Less is More!

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite things to do is spend other people’s money.  Or better said, to go shopping with them and encourage them to buy the cool things they want to buy.  I always covet plants and yet I know I don’t have the time or space to buy as many as I want, so it is fun to live vicariously through others. “Yes that Japanese maple would look beautiful by your front door.”  “You just have to get this hand forged trellis, wooden ones are so dinky and break after awhile.” etc.

I’ll still encourage people to buy quality garden structures or funky garden art, but I’ve slowed down on encouraging them to buy lots of plants.  It was writing last week about biointensive gardening that reminded me. One of the themes of John Jeavons’ book is to create one garden bed and create it well (double dug, good soil amendments). Better to have one bed producing a lot of food than three beds barely eking out enough for dinner.

Plants need attention to establish, at least if you live in a difficult climate like Colorado.  You can’t just plant a bunch of plants and ignore them.  I know, I’ve accidentally killed a lot of plants that way.  You just end up guilty at the waste or feel like a failure as a gardener. So slow down before you buy out the garden center or plant out hundreds of seedlings. Just because it’s inexpensive to grow from seed doesn’t mean your work growing and planting isn’t valuable. We’ll leave for another day, and a bottle of scotch, the esoteric discussion of the karmic implications of killing plants.

How to Practice Less is More Focus on one section of your garden for new plantings Decide to spiff up just one area this year with new plants. I encouraged my friend to focus on the entry bed for now and later get plants for the rest of the yard. Many gardeners have “nursery” beds for new plants where they let them grow the first year.  They can remember to take care of the babies in the nursery.

Pick a learning theme of the year. I kept twenty new plants alive and thriving the year I made an herb bed and planted twenty different herbs just to learn how they grew. (FYI it’s easy to grow lots of ginger and one tansy plant is enough for the rest of your life.) Another year I focused on containers and planted containers of annuals each of one color in a matching pot.  So cute.  The focus on one kind of plant helped me be a better gardener.

Repetition I love one plant of every kind, but a designer friend showed me how cluttered and unattractive that can be.  Pick a few plants and repeat them and your garden will look professionally designed.  For example, in a perennial bed, plant one kind of grass as a “bones” of the bed and plant a few native flowers around the base of each grass.

So enjoy the season and the new plants…but make “Less is More” your mantra. Unless of course you have a full staff like Martha Stewart does.

Fill your hummingbird feeders!

Hummingbirds are on the move.  Do you have food for them? Fill your hummingbird feeders!

I learned a new thing about hummingbirds this week.  If you had a happy home for them last year with food and water, it is quite likely the very same birds will come back from their winter migration to your yard again this summer.  I didn’t think about how early they come here. I love our mixed wildflower seeds to attract bees and birds because it produces so many flowers, but heavy March snows and colder weather this year means our dandelions aren’t even blooming yet, meaning none of those nice tubular flowers hummingbirds like.

I love the internet for many reasons but I especially enjoy how one bird enthusiast can help all of us help the earth and its many species.  Here’s a website http://www.hummingbirds.net/ where people all over the US and Canada report the first Spring observations of the ruby-throated hummingbird. I can see they are getting darned near my house so I better get the feeder out if I want last year’s birds to stop at my house and not keep flying!

Favorite hummingbird trivia for the day: We don’t think much about where hummingbirds go in the winter, but it turns out they’ll often go to the same yard there, too. One lady in Florida has watched a banded Rufous hummingbird come back to her yard every winter for seven years! http://www.waltonoutdoors.com/banded-rufous-hummingbird-winters-in-same-yard-seven-years-in-a-row/

More Info: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/ruby-throat-hummingbird/ http://www.hummingbirds.net/map.html

Tools of the Trade: Row Cover

Every pursuit has tools that make it easier to be successful. Ask any gardener and they’ll pull out their own favorite tool with a wry grin and and a long story about why you have to have this tool

Row Cover is one of my own top secrets of success. I use it in all seasons at all different times of the growing season.  Also known as frost cloth, it is a light-weight white fabric that looks just like interfacing. Row cover’s great attribute is that it creates a protective barrier between the seed, plant or soil against the ravages of sun, wind and cold. It’s also handy for protecting against insects like flea beetles. Here’s how I use it throughout the seasons:

Spring Right now, row cover is in the garden over areas that I’ve seeded that I want to help germinate.  The row cover protects the germinating seeds and seedling from getting too dry because the gardener forgets to water often enough.  It also is a physical barrier that protects against harsh sun, wind or hungry birds.  Temperature under the row cover is a few degrees warmer which is enough to speed up germination.

