter per person.

 Parsley and Celery. I love cooking and juicing with both of these. I’m completely out of both and they are just great sources of nutrients.  I need at least 50 “bunches” of parsley and celery chopped and frozen or celeriac in the frig/root cellar.

Rosemary. For the first year, I have enough rosemary. I bought one of those rosemary Christmas trees.  I love to roast vegetables with rosemary….so now I pick up the plant and use the scissors to keep snipping the plant back into the Christmas tree shape.  I get at least a couple of tablespoons per trimming…finally enough rosemary.

So that’s my lesson this week.  If I want a diet full of plant nutrients and I don’t want a huge grocery bill, I need to think of my vegetable garden as a source of HUNDREDS of plants. I’ve never really noticed how many vegetables it takes to have a nutritious diet.

Another way to think about it is…let’s modestly say you need five vegetable and fruit servings per day.  Here in Colorado, we have about 4 months of non-growing seasons. So five servings per day x 30 days x 4 months means I need to have at least 600 servings of vegetables and fruit PER PERSON preserved in cool storage, cans or the freezer by December 1st if I want to grow my own food. WOW. All I can say is thank you to all the farmers who have been providing this for me my whole life!

Best Ways to Learn to be a Better Gardener

I was browsing through the Amazon best-selling gardening books, thinking of possible gifts for gardeners. So many of the books are truly beautiful and full of information, but information isn’t as hard to find as it used to be.  A quick Google search can teach you all you really need to know about growing, say, brussels sprouts.  So I asked myself the question, what’s the best way to learn how to be a better gardener.

The common denominator of the gardening resources I continue to learn from is that they are based on observation and lots of practice.  The writers or researchers have spent a lifetime observing plants or soil or the gardener and have used careful observation backed with science or practice to come to good recommendations.

Here are my favorite sources that I refer to year after year:

For tending flowers and perennials, the best book is Tracy Di-Sabato-Aust’s Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques. Her advice on pruning and grouping plants and deadheading creates long seasons of spectacular color.

For winter gardening, Eliot Coleman is the man. If he can grow fresh vegetables year round in Maine without supplemental power, you can too. His Winter Harvest Handbook explains it in great detail.

For dealing with pests and bugs, an online source is my go-to place. UC-Davis maintains an extraordinary database of “integrated pest management” that has cultural and organic and traditional chemical ways of treating almost every problem you could have. http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/

For planning your vegetable garden, John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) continues to be the best way to design your vegetable garden and decide what and how much to plant to become self-sufficient.

And finally, to prepare your food, I have old favorites and an online favorite.  Rosalind Creasy’s 1982 Cooking From the Garden is a constant source of inspiration.  Her latest book “Rosalind Creasy’s Recipes from the Garden” has excellent recipes for turning your garden produce into culinary delights.

My second favorite inspiration is the New York Times’ many food columnists. Recipes are all conveniently online.

If you prefer to use these sources, you can have the things people most often want from their gardens:  More Color. More Beauty. Healthy Food, and Easy Recipes to turn their produce and fruit into sublimely Delicious Food.

Bring the Outdoors In

 by Sandy Swegel

If early freezes haven’t killed all your plants, there’s still time to think about bringing some of your favorite plants indoors. You can bring in plants that thrive indoors to live on a sunny windowsill or you can bring in plants that will otherwise die and that you don’t want to lose, to overwinter in your cold garage.

First things First. The first thing before any plant comes indoors is to make sure it doesn’t have bugs or diseases.  Fall often brings outbreaks of aphids so if your plant is full of aphids, treat the pests first:  hose off the bugs, or soak the entire plant, roots and soil and all in some soapy water. Once cleaned up, you can cut it to size if needed and bring it to a sunny spot.

Watering is Different Inside My rosemary plant needs almost no supplemental water when it’s growing outside in the ground.  I’ve killed more than a couple of rosemary by assuming that’s the same conditions indoors.  The stress of heat and dry air of being indoors in a pot demands that I coddle the rosemary indoors a little and never ever let the soil dry out.

Saving plants in the dark in the garage. 

Dahlias can be lifted. Pots of bulbs for spring can be planted and stored.  Even geraniums can be kept in moist peat and overwintered to bloom again next year. That’s what the Swiss do…they aren’t about to repurchase all those geraniums than hang from balconies every year.  If you live in a very dry climate, you may have to water the dormant plants every month so the soil doesn’t desiccate. 

Plants that thrive indoors for me.

Geraniums Continual color, almost no bugs, and forgiving if I forget to water. Great in sunny windows.

Angel wing begonia I keep these in an indirect sun situation and water weekly.  They bloom and bloom all winter.

