Posts

1000 bags of leaves and what to do with them

by Sandy Swegel

Fall leaves are Nature’s parting gift from the growing season to the gardener.  Tree roots run deep and wide and have collected minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil.  These are nutrients that then spent the summer high in the sky at treetop collecting sun rays and are now being placed abundantly at your feet.

If you’ve been gardening any length of time you know how valuable leaves are.  They decompose beautifully in the compost bin when mixed in with the green matter.  You can run them over with the mower to break them down and use them as mulch in all your garden beds.  You can keep piles of them in a shady moist corner of the garden decomposing down into leaf mold which is a superior soil amendment.

The most important thing gardeners in my neighborhood do within Fall leaves is collect them.  Our neighbor Barbara is the Queen of Fall Leaves and had taught us about how valuable leaves are to the gardener.  She lives on a busy street and puts a big cardboard sign in front of her house every year that says “Bagged Leaves Wanted.” Pretty soon bags and bags of leaves start piling up, brought from strangers all over town who are happy to have a place to recycle their leaves.  Barbara gets the first 1000 bags and about fifteen of us split the next 1000 bags of leaves.

So what do you do with 1000 bags of leaves?

Mulch the garden beds. Some of the leaves have already been chopped by blower vacs. These leaves easily go on perennial beds.

Mulch the garden paths.  Big dried leaves that are slow to break down like oak leaves or pine needles go on the paths to keep the weeds down.

Put a layer over the vegetable garden. If you don’t till in the spring, a thick layer of leaves will block light and suppress weeds and keep in moisture. But wait, you say, the wind will blow the leaves away.  That’s when you put the bagged leaves on top of the garden. It’s a place to store extra leaves and the weight of the bags keeps the loose leaves from blowing away. Moisture collects under the bags and earthworms come to feast there.

Till the molding leaves into the soil in Spring with the cover crop.

Insulate the cold frame or greenhouse with bags of leaves stacked around.

Line the troughs you dig for your potatoes next year with rotting leaves.

Make easy Leaf Mold.  Stack the bags that look like they don’t have holes somewhere (as insulation or just as storage) and put the hose in to fill the bag about ¼ way with water.  This makes speedy leaf mold.

Use as free litter for chickens and bunnies. If you have farm animals, dried leaves are perfect free litter for the bottom of the coop or cage. And the manure is already pre-mixed with carbon for composting.

Feed the Goats. The most fun thing to do with the leaves (aside from jumping in piles of them) is to feed the goats.  Apparently, dry leaves are yummy like potato chips to goats and they come running to eat the crunchiest ones when I’m hauling the latest bag of leaves to the backyard.

Happy goats running with floppy ears flying is a highlight of my day.

Photo credit:  http://www.onehundreddollarsamonth.com/mavis-garden-blog-how-to-find-free-compost/

Plant more peas!

by Sandy Swegel

Rev your garden engines folks.  Today is St Patrick’s Day and the official start of pea season and there’s no need to wait.  You have jobs to do today.

Make sure beds are weeded. Those mallows from last year are easy to spot….they’re the only green thing in parts of the beds.  But they weed easily this time of year. I lightly cultivate the top inch of the soil if I see lots of annual seeds starting. In my garden, every last larkspur seed that fell last year has germinated.  Cute…but not in the pea bed, please.

 

Put the Peas to Soak.  If your climate is high humidity, you may not need this step, but here in the arid foothills, I soak my peas overnight, rinse them tomorrow and then plant them.  Sometimes I even pre-sprout them (just like making mung bean sprouts) and plant them with the big white root already fattening up.

Put your trellis in place if you’re growing the kind of peas that need support.

 

 

Think about row cover. Decide if you want to use it to warm the peas and speed their growth.

Think about inoculant.  I’ve written about this before. Gardens that have grown happy peas before may not need inoculant but new raw beds with less than optimal soil would probably benefit.  If you forgot to buy it, you can always plant anyway and sprinkle the inoculant over the soil and water it in later.

Remember the flowers.  I’m so fond of peas for eating whether they are oriental peas  or snap peas or plain old shelling peas, that I forget about how beautiful and fragrant sweet peas are.  My neighbor plants sweet peas on trellises along the fence, at the base of vines, in a circle in the middle of the lettuce garden.  Her garden is so beautiful and fragrant come June that I get very jealous.  Plant sweet peas!

