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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?”

 

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

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

What to do with Giant Zucchinis

What to do with Giant Zucchini?

by Sandy Swegel

It’s only July and already there is the challenge of the giant zucchini?  I’m remembering last winter when I paid
$2 for a tiny organic zucchini and resolved not to do that again this winter.  One treat I’ve grown fond of are vegetable “chips” and zucchini are great candidates.  Anything to sneak more vegetables into the day.  You can bake zucchini into chips but then you’d have to turn on the oven and heat the kitchen.  That’s why I like the raw food route of dehydrating the chips.  Here’s what I did today with two big zucchini:

I made one batch just plain to see how they taste.  The other batch I briefly marinated in balsamic vinegar.  There are so many other things you can sprinkle on the zucchini slices: salts, oils, ground peppers, and various herbs. But for my first run, I wanted as much zucchini-ness as possible.

I keep the dehydrator on low (about 105) to preserve enzymes and nutrients.  The plain zucchini chips were done to crunchiness in about 5 hours.  The marinated ones will need another 6 hours or so.

And here’s a bowl of simply finished zucchini chips.  Yum.

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

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

The Midsummer Lull

by Sandy Swegel

I was surfing the garden internet last night at Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2012/06/grazing-my-way-through-the-lull.html where blogger Michele Owens is lamenting the lull in her vegetable garden.  It’s so true, late June is a difficult time in both the vegetable and flower garden.  There was the wild early June flush of color on roses and spring perennials.  Mid-June brought peas and tons of chard and kale and spinach.  But the intense unusual heat of the last couple of weeks made the spinach and arugula bolt and the peas and fava beans quickly went hard in their shells.  Tomatoes are full of flowers and tiny green tomatoes, but there’s not much for eating.  The one exception is zucchini…The zucchini are pumping out a new zucchini or two a day….but it’s hard to find other vegetables for dinner. How can the basil be so small when I started them months ago?

The flower garden is similar. The hot season rudbeckias are finally starting but there isn’t the lushness the garden of a few weeks ago had.  First of July is a great time to notice what’s in bloom in your (or your neighbor’s) vegetable and flower garden and vow to plant that this year or next.  Ideas I’m stealing that look great in this otherwise lulling time:

Leek seed heads.  I let the leeks perennialize and plant themselves each year….so right now the flower heads are tall and a lovely pink, covered with bees.

Monarda.  Drifts of monarda are abloom…and full of bees and butterflies.

Echinacea.  Although some think of echinacea as a full sun xeric plant, it is at its prettiest with some shade and with irrigation. Some of the nicest echinaceas grow at the edge of apple trees where the extra coolness makes them vibrant.

Daylilies.  Get the camera out so you can document the daylilies you really like (in your yard or your neighbor’s) so you can make divisions next Spring.

It’s great anticipating the bounty that’s about to burst in mid-July.  Hard to believe during this lull that we’ll soon be leaving tomatoes on the vine because there are too many to eat.

If Plants Could Walk

by Sandy Swegel

They’d run for their lives!  This week anyway.  Extreme weather conditions prevail here in Colorado and throughout the country.  Here in Boulder, we’re enduring day after day of record-setting temps over 100.  Plants are crisping just from the 4% humidity.  And as we learned in our last severe drought in 2002, no matter how much city water you irrigate with, plants don’t do as well with irrigation as they do with natural water from rain.  If my plants had legs this week, they would mosey on over to the shade next to the irrigation ditch for respite.

While we bake in the heat, my sister took her annual vacation to Florida so she could sit on the beach in the middle of Tropical Storm Debby.  Plants in some areas of the Gulf Coast desperately yearn for legs this week.  If only they could walk they would get out of the downpour of hard pelting rain and lift their feet out of the bog and mire that soil has become with excessive rain.  How’s a plant supposed to live when its roots are stuck in wet muck putrifying in the heat.

The happiest plants in dire weather can be the ones in containers with a doting human around.  My neighbor nudges her containers on wheels into the shade when the western sun is too debilitating.  Even her tomato loves the respite from the blazing sun.  Unlike my spinach, hers isn’t bolting because now that summer is upon us, she moved her containers of greens under the apple trees where cooling misters cool the greens enough they don’t have to bolt yet…and the apples grow big with the bit of extra water from the misters. One pot of summer greens was fortunate and moved inside into the air conditioning in a sunroom so the family could enjoy sweet lettuce greens a little longer.

Alas, for plants without feet, all you can do is offer some respite from the weather.  Shade cloth or row cover judiciously placed now might save some plants facing death from heat exhaustion.  If that’s not possible, a judicious mid-day misting sometimes helps.  The water mist may help the plant survive desiccation and it certainly helps perk up the gardener.

