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Hooray for Hummingbirds!

by Cheryl Soldati Clark

Hummingbirds may be cute little-winged creatures, but really they are tough as nails! These extremely important pollinators have the highest metabolic rate of any other animal on earth. They also have a high breathing rate, high heart rate and high body temperature. Their wings flap up to 90 times per second and their heart rate exceeds 1,200 beats per minute. In order to maintain their extremely high metabolism, hummingbirds have to eat up to 10-14 times their body weight in food every day for fuel. In preparation for migration, they have to eat twice this amount in order to fly thousands of miles.
A huge portion of a hummingbird’s diet consists of sugar that they acquire from flower nectar, tree sap and hummingbird feeders. They also have to eat plenty of insects and pollen for protein to build muscle. Hummingbirds cross-pollinate flowers while they are feeding on nectar because their heads become covered with pollen and they carry the pollen to the next bloom as they continue to feed. Several native plants rely on hummingbirds for pollination and would not be here today if it wasn’t for these efficient pollinators.
Hummingbirds are found in several different habitats, including wooded and forested areas, grasslands and desert environments. They also occur at altitudes ranging up to 14,000 feet in the South American Andes Mountains.
The male hummingbirds are usually brightly colored while the females are dull colored in order to camouflage them while nesting. Female hummingbirds rely on males for mating only and after that, they build the nest and raise their young as single parents. They have been known to fearlessly protect their young against large birds of prey, such as hawks and have even attacked humans that get too close to their nests. They usually lay up to two eggs which hatch within a few weeks. Hummingbirds can live 3-5 years in the wild, which varies by species, but making it through their first year of life is a challenge. Fledglings are particularly vulnerable between the time that they hatch and the time that they leave the nest. Larger species may live up to a decade.
In order to conserve energy at night, because they lack downy feathers to hold in body heat, hummingbirds enter a state of semi-hibernation called “torpor”. This allows them to lower their metabolic rate by almost 95% and also lower their body temperature to an almost hypothermic rate. During this time, hummingbirds perch on a branch and appear to be asleep. When the sun comes up and starts to warm the earth, it takes about 20 minutes, but the tiny birds will awake from their torpor state and start their feeding rituals.
Planting a lot of reds and purples in your garden and hanging hummingbird feeders around your yard will attract and help feed these little pollinator friends. In fact, BBB Seed has a Hummingbird Wildflower Mix specifically designed with these little guys in mind.  Please help to support these amazing creatures in your own backyard!  Pollinator Week is a reminder to support pollinators all year long!

Hummingbird Favorites:
• Penstemon• Columbine • Delphinium • Autumn Sage • Four O’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) • Scarlet Monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.) • Texas Sage (Salvia coccinea) • Chuparosa • Ocotillo • Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) • Baja Fairy (Calliandra californica) • Bottlebrush • Desert Willow • Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) • Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) • Lantana • Agave • Lily of the Nile

FUN LINKS:

How to make a Hummingbird Feeder with your Kids!

Video on Hummingbird Tongues

Hummingbird Coloring Pages for Children

Baby Hummingbirds

Oh, Sunflowers!

By Engrid Winslow

Sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Gorgeous Sunflower Photo Courtesy of Christy Short

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are such a great annual for so many reasons. First of all, they are so darn cheerful with their big, bright blooms during the hottest part of the summer.  They are also easy to grow.  Just poke them into the ground and keep them well-watered until they germinate and then stand back because they thrive in rich soil and heat.  The pollen is loved by bees and the seeds are attractive to birds.  Sunflowers come in so many varieties with sizes ranging from 12” to 15‘ tall and the colors vary from pale lemon yellow to bright yellow, orange, red and bronze.  The petals can be single, double or in fluffy multiple layers (check out Teddy Bear Sunflower).

Tag for Teddy Bear Sunflower packet with bushy foliage has multiple 3 - 6" golden-yellow, double blooms

It can be fun to watch the birds eat the seeds or you can make a fun project out of roasting them. To do this: soak the seeds in salted water for 24 hours, then roast in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper at 350 for 35 minutes, stirring frequently. Let them cool and store in an airtight container. If you want to serve them warm after roasting toss them with a bit of melted butter for a delicious treat. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin C, E and are high in fiber which supports digestion, they also contain antioxidants, magnesium (for bone health) and can help lower cholesterol.

The roots of sunflowers have an allopathic quality which inhibits the ability of other plants nearby to grow properly. This makes them a great choice for weed suppression but keep them away from other flowers that you love.

Half awake sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Half Awake Sunflower (Photo Courtesy of Christy Short)

 

Quit Working so Hard This Fall

by Sandy Swegel

The old adages say cleanliness and hard work are virtues. That may be true in your kitchen, but in the garden, a little sloth can save many lives and make your life a little easier.  Mother Nature isn’t just messy when she clutters up the Fall garden with leaves and debris….she’s making homes for her creatures.  Old dead leaves may look like clutter that needs to be tidied up, but it’s really nice rustic sustainable homes for many of a gardener’s best friends.

Here’s who is hiding in your garden this winter if you DON’T clean up.

Ladybugs in the garden beds next to the house.  Ladybugs want a nice sheltered home safe from wind and exposed soil. I most often find them under the leaves and dead flower stalks in the perennial garden.

Butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars) in leaf bundles. Sometimes in winter, you’ll see a couple of leaves looking stuck to a bush or tree or in a clump on the ground.  Often there’s a butterfly baby overwintering there.

