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Psychic Predictions 2014

by Sandy Swegel

From my early morning dreams: Psychics around the world predict a new rise in human global consciousness this year.  In all catalog14_cover (Mobile)corners of the globe, human beings awake this year and realize the true path to enlightenment is eating good nutritious food especially leafy greens and root vegetables. Millions set up garden sacred spaces in their back yard to grow their own fresh, local healthy food.  In progressive states like Colorado, the new leaf available for sale on every street corner is kale.

Children born this year will be precocious and wise beyond their years.  Unlike the indigos, these “green” children are born knowing to avoid processed foods and wail and throw tantrums when force-fed orange macaroni or dried up Cheerios.

It may be a year of turmoil as hundreds of thousands gather in protests, strikes and boycotts of local governments threatening to occupy the streets until schools and hospitals and shopping malls provide truly healthy lunches.  The earth joins in the protests and sends tornadoes around the world sucking up factories that make the pesticides that poison our farms.  New earthquake faults form under any land that has been forced into mono-cropping. Hurricanes wipe out buildings and urban sprawl in tropical areas leaving only edible native vegetation and fruit trees.

On the celebrity front, new reality shows about farmers and foragers are in demand.  The new Dynasty is led by dads who stand up for values of clean food and air and who know how to grow a mean tomato.  The Real Housewives are moms tending backyard chickens and looking sexy carrying in armloads of fresh vegetables with just a smudge of dirt above their brow.

What a year it can be! So when you’re sitting this winter day dreamily looking at the shiny seed catalogs, follow your inner wisdom and grow a splendid vegetable garden this year.  It’s a wiser kinder world calling you.

Gift Wrap from Nature & the Recycling Bin!

by Sandy Swegel

As always, necessity spurs creativity in my life. I had a party to go to last night and needed to wrap a simple gift, but had no wrapping paper much less any of those easy gift bags in the house.  Even though I love a nicely wrapped gift, I’m really cheap when it comes to buying wrapping paper, but wrapping gifts in newspaper comics is so 1970s that I can’t make myself do it anymore.

So in a panic, I headed out to the recycling bin where I found the box to put the gift in and some brown packing paper to use as a wrap.  The recycling bins happen to be next to the ancient spruce tree, so I pulled out my pruners and cut off some low little branches to use as a “bow.”  I thought I’d have to use a pine cone, but the cotoneasters had some great berries so another snip-snip and I had a red accent piece.  Jute twine from the junk drawer, a curl of orange rind from the compost and a couple of twistie ties later, I had a beautifully wrapped gift and it didn’t cost a penny, except for the stress of scurrying for a last-minute wrap.

You can do this even more artfully and gracefully if you plan a bit.  Keep a neighborhood mental map of where you can “forage” decorations from shrubs with berries, or soft cedar trees. Twigs and sticks work great too.  In a pinch, walnuts from the kitchen or even a tangerine make an edible wrap.  To my surprise, I got more praise for the wrapping than for the gift!

There are zillions of internet image ideas for “gift wrap” from nature.  If you live someplace warm, you can even follow the example of blogger Justina Blakeney and use big tropical leaves for the wrapping paper.

Photo Credits: http://blog.justinablakeney.com/2011/11/nature-wraps-diy-green-gift-wrap-for-the-holidays.htmlhttp://www.corinnavangerwen.com/2011/10/15/green-gift-wrapping-workshop/

A Gift for Wild Animals

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

Save the Monarch Butterfly!

by Sandy Swegel

The big nature news this week was an article in the New York Times that 2013 is the first year anyone remembers that the monarchs didn’t appear in the central forests of Mexico for the Day of the Dead. It’s part of the cultural tradition there that the annual migration of monarchs to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico represents the souls of the dead.  Last year scientists were worried when only 60 million monarchs came back to Mexico, but this year a paltry 3 million struggled in weeks late.

A primary cause of the monarch’s disappearance is the destruction of milkweed in the Midwest, the monarch’s only food. Native habitat in which milkweed thrives has been destroyed as prairie turns to endless mono-crops of Roundup-drenched fields of corn.  There are other factors such as massive deforestation in Mexico and the transition of prairie land to suburbia. But no milkweed means the monarch starves.

It’s interesting that the New York Times has been a big supporter of the monarch.  This was the third article in the last year in which they have featured the decline of the monarch. They have seen the writing on the wall.