Plants that really need feet this week are the ones burning to death in the Colorado wildfires.  There are eight major wildfires in Colorado and over half of the wild-fire fighting crews in the US are in Colorado now.  We are so grateful to the men and women who come from near and far to battle out-of-control wildfires in 100-degree temps in heavy gear.  Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.

The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

Rifling through the garden in the early sunrise hour this morning, I paused to look up at the morning sky that looked just like the ones in Renaissance paintings.  Following the beauty to the earth, I saw for the first time this year my garden in full growth and fertility.  I got a glimpse not just of weeds and tiny seedlings but of orach in its vibrant purple color and arugula in bloom.  Peas and favas are reaching for the sky and putting out delicate blooms.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in just a few hours.  I did pull a few weeds and start some more chard seeds on a blank patch.  But I got bundles of fresh greens for my morning juice, leeks to put in the crockpot for dinner, and magnificent lettuce for an evening salad.  The garden today has begun to return much more than I have put into it.  Tomatoes are still in walls of water and many plants are tiny, but the lovely routine of the season has started.

From now, I’ll settle into my 15 minute morning routine, slightly amended with today’s revelation.

Look up at the big sky. Look at the vitality of life between the sky and the earth.
Pull the big weeds.
Harvest the food for the day.
Fill the empty spots with new seeds or plants.
Water what is dry.
Look once more in gratitude and wonder at the big sky.

There will be times I spend more time in the garden because it’s fun or an ambitious project is taking hold.  And there may be times when I’m not keeping up with the pests or weeds that sneak in and there will be some remedial work.  But for the most part, if I am consistent in my 15-minute daily routine, my time in the garden will never be a chore but will be invigorating and full of nourishment and inspiration for the day.

Feed Me

by Sandy Swegel

It’s a fact of all young growing things.  They need food.  And while big hungry plants like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors can loudly demand their food, the young seedlings you have growing on windowsills are no less insistent and starving.  Most potting soils and seedling mixes come with a tiny amount of fertilizer to get seedlings off to a good start the first couple of weeks.  But then comes the day when were vigorous seedlings now no longer look so good.  My pepper plants are making this point to me right now.  I’ve been watching them grow their first true leaves and finally their second set of true leaves. I’m ready for them to get off the windowsill and out of the garden but, until now, growth seemed a little slow.  Then yesterday as I walked in, I noticed how yellowy the peppers looked.  Hmmm. I checked the water and wondered briefly about some kind of fungus when I had the “duh” moment.  I hadn’t fed them at all.  I had switched to a new “organic” seedling mix this year and it probably didn’t have as much nitrogen in the mix, since “organic” mixes can’t just use cheap synthetic nitrogen.

 

Seedlings aren’t all that particular about what you feed them.  Just that they get some food.  Later in the garden, their roots will gather food from the soil and plants growing in good soil will also take in nitrogen in the air.  But right now, they’re just growing in tap water.  So I just mixed in some liquid kelp to make a weak fertilizing solution.  Fish emulsion or any “grow” natural fertilizer will work at a weak concentration level. Don’t need to overwhelm them.  I expect that by my dinnertime tonight (water-soluble fertilizers can work quickly) the tiny pepper leaves will green up with tomorrow’s warm sun, the seedlings will perk up and soon be ready for the move into the nutrient-rich garden soil.

Go Play in the Dirt!

by Sandy Swegel

Two health articles came across my desk this week praising the virtues of getting in touch with dirt.  Now most gardeners know that one of the best things about gardening is getting to play in the dirt.  Spring gardens are always well dug and turned because it’s such a joy (weather permitting) to prepare the garden beds for first planting. Now, apparently, instead of just being fun, getting in close contact with dirt is good for you.

Dirt is Good for your Gut.
High-end probiotics now include soil bacteria in their mix of other ordinary acidophilus bacteria.  Scientists at the Sage Colleges of Troy, N.Y., have discovered that exposure to certain kinds of soil bacteria can reduce anxiety and increase learning capabilities when ingested or inhaled, reports Physorg.com.http://phys.org/news193928997.html

Dirt is Good for your Feet.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has a vast website of health information, wrote that “When walking on the earth barefoot, free electrons from the earth transfer into your body via the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. “ http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/04/29/james-oschman-on-earthing.aspx
Walking barefoot in the grass or on dirt is now known as “earthing” and everyone should do it every day.

Other studies have been done saying dirt is good for your skin, and that kids exposed at a young age to dirt have fewer allergy problems.

So enjoy getting dirty. Eat some vegetables with bits of dirt still clinging to it.  Let the free radicals of the earth heal your body.  Playing in the dirt is good for you!