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Starting your Perennials NOW

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Time.

Even here in snowy Colorado, it’s time. Even if some weird polar vortex has kept you housebound and you’ve lost track of what day it is…it’s time.  Time to start our perennial seeds. Spring really is on its way. 

One of the interesting aspects of a culturally liberal place like Colorado is that we’re very open-minded.  There’s somebody celebrating just about every religion’s and culture’s holiday now.  Two events this week remind me how human beings everywhere celebrate the hope for the return of Spring. First, there was a big Groundhog Day celebration for kids in one of our nature centers.  Our groundhog day is actually a big fake because true groundhogs don’t live here.  But we have a fine stuffed toy groundhog that is the center of a snowy celebration.  Our other event was a Celtic festival for Imbolc, a Gaelic festival centered around St. Brigid or the pagan goddess Brighid, depending on your point of view.   Both holidays are traditional days to forecast when Spring is coming.  Whether Spring is coming sooner or later is all the same to a gardener.  The point is that it is now the midpoint between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox and Spring is definitely on its way.

So you have two things to do:

First, you can start looking for the signs of Spring.  A snowdrop erupting in a warm spot. A weed or two starting to green up.  Keep your eyes open…you’ll see Spring if you look.

Second, you can start your perennial seeds.  It’s too soon for warm season crops like tomatoes, but a great time to start slow starting perennial flowers and herbs.   Perennials are often slower to germinate than annuals, but they are also more able to withstand cold temperatures.  So if I start the seeds now (or in the next few weeks), I’ll have plants ready to go outside in a protected spot by April…when I’ll need the space to start annuals.

The first week of February is the time I traditionally start perennial seeds indoors under lights.  My setup is pretty simple…a shop light dangling from a rod in my closet with a seed tray underneath. Here are the two kinds of seeds I’m starting this week:

Perennial Edibles
In the vegetable garden, herbs are the best perennials to start now. Think of winter hardy herbs: oregano, lavender, parsley, rosemary. It’s not the time for basil yet.

Wildflowers
Edibles are great, but one must never forget food for the soul—the beautiful wildflowers.  If you think to start perennial flowers might be difficult, take inspiration from an article in Fine Gardening magazine about 10 Perennials Easily Grown from Seed.     finegardening.com/design/articles/perennials-grown-from-seed.aspx

It might be frozen outside right now, but I look for Spring everywhere.  The Groundhog searches for his shadow….I’m watching my seed tray for the first tiny sprouts!

Photo Credits:
finegardening.com/design/articles/perennials-grown-from-seed.aspx

Beautiful Food

by Sandy Swegel

Romanesco broccoli is a favorite of gardeners, chefs and mathematicians.  Gardeners love its exotic shape and lime green color. Chefs adore its presentation on a platter and its great flavor, especially roasted.  And mathematicians laud Romanesco as a perfect example of fractal geometry in nature with its swirling spirals.

My first glimpse of Romanesco broccoli was on a trip to Italy as a 21-year-old with a backpack doing the great European hosteling trip.  I was in love with everything Italian and spent the day in the Italian farmers market where strange exotic vegetables and fruits were displayed alongside great salamis and pungent cheeses.  I wasn’t much of a cook back then, but Italy is where I learned that all vegetables taste best roasted with some good olive oil, salt, garlic and served with a nice pasta.

Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

Romanesco broccoli, popular in Italy since the 16th century, is a favorite here at BBB Seed, especially now that we’ve found an organic source for the seed. It grows just like any of the broccolis or cauliflowers (good soil, water, and cool weather bring out the sweetness). Steaming it or serving it raw in salads preserves the great color.

One more great thing about Romanesco broccoli?  It’s just weird and alien-looking enough that you might be able to get the kids to try it.

Photo and Recipe: www.gastronomersguide.com/2010/11/pasta-with-roasted-romanesco.html

 

Basil and Chili: A Love Affair

by Sandy Swegel

Do you like chili peppers?  The plants are super easy to grow and tolerate a lot of droughts and benign neglect in the garden. The only problem I’ve ever had with peppers is that the seeds take forever to germinate. One year my seeds still hadn’t germinated for three weeks, so I gave up and bought plants…. only to have healthy seedlings come up the next week.  I decided I just hadn’t given the seedlings enough heat.

But new research this year taught me something new about seed germination that made me think maybe my pepper seedlings were just lonely.  Turns out that if you grow basil near peppers, the pepper seeds sprout faster and grow healthier plants than if you just grow peppers alone. Companion planting scientifically documented.  A controlled scientific study this year thinks it’s because the basil plants emit sound vibrations near the peppers.  We have no idea yet if the basil is just whispering encouraging words or playing a wild marimba tune.  But the chili plants come out and dance to the music.