Any Season When you are transplanting, row cover can be the secret tool that enables your plants to survive transplanting.  I use it when I transplanting out seedlings I’ve grown indoors, or plants from the nursery, or even perennials I’m moving in my own yard.  Keeping leaves from desiccating from sun or wind is the keep to successful transplanting.

Mid Summer Lettuce lovers keep their greens from bolting too soon by covering them with row cover.  In Spring the row cover kept heat in…now, it keeps the hot summer sun out and lowers the temperature around the plants.  Lettuce stays sweeter longer.  Eventually, lettuce still bolts, but about the time that happens, it’s time to reseed the garden for fall greens.  Row covers then keep the seeds moist enough to grow.

Fall So often a frost comes one early fall night that kills lots of your warm season plants.  It’s a shame because there are often another two or three weeks of good growing time for tomatoes or other tender vegetables.  Five degrees of protection under row cover means your tomatoes survive a light frost.

Winter If you have a greenhouse, row cover inside the greenhouse and give you an extra zone’s warmth. I visited an unheated greenhouse in snowy Colorado this week that had lettuce planted last Fall and now being harvested for fresh greens.

When to take row cover off  The one-time row cover isn’t helpful is when your plants need to be pollinated. Bees and moths and butterflies need to be able to fly from flower to flower gather nectar and pollinating the plants.  Lettuces and greens don’t need the pollinators, but strawberries and peas and anything else that flowers and sets fruit does. Once you start to see flowers, you need to pull the row cover aside.

Keeping the row cover on OK, if you’re in a windy area that’s the biggest challenge. Big farming operations dig a trench alongside their beds, put the row cover in and then fill in the trench with soil to hold the row cover down.  Home gardeners can place a few rocks strategically placed or even a heavy piece of lumber.

more info:

http://tinyurl.com/b28755y

http://tinyurl.com/bh983my

Gardening for Beginners

If you are a beginner, you’ll soon learn that Gardening is both an art and science….and a bit of luck. You start by reading books and the backs of seed packets. You ask other gardeners and talk to strangers at the garden center. But mostly you observe. You watch what others are doing. You watch the plants in your garden. You pay attention to the weather and birds and insects and raccoons. And best of all, no matter what you know, or how long you’ve gardened, there is always something new to learn. It doesn’t matter either if you don’t have enough space outside to do gardening. You can easily just get something like these LED grow lights and do some gardening inside, or you could go see if there is a community garden center that you could partake in. There are loads of options.

The Very Basics you Need:

Light. Gardens do better in sun. You can get by with partial shade but if you want tomatoes and beans, you need at least six hours of sun a day. More preferably.

Soil. Roots need soil and air. If you have soil that needs a pickaxe to dig a hole, you need to add “amendments” like compost or composted manure, to lighten the soil. It doesn’t need to be fluffy like potting soil…but it needs to have enough air to receive water and to drain.

Water. With drought at record levels all over the country last year, it’s easy to understand that plants need water. When you’re starting seeds, the soil needs to be moist on the surface till the seeds germinate. Later, the soil needs to be moist an inch down when you put your finger in the soil. In the beginning, when plants are young, you might need to water every day. You have to keep checking. There’s a solution to this problem, if you have a look into the Powerblanket sizing chart and follow up by purchasing the recommended size, this will allow you to have a temperature controlled bucket which will preserve the water supply throughout summer.

Space. Plants need space both above and beneath the ground. Not too much space because they do like growing in groups and communities. But read your seed packet and be sure to give your plants at least a few inches of space.

Time. Gardening is a four-dimensional event. It changes dramatically over time. You need enough time for the plants to grow to full term. Lettuce is ready to eat in a few weeks. Winter squash can take 100 days. As the weather changes, what the plant needs changes, so you have to keep adapting. You also have to keep track of time and can’t let a week or two pass without checking on your garden.