Coleus All the wild colored coleus and other foliage plants will do well in bright conditions if you keep snipping off the seed heads.  They can handle lower light but might get buggy.

Bougainvillea is my favorite. Its natural bloom time is winter and it is a stellar performer. Messy though since it drops a zillion dead blossoms.

Hibiscus. So pretty, so ever blooming in a sunny spot.  So likely to get hundreds of aphids. Keep washing the aphids off and hibiscus will make you smile all year.  Some dogs love to eat the spent flowers….they’re edible so it doesn’t hurt them unless you’re using chemicals to treat the aphids.

An Herb Pot Nothing beats fresh herbs for winter roasted vegetables and savory dishes. Rosemary, oregano, thyme all thrive with light.

Winter doesn’t have to be cold and gray….bring some outdoor color and pizazz in.

End of the Growing Season

by Sandy Swegel

We had our first big snow…just six inches but very cold and wet followed by more snow and below freezing temperatures so one might easily assume the vegetable garden is done for the year.  It certainly looks forlorn outside my window.  But fortunately, Nature is kinder than that.  For reasons I can’t quite fathom, lettuce that freezes if it’s too far in the back of my refrigerator can handle quite a lot of extreme temperature especially when it’s well insulated by snow.  I expect that when the sun returns in a couple of days, I’ll be able to brush away any remaining snow and harvest excellent crispy sweet lettuce.  Hardier greens like spinach and chard can even be exposed to the air and frozen solid at 8 am but then be perfect and ready to eat by noon with a little mid-day thawing.

The warm season plants like basil and tomatoes have no chance in the cold.  Basil turns brown below about 35 degrees.  Tomatoes don’t taste nearly as good once night time temps dip into the 30s.  Squash leaves croak right at 32 although sometimes the ambient heat from the ground will keep the pumpkins and winter squash edible even though the air is freezing.  Still, the warm season plants are done. Corn on the cob is a memory held by the dried stalks turned into Halloween decorations.

The root crops are another story.  Carrots and beets improve with each freezing night.  As long as you can pry root crops from the freezing ground, you’ll be rewarded with intense flavor and sweetness that improves even more if you roast the vegetables with some olive oil. Many a picky eater who refused to eat turnips or rutabagas, finds November turnips roasted with rosemary and thyme to be irresistible.

The growing season might be over….but the eating season has just begun!

Curing Winter Squash

by Sandy Swegel

All winter squash improve greatly by having a curing time.  Most of us inadvertently cure our winter squash without even realizing it…by leaving it on the counter or a shelf until we get around to cooking it. Curing is keeping the squash at a warmish temperature (70-80) for about two weeks.  If the growing season is long in your area and the squash is ripe before temperatures start to freeze at night, squash can cure perfectly well just sitting in the field.  Here in Colorado this year, we had a hard freeze that caused us to run out, cut all the squash off the plants and bring them indoors.

What is it curing actually does?  Even though you have picked the squash from the vine, it doesn’t “die” but continues to breathe or respirate (a creepy kinda of thought of all those pumpkins on Halloween porches “breathing.”) Respiration is a good thing because it means the squash are still vital and full of life to nourish you. What curing does is lower the temperature so the respiration slows down. During the curing time, many of the starches in the squash convert to sugar making for a yummier squash.

After keeping the squash at room temperature for 10-20 days, you can then move the squash to a basement, cool garage or unheated room where it will last for months.

Some helpful tips on storing winter squash:

Space the squash so they aren’t touching one another.

Don’t put the squash directly on a cold garage or basement floor. They need to have air circulation around them and will be more likely to rot at the spot where they are touching the floor. Put it up on a shelf or on a board.

Don’t try to cure and store acorn and delicata squashes…they don’t keep well and should be eaten soon after picking

Heirloom Tomatoes 2012

by Sandy Swegel

What were your favorite tomatoes this year?  Or should I say who were your favorites since we do have relationships with our plants!

We had a killing frost so it is officially the end of the tomato season, although just the beginning of the “what to do with green tomatoes” season.  My neighbor, Leah Bradley, is a gifted local artist who works in oils and had an Open Studio yesterday. What a delight it was to walk into a room full of paintings of heirloom vegetables.  Tomatoes everywhere and vivid kales, eggplants and pears. Even gnarly tomatoes that had viruses and blights this year were remarkably beautiful seen through her eyes.

There were lots of tomato diseases this year, so be sure to clear all that diseased foliage out of your garden beds and into the garbage (not back into your compost).

Who were the garden award winners in your tomato category this year?  Some of my buddy gardeners have been voting for Juliet, Red Beefsteak Heirloom, Brandywine, and Sweet 100 Cherries.