What can you do?  Keep up the usual things you do opposing GMO crops that rely on Roundup to wipe out all native “weeds.”  There’s political action work to reduce the corn subsidies that make Roundup profitable.  But as a gardener, you can plant some milkweed and other native plants that will feed the many native pollinators in dramatic decline.  The monarch might be the prettiest most dramatic victim of our prairie destruction, but there are many others.  Gardeners understand the delicate web of life that depends on native habitat.  Tell your friends.

New York Times on the Monarch: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/monarchs-fight-for-their-lives.htmlhttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/science/earth/monarch-migration-plunges-to-lowest-level-in-decades.html

Photo Credit:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/science/12butterfly.html?pagewanted=all

3 Ways to Compost in Winter

by Sandy Swegel

It snowed yesterday.  It’s going to snow again today.  This makes me so happy because it means I get a vacation from working.  My gardening business is a lot like a teacher’s schedule.  Work like crazy most of the year then get a wonderful interlude to catch up on the rest of life.  Working in the garden may come to an end during Colorado winters, but eating usually continues and we continue to make lots of food scraps that any gardener would hate to waste.

When I lived on acreage, I did all my food composting by sending it through the chickens.  The backyard chickens loved food scraps and eagerly ran around when I brought the compost bucket. Even if it was just onion scraps and things they didn’t like to eat, they relished scratching it around and mixing it with the coop bedding and poop. Spring compost in the making.

Without chickens, there are still at least three things you can do to compost in winter and capture your kitchen scraps:

Use your regular compost bin.  I empty mine to about ¼ full of compost in progress with lots of worms.  I fill it all the way to the top with dry leaves and sort of hollow out the center. The leaves don’t freeze solid and all winter I drop the scraps down the middle of the leaves.  The leaves provide some insulation and the food scraps and leaves at the bottom of the pile are warmed enough by the earth that a tiny bit of composting keeps happening even when temps get well below freezing. The earthworms are slow but still keep working and reproducing.

Dig a Trench in Fall One year I dug a foot-deep trench the entire length of my garden bed where I normally plant tomatoes each year.  I left the excavated dirt on the side of the trench. Every time the indoor compost bin was full, I just took it out to the garden and dumped it.  If things weren’t too frozen, I pulled some of the excavated dirt on top of the food. If there was snow on the ground, I just put the scraps on top and eventually, it fell into the trench. The key to the success of this method is that the trench was easy to reach from the back door so I didn’t have to hike through the snow.  Come March and April, the trench was crawling with decomposers and happy earthworms. By end of May, it was broken down and I planted tomatoes right into the new compost.  No heavy lifting.

Make a Worm Windrow Compost. John, the Worm Man, Anderson in northern Colorado keeps his worms happy all winter by setting up long short windrows of compost, food scraps and worms.  He throws old carpet or tarps over the top.  Periodically, he lifts the carpet and puts new scraps on top of the piles.  The worms slow down in winter but keep working and reproducing.

Photo Credit: http://nynofabeginningfarmers.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/workshop-re-cap-producing-quality-food-and-a-green-community-through-urban-farming/http://voices.yahoo.com/how-prepare-compost-bin-cold-weather-12398636.html?cat=32

When the Garden Stops Making Free Food!

by Sandy Swegel

The hard freeze is upon us here in Colorado.  We’re scurrying to save and process the last of the harvest.  Counters are full of green tomatoes. Winter squash line the shelves of the mudroom. But fresh organic food coming in from the garden is dwindling.  The time of buckets of lemon cucumbers in the walkway is over. (How does that plant produce so much fruit?) Despite good intentions of growing most of our own food, it is time to return to regular shopping at the grocery store when the garden stops making free food.

Paying for food after getting all those zucchinis for free all summer can be a little depressing—especially if you end up paying $1.50 for a tiny little zucchini. For a while, I thought I was just getting old and turning into my Depression-baby grandmother who always complained about things being so expensive.  Even though she had money in the bank and a good social security check coming, later in life she took to having just two little chicken wings for dinner. That’s what I felt like going shopping this week as I bought just one onion, one squash and two pears when I went shopping.  Prices seemed so high.

Turns out prices really are high.  It’s not reported much on the news, but the cost of living is increasing and food prices are worse than the general economy. Since 2006, the consumer price index has risen 14% but the price of food has gone up 20% in the past six years.  Ouch.