PHOTO LINKS
“pea trellis” http://mixedgreensblog.com/2010/03/01/in-the-garden/ready-set-plant-peas/
world peas http://www.thewhatever.com/post/4555671838/world-peas

 

3 Veggies You Gotta Grow at Home

by Sandy Swegel

These three veggies aren’t easy to find in grocery stores.  Even if you can buy them, they are so much better fresh out of the garden AND super easy to grow.

Broccoli Raab Rapini
This is a relative to big broccoli stalks. You get the same great taste and vitamins as the bigger broccoli except this is easier and faster to cook. You can buy raab in the grocery stores sometimes, but it’s often large and the leaves can be tougher. Clipped young out of the garden and sauteed with olive oil or in stir-fry, it’s tender and sweet.  And it’s easy to throw a little in your juicer without it overwhelming other vegetables.

Chioggia Beets
You can buy beets with greens attached, but again you don’t get the young tender sweet greens you can clip directly out of the garden that are great for stir-fry or slipped into a mixed salad.  Any beet would work, but the Chioggia have those super cool stripes that look great sliced very thin in a salad.

Anyone who has read this blog knows I’ve got a thing for peas. But the dwarf grey sugars reign above all the others.  First, the plant with its pretty pink flowers could pass for a sweet pea.  Second, even the leaves of this pea are tasty and you could grow these peas just for microgreens. Third, the young pod is sublime. Eaten young right off the plant it is sweet and tender. Grown a little more, it’s a great snack refrigerated or even to be used in the traditional way in a stir-fry.

Gardening is fun but also can take a lot of time and work. I like to grow food that I can’t just buy in the grocery store but is a delight when grown at home.

 

Photo Credits:http://www.karensgarden.net/ki_galleries/2009/PeaBlossom.jpg

http://green-artichoke.blogspot.com/2012/07/beet-and-lentil-salad.html

 

How to Grow Baby Kale

by Sandy Swegel

Mixed baby kales are the current darlings of the produce section…and in my refrigerator are Lacinato Kale, Organic Lacinato Kale, and Organic Red Russian Kale. Several companies now sell thrice-washed baby kales that are ready to use in salads, stir-fries, soups or juices.  As cute as these greens are, their prices are pretty steep…we pay $4 for five ounces and then there’s all that wasteful packaging.

You can easily grow your own baby kales (or any mixed greens). Here’s how market farmers do it:

The key is succession planting. 

About every three weeks, you should seed a patch of kale seeds fairly close together in intensive planting style. 

First Cutting
Once the leaves are about 4 inches high, use scissors or knife to cut them off about an inch above soil level.

Second Cutting
Let the patch you just cut off continue to grow as regular kale and you can harvest again in a month.  Cut those off again about an inch above soil.  The second cutting isn’t as tender as the first but still great for braising.

Third Cutting
Let the patch keep growing for the third cutting of mature kale.  Fertilize lightly.  The third cutting usually leaves the plant depleted and it’s time to pull those plants and reseed.

Because you kept making a new planting of kale every three weeks in a different section of your garden, you will regularly have both the tender young greens and mature leaves.

It’s that easy. Each packet of kale has over 200 seeds so this is a really thrifty way to get a lot of kale.  You can plant one kind of kale at a time, or mix red russian and lacinto together for a colorful mixture.

Eat more Kale! Yum.

Photo Credit and More info:
http://sixburnersue.com/cooking-fresh-eating-green/2013/03/new-at-the-grocery-store-baby-kale-10-ways-to-use-it/
http://www.fastcoexist.com/3016068/the-largest-urban-orchard-in-north-america-is-now-open-for-business

 

Mommies Who Garden

by Sandy Swegel

So we were hanging out at BBB Seed amid giant sacks of seeds waiting to be shipped all over the US this week talking about how many different kinds of people bought our seeds and how they all gardened in their own unique way. One definite trend we see is a joyful kind of gardening practice by moms with young kids.  I spend the evening googling “mommies who garden” and found myself by moms all over the country who garden and who make time to write about it!

Naturally, there is no one “mommy” way to garden since there are moms who work outside the home, moms who homestead, moms who use the garden as a classroom and babysitter, and moms who garden as a personal respite from the chaos that being a mommy can be.  But I saw two trends I want my own inner gardener to reconnect with:

Mommies who garden:
Don’t worry so much about having the picture-perfect garden but about whether the garden is a source of joy and fun for the family.  There’s a lot of mulch to keep the weeds down because moms don’t have so much time for weeding.  There are signs of home-made art projects everywhere: hand-painted rocks, cute makeshift fences, bowls with puddles of mud.   The garden isn’t just growing vegetables or flowers. It’s having fun and growing kids.