Cover Your Soil!

by Sandy Swegel

Winter winds will come and steal your soil away if you’re not careful.  If you value your earthworms and the compost that naturally forms on top of your soil under plants, figure out a way to get your soil covered this winter.  Here, in Colorado, we can have 100 mile-an-hour winds in January, so we take this seriously.  We also have to take seriously the fact that anything we use to cover the soil needs to be securely attached to the ground.

Here are some of the ways I’ve covered garden soil:

Cover Crops.
These require the most planning and the most work in Spring of tilling the crops in….but
they also provide the most benefit to the soil by adding organic matter and nutrients. NOW is the time to get your winter rye or clover planted so it has time to grow before the soil gets too cold.

Leaves.
Leaves are my favorites because they become leaf mold and can be dug into the soil in Spring.  In Fall, I spread as many leaves as I can all over perennial beds and over the open vegetable bed.  In the perennial beds, the other plants tend to help keep the wind from whisking all the leaves away.  Out in the open vegetable bed, I spread 6 – 12 inches (if you have that many) of leaves on top of the soil  Then I put dozens of heavy plastic bags filled with leaves the neighbors have tidily vacuumed and mulched up on top to hold the loose leaves down.  If the bags aren’t heavy, I put rocks on top of them.  Not a pretty winter garden….but the earthworms thrive in the moisture and warmth under the plastic bags. In Spring, I can spread the leaves in the bag as a mulch on the garden.

Cardboard.
Newspaper by itself blows away too easily, but cardboard, if secured by rocks and bricks, does a good job of holding in soil and moisture.  Make sure the soil is watered before you put the cardboard down.  A layer of leaves and or newspaper under the cardboard will give the worms and microbes something to eat.

Plant a wildflower meadow.
Do you have an area of your yard that you don’t really need for vegetables or perennials? Keep the soil healthy and the garden beautiful by seeding a wildflower meadow.  Fall is an excellent time to plant a mix of wildflowers or even a mix with grasses and wildflowers that will be beautiful for years.

However you decide to protect your garden….you’ve worked hard to enrich the soil and keep the worms and microbes happy.  Help them to stay home and not blow off in the wind or desiccate in the winter sun.

Photo Credits:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/dustbowl/
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/winter-cover-crops

Mums & Asters

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Fall in Colorado and the most colorful gardens are the shelves at the hardware store garden centers.  Thousands of mums are for sale. I’m not that fond of the one-on-each-side of the front door look, but I do like to get the small 4 in and 6 in containers and plant them here and there in the garden where things look drab.

You’ve probably figured out that those mums you’re planting this year will never look the same as they do today.  They’ll be taller for one thing….so if it’s a permanent planting, take that into account when you choose their spot.  They’ll also be sprawlier, which is a good thing in my book.  They look a bit too controlled and tidy if you ask me. Much too alien from my garden which is not controlled and tidy.

Do you know the history of your mum? Most likely it started back in June or July when three plant plugs were evenly placed into your 6-inch pot. They had ideal indoor growing conditions with fertilization for bloom…and the part that makes them most distinctive…regular applications of growth inhibitors that keep them short and stocky for that perfect Fall round look.  By next year, the growth inhibitor has long since worn off and no matter how much you cut them back by the Fourth of July, they won’t be so compact.  Which I think is a good thing as you can see in the garden picture of the orange and yellow and red mums I planted two years ago.

If you like more of a wildflower look in your garden, go with asters.  You’ll probably have to plant them from seed because they aren’t sold commercially as much as mums.  But the reward is they’ll reseed themselves (usually not too aggressively) and their flowers will be light and airy and move with the breeze in the Fall sun.

15 Minutes to Better Garden Photos

I’m enamored of projects you can do in 15 minutes.  As my hero, Fly Lady (www.flylady.net) says, “You can do anything for 15 minutes.”  She’s often referring to cleaning up or decluttering, but in my busy life, sometimes I need to schedule 15 minutes to do something artsy or creative…because otherwise my day is just full of work and to do items.  So when I ran across this video about how to take better garden photos yesterday, I decided to take my new little Sony camera out to the garden for 15 minutes.

Here’s the video by photographer Gavin Hoey that inspired me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s66-vVCKtWM

The info is pretty standard:  change your angle, work with light or water, try close-ups, change your settings…my little camera has some automated standard settings like blur background. Don’t always center your shot. Take pictures of leaves or furniture…not just flowers. Etc.

So have 15 minutes of fun in your garden today…You’ve put a lot of work into your garden…you can spare 15 minutes just to enjoy how it looks. Here’s my quarter-hour this morning before coffee.