So what do you do?  Besides planting even more vegetables and fruit next year, you have to watch what you buy. And you need to remember to keep buying organic produce even though it is relatively more expensive.

Prices are higher now than when you bought groceries last winter. But don’t compensate by eating pesticide-contaminated food.  The Environmental Working Group puts out a list every year of the foods that have the most pesticides even after they have been thoroughly washed.  They call the worst ones the “Dirty Dozen.”  Most of our staple foods are on the dirty list:  apples, celery, kale (!), cucumbers, and zucchini.  If you do have to save money this winter and buying non-organic food seems the only way to go, at least choose foods least likely to be full of pesticides…the items on their “Clean Fifteen” list.

And grow more food next summer!

Dirty Dozen: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ Data on food prices:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-august/price-inflation-for-food-outpacing-many-other-spending-categories.aspx#.Um5XtvmsgWc

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

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

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.

Watermelon Crop Circles

by Sandy Swegel

Nature is so darn weird some days.  My friend Lara found four watermelons with this a design in them growing in her farm field.  Her neighbors are, um, quirky enough that one of them might have spent the night carving the design.  But a quick google for “crop circles and watermelons” turned up more equally cryptic images.

Most likely these watermelons weren’t carved by industrious aliens.  Designs like this can be caused by spot or mosaic viruses   Last year, we saw lots of the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus that wiped out tomato plants locally.  Vining plants like cucumbers and papayas are also susceptible.

Most of these plant viruses are spread by insects, often aphids or thrips.  An infected insect goes from plant to plant spreading the virus.  Sometimes the effects are inconsequential and sometimes, as happened with the papaya ringspot virus, most of the crop can be wiped out, endangering the economic status of the entire growing area. Insects often overwinter in debris in the field or nearby, so clearing out your garden after harvest can sometimes break the disease cycle.

Not much you can do once you have the virus. Sometimes they don’t spread, and other times they wipe out the field. Lara only has four fruit so far so she’s hopeful it’s an isolated problem.

Why is tidying up always the answer to most problems?

Iced Tea

by Sandy Swegel

I learned to think outside the box yesterday…outside the tea box that is.  All this summer heat has me drinking lots of iced tea trying to cool down.  I traditionally get my tea from a box.  Boulder tea company Celestial Seasonings makes an awesome variety of herb teas, especially the zingers, that are full of flavor.  Luzianne Tea from the grocery story is my tea of choice for making the Southern Sweet Tea I grew up with. (1 quart of water, 4 black tea bags, 1 c sugar, lemons). But my clever gardening friend Barbara walked me through the garden yesterday, introducing me to a new use for plants I was already growing.

Citrus flavors are the most obvious to use. I had tried some of the lemony herbs before…but anything with lime or lemon in its name is a great choice. I quickly learned to smell the foliage to get an idea if it would be tasty.  If I didn’t have Barbara with me, I might have googled the herb first to make sure it was edible.

For our iced tea party, I made several teas from single ingredients…a lemon verbena tea, a mint tea, and a basil tea.  We then tried the flavors alone and mixed some together.  Teas with a combination of herbs had more interest and depth but my favorite ended up being the lemon verbena with a splash of mint!

Citrus Flavors Lemon Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass

Mint flavors Chocolate Mint, Peppermint, Garden variety mint, Monarda fistula (minty with a light citrus tone).

Other herbs Anise, Fennel

Edible flowers I made the Elderflower and Queen Anne’s Lace teas a few weeks back when they were still in young bloom. Elderflowers Queen Anne’s Lace Rose Hips

Extras to add Sweetener: honey, agave, liquid stevia or sugar. Citrus slices: lemons, limes, oranges Ginger slivers Mint sprigs

The basic recipe is about the same for all the teas. We’re making the tea for flavor not for medicinal use so it won’t be as strong as herbal concoctions.  Barbara just puts her herbs in a jar, covers with hot tap water and lets it sit overnight.  I don’t plan ahead as well, so I made simple hot teas and then refrigerated and later filled with ice cubes.

Basic Herbal Iced Tea Recipe 1 T leaves per cup water Boiling water. Steep 5 minutes Strain. I made the teas double strength to compensate for the ice cubes melting.

We set the teas out on the table with honey and sliced lemons and slivers of ginger and let everyone mix and match to find their favorite.

Go forth and experiment!