Practically, here’s what I’m going to try.  I’m going to start my basil seeds in the tray next to the pepper seeds.  Basil always germinates first for me so I’m hoping they’ll come up and then peppers will come up faster.  I’ll plant both in the garden together too.  And finally, next August…I’ll fix a great salsa and eat them together. It’s a fiesta!

 Photo Credits and More Info:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/plants-talk-to-each-other-nanoscale-sound-waves-grow_n_3229021.html
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130507-talking-chili-plant-communication-science/

Communicating with Plants

by Sandy Swegel

Reading through all the garden porn…uh I mean seed catalogs…I found myself quite transported this morning.  Looking at the beautiful pictures in the catalogs, I realized that when I considered getting seeds for a certain plant, my mind was quite filled with images of what the full-grown plant in bloom would look like.  Thinking about what tomatoes to grow, my mouth began to salivate.  For gardeners, seeds aren’t just a tiny bit of hard matter, but a world of potential realized.  Somehow, I think the plants actually manage to communicate that to us.  We sit reading our catalogs and the seeds themselves seem to be shouting from the page, “Pick me!” Pick me!”  As I always tell people when I teach seed starting classes,  seed starting is easy….the plants want to grow.

I don’t think we need to be psychic to communicate with plants.  Human-plant communication is something humans have done since the beginning. In a world with so many plants, how else did we figure out which ones are good for medicine and which ones are good for food?

So do a little experiment when you sit with your seed catalog or favorite seed website.  Settle yourself into a quiet place alone with your catalog and set the mental intention that you’d like to understand which plants you should grow this year.  Then calmly flip through the catalog and see what really gets your attention.  Or sometimes thoughts of a certain plant pop into your head.  Close your eyes for a moment and really see the plant. Use your imagination to smell the plant or feel its leaves.  Let an image come to your mind of where the plant might be physically in your garden.  Imagine it growing in that spot next June and notice if the plant looks healthy or weak when you think about it there.  If it doesn’t look strong, try to imagine it in a different place.  How’s it look there?  How do you feel when you see the plant there?

Whether we are accessing our own intuition or really communicating with the plant itself, I think we are tapping into our own inner gardener who knows exactly what plants we should grow to make both the plant and the gardener happy!

Photo Credit: http://homeguides.sfgate.com/can-talk-flowers-make-grow-76408.html

Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/columbines/images/aschockleyi/aquilegia_schockleyi_habitat_katewalker_lg.jpg

Grow Your Own Food: Best Return on Investment.

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 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

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:

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!

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 that you can put out 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.

Winter Sowing

by Sandy Swegel

My first packets of seeds have come in the mail and I’m so eager to start gardening, but the 10 inches of old snow that’s still all over my garden is a real obstacle.  My lights are reserved for tomatoes and peppers….but I want to Garden NOW.  When I’m in this predicament, there’s only one thing to do: head out to the recycling bins and dumpster dive for plastic milk jugs and salad containers and all other types of clear plastic to start some seeds in.

Winter Sowing is my favorite way to start wildflower seeds but it works for all seeds.  Winter Sowing is all about starting your seeds outside and letting nature’s natural rhythms stir the seeds to life at the right time.  It’s also all about getting LOTS of plants practically free without having extravagant indoor light setups or greenhouses.

There’s lots of info online about Winter Sowing…a term coined by the Queen of Winter Sowing, Trudi Davidoff, back in the early days of the internet on the Garden Web forums.  Trudi has it all consolidated on her web page www.wintersown.org  with answers to every question you can possibly have. We all love Trudi because she took something rather mysterious…making new plants…and made it easy and almost foolproof.

To make it even easier for you, here’s your “Short Form” Winter Sowing Instructions:

1. Recycle a plastic container. I’m fond of the gallon water jugs but any container with a clear lid that you can put holes in the bottom works.

2. Label your container at least twice.  Sharpies aren’t really permanent so I use an art deco paint pen from Michael’s to write directly on the container or on a strip of duct tape.

3. Put in 2-4 inches of potting soil.  Wet the soil. Sprinkle the seeds on top. Lightly water the seeds into the soil or press them with your fingers.

4. Secure the top of the container with duct tape. Place the container outside where the wind won’t blow it over.

5. Check periodically (twice a month) for watering. This is really important.  If the soil dries out completely, this seeds will likely die because germination had already started. If you can see condensation on the inside of the container you’re probably OK. A foot of snow on top is probably also a safe sign.

6. Beginning in April or May here in Zone 5, anytime after the seedlings come out you can plant them directly into the garden.

Timing is the beauty of this method…On cold winter days, you yearn for spring and have more time for starting seeds. In my experience, the plants started this way are much sturdier than ones started indoors under warm conditions.

Winter Sowing is an ideal technique for wildflowers.  You can start now and keep making containers when you have time until as late as March or April.

Enjoy!

For more info: www.wintersown.org http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/wtrsow/

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.