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Grow Your Own Food: Best Return on Investment.

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

There are so many vegetables you can grow in your garden. If only there was enough time. If you have limited time or space for your garden, think about what is the best return on your investment of time and money as well as the best outcome of flavor and nutrition.  Three things I grow even if I don’t have time to grow anything else are:

Salad greens. Loose-leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, and arugula are up and ready to eat in as little as three weeks after planting.  You can pick what you need for tonight’s salad, and let the plant continue to grow for another night’s salad.  Baby greens and mixed lettuces cost $6 per pound add up at the grocery…and they aren’t necessarily that fresh…sometimes they’ve been traveling in a semi-trailer from California for a week already.  Grow your own greens to get maximum nutrition and taste for a couple of bucks worth of seed.

Tomatoes.  You’ve tasted one of those grocery store tomatoes that look perfect and taste like absolutely nothing?  Enough said. You have to grow tomatoes because homegrown tomatoes taste so much better than anything you can buy.  But tomatoes have also gotten really expensive.  One or two tomato plants easily save you a couple hundred dollars if you regularly eat tomatoes in your salads and sandwiches.  Cherry tomato plants are especially prolific.

Herbs. Fresh herbs are the best way to give oomph to your cooking.  They taste so much better than dried herbs and can often star in a simple dish …such as a basil leaves served with mozzarella and tomato.  Many herbs are perennial (like thyme and oregano) and only have to be planted once.  Annual herbs such as basil and dill produce lots and lots of flavorful leaves.

It’s always fun to grow your own food and everything there is to grow, but if you’re strapped for time or space, let the local farmers grow the long-season crops like winter squash, the root crops like onions and carrots, or the water-hogging melons.  You’ll be enjoying your own magnificent home-grown healthful salads all season.

How to Become a Great Gardener

Why You Should be a Self-Taught Gardner

by Sandy Swegel

I garden and landscape for a living.  I have accumulated a massive amount of information about the best ways to grow things, to take care of the soil, to encourage native plants and bees, etc.  When I’m talking to people, they naturally assume I have a degree in horticulture or botany.  So it surprises people to learn I have a BA in History and an MA in Theology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my friend’s kids are all starting college and trying to decide what to major in.  I had no idea when I was 18 that I would one day garden for a living.  But studying history taught me to think and analyze and reflect. And studying theology taught me the world is a mystery and it’s important to learn to observe and notice and simply “be” with nature.

So I encourage everyone to become self-taught gardening experts. You don’t have to go to school or even study.  You just need to start noticing what’s going on in the natural world. No teacher can tell you as much as your own personal experience will.  If you’re just a little systematic about it, you can be a much better gardener at the end of this year. Here’s some homework to learn how to become a great gardener:

Journal.

Keeping a garden journal of what you do, what you plant and what the weather is like is a great way to learn.  You may not know why what you are writing is important (when you planted, when plants started, days without rain, birds and insects observed, etc) but in hindsight, you can figure out when to plant so there are flowers for hummingbirds, or how much rain it takes to have big fungal outbreaks.  Even just being able to read the seed packet you glued into your journal when it’s time to harvest will be a big help.  Keep notes. Understand them later.

Pick a specialty this season.

One year I decided to learn herbs.  I bought seeds and plants of every herb I could think of and grew them in a tiny 4 x 6-foot garden. I learned tansy is a big space hog that kinda stinks and crowds out the other plants, that cilantro and dill practically grow themselves, and that ginger root from the grocery store grows beautiful plants and tons of free ginger.

Take pictures of everything that intrigues you.

Take shots of plants in other people’s yards, wildflowers on walks, blooming containers, weird plants you’ve never seen before. The photos will show you what you like and what really interests you.

Observe.

Just look and notice everywhere you go. Ask questions of gardeners. Wonder about the weather. Notice creepy crawly things or buzzing flying things.  Again. Just take notice with a sense of wonder. You’ll make sense of it eventually.

One thing I’ve noticed about our BBB Seed readers:  you notice the natural world. You stand in awe at beautiful landscapes, tiny birds in nests, and clever ways people arrange flowers in a shabby chic decoration.  Use these great powers of observation and really teach yourself something new this year.

Seeds You Can Start Outdoors NOW!

Seed Starting

by Sandy Swegel

Yes, most of the country has been caught up in a polar vortex. Snow and ice are on the ground and you, the gardener, are stuck with nothing to garden.

There are still two flower seeds you can start outdoors now!

Poppies and Calendula.

A friend who has gardened “naturally” for sixty years always has beautiful stands of poppies that I covet.  She shared her secret for poppies and it works great for calendula too.

“Anytime after the new year, preferably the night before a big snow, spread a packet of seeds where you want the flowers to grow.”