Love. Gardens that children grow will often thrive even though the kids don’t do everything right. That’s the love factor. I look back at my first gardens and can’t believe I managed to get anything to eat. But I loved the process. I loved playing in the dirt and watching seeds germinate. I loved the idea of the garden even when I forgot to go out to water. I loved the red tomatoes in the sun. And the plants forgave my shortcomings and grew in that atmosphere of love.

Watch, Learn and Enjoy.

Or as we like to say at BBBSeed: Grow. Enjoy. Share.

Resources:

‘Organic Gardening’ magazine is a great resource. Years of articles are online. You can start with their basic how to garden. http://tinyurl.com/bhlqfcy

Square-foot Gardening was most helpful to me when I started learning. Gardening seemed like such a big project…but I could do 4 feet x 4 feet without feeling overwhelmed. http://www.squarefootgardening.org/

Gardening is very different in an arid climate like Colorado compared to humid places like Louisiana or Oregon. Check with your local Cooperative Extension (every state has an extension service from its ag university.)

Gardening for newcomers to Colorado is here: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07220.html

www.gardeninginfozone.com

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.

Ask the Kids

What do you think is special about our Garden?

I recently returned from my annual trip to New Orleans. I go every Winter for a trip to my hometown so I can enjoy a minor respite from Colorado’s below-zero weather and smell fresh gardenias and camellias and remember that oranges and grapefruit grow right on the trees while the snow piles up in Colorado.

Besides walking through citrus orchards and hiking in the swamps, a highlight of New Orleans from a gardener’s perspective is The Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, an amazing program that teaches 2500 kids in five different public schools to grow and cook their own food. They have a ton of fun (It is New Orleans….there’s a big emphasis on throwing a party to eat the food) and kids learn more than just how to grow a garden.  I don’t know if the kids get grades for growing food, but they’ve become pretty darn wise. Here’s some of what those kids have to say about “their” gardens:

“We grow our own food because it’s better when it’s freshly made. And because we use our food to cook with.”  –Ariel Surrency   “I think the garden is special because people from the neighborhood get to come pick things from it.” –Christian Powell

“The garden is special because there are all different varieties of flowers and vegetables and fruits. It’s peaceful and shows respect because it’s never messed up and everyone keeps it together.” – Biyon Calvin.

Go find the children in your own family or neighborhood and ask the kids, “What makes this garden special?” Wait till you hear the wisdom your little garden has inspired.

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 are the best ways to learn 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.

Ode to Lavender

by Sandy Swegel

I awoke this morning dreaming of lavender. I adore everything about lavender.

The Fragrance: exotic yet tender and sweet.
The Blossoms: intense purples and blues and even dusty whites and pinks.
The Herbal Essence: healing, calming, sedating yet inspiring.
The Foliage: lavender plants paired with sages and blue fescue grasses in a blue border.
The Smudge Stick: foliage, stems and blossoms mixed with white sage purify home and heart.
The Oil:  condenses all its attributes and essences in a single drop.
The Woody Stems: reminders of the Mediterranean climate it adores and fragrant thrown on a campfire.
The Seed: easy to germinate and though perennial can often produce flowers the first year.
The Plant: low maintenance, sturdy, tolerates even thrives in drought.

Lavender is a wonderful plant to think about in the fall.  It continues to bloom a bit, even after killing freezes. Stalks of lavender blossoms erupt through mats of fallen leaves offering food to the bees and encouragement to the gardener.  Lavender reminds us in the fall how many home-crafted gifts from the garden we still can make.

Friends who don’t wait till the last minute to make holiday gifts have been busy turning lavender into treasures to be shared with friends.  Julia makes the most exotic of lavender gifts:  white chocolate lavender popcorn.  She also infuses jams with lavender.  Sarah takes lavender essential oil and mixes it with the unscented all natural body lotion from Costco or mixes the oil with rose oil and bath salts.  I mix the oil with spring water in a mister for spraying the bed linens. Elise grabs leaves and stems and flowers that have dried on the plant and with adjacent white sage and a little twine created those smudge sticks that cost $10 at the health food store.  A bit of purple ribbon for wrapping all these simple creations turns Lavender into a thoughtful gift from the heart.

May your dreams be so sweetly scented.

Popcorn recipe:http://www.howsweeteats.com/2012/07/white-chocolate-lavender-vanilla-popcorn/

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 cover your soil 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

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?”