Mommies (and Daddies) who garden:
are totally psyched about the fact that they have planted seeds and fed their family yummy wholesome food from their own garden. It isn’t just about saving money or growing organic food, it’s about all the love that went into the garden and the joy about having provided for the whole family and shared the harvest together.

So that’s our inspiration this week as Spring is struggling to return.  Let us create gardens that are fun and playful. And let’s grow some amazing food to share with family and friends and strangers.  Go, Mommies!

Photo Credit: http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/815245/a-mom-s-guide-to-gardening-with-toddlers-and-preschoolers-1
http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/815245/a-mom-s-guide-to-gardening-with-toddlers-and-preschoolers-1

Growing your Own Bird Feeder

by Sandy Swegel

I learned something really new this week. This week I learned that birds like to eat bugs. Well, duh, you say.  Think about it. One of the great images we have of spring is the mama bird dangling a worm over the gaping beaks of adorable baby birds. Then think about our typical bird feeders….full of sunflower seeds.

I was in the middle of converting a neglected path of weedy lawn into a flower bed and was thinking about “habitat” for birds. So I naturally considered sunflowers and plants with seeds or berries.  Then the teachable moment came at a talk our County biologist gave on native plants. She pointed us to Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”. Tallamy points out 96% of North American wild birds feed their young with insects and larvae (caterpillars). Now the adult birds – like humans — may like the high fat, high sugar treats (berries) we give them…but it’s the protein in the bugs that is so important to sustain our bird populations.

Previously, I thought the point of planting native plants was because they were adapted to our local soil and weather and would survive better. But the real reason to plant natives is to feed the local beneficial insects (lady bugs, lacewings, moths, and all the little tiny flying things you can barely see) that live here already and who do the hard work of eating pests like aphids and thrips. They also do a lot of the pollination in our garden along the way.  Lots of insects means more pollinators for our flowers and more food for the birds – in other words, a healthy habitat.

So if you want to feed the birds, you need to feed the bugs. Nice plump insects, worms, and larvae are what bring more birds to your yard. Yum, Worms…it’s what’s for breakfast!

Learn More:

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants: http://tinyurl.com/a9voelq

The New York Times article on Tallamy: http://tinyurl.com/yqmlhx

Saving Birds Thru Habitat website: http://tinyurl.com/bfeljl2

Photo Credit: http://tinyurl.com/bxtwed4

 

How to Get all the Seeds you Want and Not go Broke

by Sandy Swegel

My happy group of gardening buddies first got to know each other because of our great avarice for more seeds. We had all joined a local gardening email list so we could talk more about plants and gardening, but the more we talked with each other, the more seeds and plants we wanted.  Every time someone mentioned a new variety of tomato or annual flower or ground cover, we had to have one of those.  The first year, we decided to meet in person and share seed packets.  Armed with dozens of recycled envelopes, we doled out tiny seeds to each other, taking home three Cherokee purple tomato seeds or six cosmos seeds.  This quickly became confusing and chaotic and required so many tags in our seed trays.  So the next year we decided to become more economical.  We’d each buy a packet of seeds and grow out all the plants…and then swap plants.  We definitely got more plants than we would have grown on our own and we each had unusual varieties you can’t buy in stores.

But the third year of our avarice proved to be the year we figured out that we could get as many seeds as we wanted…and they practically paid for themselves.  All we had to do was start our seeds and sell 2-month-old plant starts to each other and to the other greedy gardeners who envied our ever more diverse gardens.  We learned that anyone can sell healthy organic heirloom tomato starts, especially if you have pictures of last year’s garden.

You can try your own mini plant exchange and sale. We price our seedlings cheap ($1 or $2 at most).  I can afford all the heirloom tomato plants I want if I just sell three seedlings for $1 from each seed packet.  Throw in some herbs and flowers and soon the plants barely fit in the car. Our little group now has a giant plant sale every May where everyone brings their plants to sell to each other, but thanks to free advertising on Craigslist and neighborhood electric poles, we also sell our humble little plants to the public.  Avarice never ends, of course, and now we have to grow more plants so we can make money so we can afford backyard greenhouses. Last year our small group of about 12 home gardeners sold some $4000 worth of plants that they started in closets and on top of refrigerators just two months before. Not enough to get rich, but enough to buy more seeds, build hoop houses and season extenders, and have a load of precious organic sheep manure delivered to our gardens.