That’s it. That’s all it takes. In nature’s time, the seeds will germinate and grow. Putting the seeds out before a snow helps both with giving a little moisture and with hiding the seeds from birds.  But I’ve also had luck just throwing the seeds on hard snow.

A Gift for Wild Animals

What to Give all the Animals in Your Life
by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for wild animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

And the nominees are:

Asters, Asters and Asters.

I am always entranced by asters. They offer intense color at summer’s end and an alternative to the perfect rounded chrysanthemums you see for sale everywhere.  I don’t have many asters because sometimes they just dry up in late summer heat or they flop all over because I was too busy with the tomatoes to stake them…This year the asters bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.  Even wild asters were beautiful.  The Aster novae-angliae is a wonderful performer that does well even in partial shade.  Included with the nominees this year is the Daisy Aster, not a real aster but an Erigeron, but I have it lined along the edge of the garden where it has formed a mat of little white flowers for months this year.  Next year, I’m trying all of the blue asters.  They are just magnificent this year leaning through the neighbor’s chain link fence.

Yellow Columbine

Always a good performer, yellow columbine is still pumping out flowers this fall. One little plant will probably get the “Most Determined” award by managing to seed itself and then grow up through the juniper. Yellow Columbine and Blue Scabiosa have competed in past years for being both the earliest and latest bloomers.

Red Salvias

The blue salvias were nice enough this year, but the red salvias rule this fall, having tall bright flower heads in full bloom, glorious when highlighted by the gold foliage of nearby trees and shrubs.  The Salvia coccinea in the wildflower garden and the Salvia greggii and Salvia splendens in containers are competing for who can be the most vivid.

Agastache

Hummingbirds and bees love the red salvias, but the agastaches must be very tasty this year.  A couple of weeks ago some wild winds had knocked over the agastache so I went out to try to stake them up a bit.  The bees that were out there happily feeding had a definite opinion. Their hum changed from a happy “I’m just eating and going here and there” to a menacing “Don’t touch my dinner” as I was jostling the plants and I decided the flowers looked just great, leaning over the nearby echninacea.

The judge for the garden awards isn’t very impartial, so the asters will probably win because they haven’t gotten any awards in recent years, but I think all four of these flowers would look fabulous planted together in a wildish meadow type design.

Primping for Winter Interest

How to Prepare the Garden For Winter

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction as we start primping for winter interest.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers.

You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.

Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may.

I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed. 

The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be.

It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself.

I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.

Less is More!

Give Your Current Plants The Love They Deserves

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.

Ignoring what “they” say.

Keeping An Open Mind

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 ignoring what “they” say and think 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

All About Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that you’re likely to have more seeds in the garden 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.

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

How is your garden faring?

by Sandy Swegel 

Here’s the report card for my garden. June had record high temperatures and little rainfall.  Lots of extra watering helped, but plants don’t grow as well without natural rainfall.

Lettuces and Spinach. The heat made them bolt early and they are all bitter or simply scorched and gone to seed. Time to pull them out and replant.

Chards and Kales.  The chards started to bolt but some judicious removal of seed stalks and they are still growing and yummy.  The kales look great.  I didn’t know they were so tough under stressful situations.

Peas.  Pod peas were done early…they went to seed almost instantly. Sugar peas actually were not too bad.  Not as tender as usual, but salvageable….although the season was very short. Like other crops in this heat wave, things just grew really fast and went to seed.

Cilantro. Long since gone to seed.

Dill and Leeks. Leeks have gone to seed but they are beautiful.  Dill has started to seed but still usable.

Beans. My beans are OK, but neighbors have had failures from pests.  There’s still time to replant and have beans this year.

Peppers. The superheroes in our heat.  Lots of irrigation combined with heat have made them flourish.  Tomatillos too.

Tomatoes. The verdict is still out.  They are growing and strong.  Not as many diseases as I feared in a stressful year.  But not so many tomatoes either. They quit flowering in extreme conditions.  The plants themselves are shorter than other years at this time, but I’m hoping a week of cooler temperatures will inspire them to start cranking out tomatoes.

Broccoli. Little heads early this year,  but they are still producing side shoots.

Bugs. Our warm winter enabled too many pests to survive the winter, so there is an abundance of flea beetles and slugs. The greens are ugly and holey….but perfectly good to eat.  Aphids and ladybugs balanced out.  There appear to be lots of young grasshoppers but I’m pretending not to think about them.

So how is your garden faring?  Just like in school, mid-term grades are just an indicator of how things are going…not the final grade.  So get out there and yank out the struggling plants and reseed and replant in their places.  There’s still plenty of time for producing lots of food