So enjoy your seed shopping and think about swapping some of the plants you start with others.  We learned that while there is no end to avarice among gardeners, there is also no end to generosity. It is a great joy to have an abundance of little plants to share with friends and strangers.

http://dirthappy.blogspot.com

Keeping Drought Tolerant Plants Happy

by Sandy Swegel

One of the most popular mixes of wildflower seeds that we sell is the Drought Tolerant Mix.  It’s a good combination of both perennial and annual flowers that can handle some stressful situations and still make beautiful flowers.

Growing drought-tolerant plants may be different than gardening the way most of us are used to.  While supplemental water is helpful during germination and the early growth of the plant, too much water will most often cause the plants to have too much fast green growth that is weak. A heavily watered drought-tolerant plant will often produce few flowers and in rich moist garden soil can simply rot and die.

Understanding what it is that makes plants “drought tolerant” may help you understand better how to care for the plants.  Even drought-tolerant wildflowers still need water to thrive, (they are drought “tolerant” not drought “loving”), but they have adapted to drought conditions in several clever ways.

Some plants, especially ones that thrive in the prairie, grow very long tap roots that seek out water deep below the surface.  Coneflower and butterfly weed are two plants that have taproots. Dandelions too, that’s one reason they are so tough to get rid of.

Other plants learn to store water.  Cacti and yucca come to mind first, but other plants that store water in the leaves are succulents like sedums or hen and chicks.  Break open a leaf and gel-like water oozes out. Some sturdy wildflowers save water in their roots.  The tubers that Liatris makes are a good example.Tag for Drought-Tolerant Wildflower Mix packet.

A common adaptation to drought has been to conserve water by limiting the amount of water the plants lose to the air.   Plants typically lose water through their leaves, so drought-tolerant plants will have leaves that conserve water…by having narrow leaves like penstemon, or hairy leaves such as lamb’s ear. Other plants have silver or bluish leaves that reflect back the sunlight. Desert marigolds conserve water this way.

Once you understand how the plants are holding onto water, it makes sense that lots of water would stress drought-tolerant wildflowers.  They would have no way to get rid of the extra water.

Photo credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/473362

 

Grow Your Own Flower Arrangements

by Sandy Swegel

Giving and receiving flowers is one of the great joys of Valentine’s Day. Everyone, men and women, adults and children, loves to get flowers and for a gardener, it’s easy to have an abundant supply of flowery love to give away.  As you’re planning your garden now, be sure to have a supply of flowers that make great arrangements.  Here are some suggestions of what to grow.

Fillers
When I worked for a garden center with a flower shop I learned some secrets of garden design. The first thing florists do when making an arrangement is to fill a vase with water and the greens they want as the foundation of the arrangement.  Then they added in filler flowers like baby’s breath and tiny asters or sea lavenders.  This is also when curly willow or other woody filler went in. With all those fillers in place, the vase is packed and you can insert some of your show-stopping flowers here and there and they stand tall and well-spaced in the vase.

So the first step to growing your own flower arrangements is to grow your own fillers.  You need sturdy greens like ferns or peony leaves or azalea leaves. Herbs like sage or tarragon also are good green filler. Other favorite fillers will be wildflowers with lots little flowers.  Annual baby’s breath always looks great as do wild asters, sea lavenders or clumps of blue flax.  Multi-stemmed flowers are also good supporting flowers.  Bachelor buttons and daisies work well as do columbines and a stem or two of penstemon. Think nice airy wispy kinds of flowers.

The Divas
Now that you have a vase full of greens and supporting flowers, you can choose a few show-stoppers to pull it all together.  Showy perennials like roses, peonies, lilies or annuals like dahlias or sunflowers are the high impact flower.

I did start growing flowers as a way of saving money. I could create great gift arrangements by clipping a few blooms here and there.  But I did need something to put the flowers in.  Mason jars work well plus I learned that thrift stores always have an abundance of vases for $1. Putting the flowers in a vase means you give the beauty of the flowers and your own artful touch in the arranging.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all.  As gardeners, you know how giving and receiving flowers evokes and shares the love so plan your garden so you can give flowers all year long.

Photo Credit:
lillyhiggins.blogspot.com/2010/09/wild-flower-arranging-is-where-its-at.html
www.pinterest.com/source/keithstanley.com/

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