Lacewing at the base of willows or in the old vegetable garden.  Insects don’t work very hard in the fall either.  Often they are eating happily on the aphids in your vegetable garden or your mini forest and just go through their life cycle right there.  They lay their eggs on the bottom of leaves and the leaves fall to the ground.  If you clean up too much, you’ll clean up all the beneficial insect’s eggs

Slugs in your hosta garden. Even slugs are a good thing to leave for the winter.  They will be plump food for baby birds next Spring.

The bottom line is don’t do a good job of cleaning up in the Fall.  Take away any very diseased leaves.  Clean up the thick mats of leaves on the lawn so they don’t encourage lawn fungus.  But leave the flower stalks with seeds and the leaves in the beds.  They insulate and protect plants and insects.

Another good reason to be a little lazy this Fall.

Photos: http://www.nashvilleparent.com/2013/07/fall-for-fun/http://antsbeesbutterfliesnature.blogspot.com/2009/11/overwintering-caterpillars.html

Saving Tomato Seed

by Sandy Swegel

To get the best tomato plants, you need the best seed.  If you want to save your own tomato seeds, you need to select from the very best tomatoes this year.

Timing is critical. My friend Frank is a wonderful market farmer who has taught many of us a lot about organic growing.http://www.fatherearthorganicfarm.com/aboutus.htm. Yesterday, he emailed us an alert saying,

“So pick your best, most ripe (even to the point of over-ripe) tomatopepper, etc., and save and dry the seed. Choosing an over-ripe veggie will ensure the seed has fully developed. If you wait for a frost or freeze before you pick the fruit or veggie, most of the seed will not be developed enough to be viable next year. “

That makes perfect sense, but many years it’s not been until the first frost that I remember that summer is over and I’d better save some seed.  Although I’m not as bad as my friend who had planted a mixed pack of heirloom seeds and just realized she had served the last of the best tasting of those tomatoes in a sandwich to her daughter.  Dear daughter still tells the story of crazy mom running across the room to yank the sandwich out of her hand and claim the tomato for its seeds.

Once you’ve selected an overripe tomato to be next year’s seeds, be sure to taste the tomato to make sure it’s the perfect tomato.  A restaurant critic I know calls this the Platonic Tomato….the tomato that in its very form and essence defines what a tomato is.

You’ve probably read lots of online info about saving tomato seeds…you need to let them ferment a bit in a saucer before letting the seed dry and then save it in a cool dry place for next year.  Even though this is easy, I have to admit most the time I let the organic farmers who grow for us at BBB Seed just do all that work and I buy the seed in the cute packet in January.

That said, I’m off for my morning breakfast of slices of tomatoes with my morning egg from my backyard chickens with some melted Swiss cheese.  It doesn’t get better than this!!!

 

 

 

 

Best Heirloom Vegetables

Wildflower Seed Mixes

Grass Seed Mixes

Why Won’t my Garden do What I Say?

by Sandy Swegel

That’s the kind of questions I’m hearing these days.  Why won’t my plant bloom?  Why aren’t my tomatoes red? Why does my garden look so bad? Why is my tree dying?  Let’s tackle a few of these questions so you can figure out why it seems your garden is disobedient?

Why won’t my pineapple sage bloom?  It’s so beautiful in the magazines. Salvia elegans or pineapple sage smells deliciously of pineapple and hummingbirds flock to it.  Alas, what I discovered after a season of coaxing and fertilizing is that it will never look so beautiful in Colorado as it does in the Sunset magazine pictures of California.  It’s one of those plants that bloom according to day length and short days to stimulate blooming.  So no matter what we do, it simply is not going to put out blooms till late August.  Since our first frost can be in September, this is a very unsatisfying plant to grow in a northern area with long summer days.

The second part of this question is “Why did all the other fancy hybrid flowers I bought in Spring quit blooming?”  Some may be day length sensitive like the pineapple sage.  Most have issues with our hot dry summer heat.  If you keep deadheading as soon as the weather starts to cool, the blooms will restart.  And there’s no changing Nature’s mind with more fertilizer or water.

“Why won’t my watermelon plants get big?” a friend asked over afternoon tea.  The answer to most questions is to put my finger in the soil. It was dry, dry, dry.  There was one drip tube on the plant but that’s not nearly enough for a watermelon which needs lots of water.  I looked up. The garden was right next to a big spruce tree. The tree was on the north side so the plant had lots of sun, but the sneaky tree roots ran all through the garden sucking up irrigation water. If you’re going to grow a plant with a name like “water” melon…you have to put a lot of water in the system.

The second most-asked question is “Why do I have so many weeds?” The answer is, alas, because you didn’t spend enough time in July keeping after them.  Who wants to weed in the heat of summer?  And summer weeds grow really fast and tall.  You can’t even blink.

The most-asked question, of course, is “Why won’t my tomatoes turn red?”  This year everybody has lots of green tomatoes but not nearly enough red tomatoes. The truthful answer is “D***d if I know. I wish mine would turn red.”  A Google search shows thousands of people ask this question.  People who answer have all kinds of pet theories about leaves and fertilizer and pruning the plant etc. I’m just learning to wait and making a note to grow more early tomatoes next year.

Nature just doesn’t work the way we want sometimes.

Photo Credit: http://eugenebirds.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html

Cool Off Fast! – Agua Fresca

by Sandy Swegel

My basic remedy for hot July days is to bend over and run the hose over my head, but a more attractive and effective way to cool off is to make an Agua Fresca (refreshing water), the great fruit or vegetable drink of Mexico and other southern regions. I’ve been making Agua Frescas all weekend.

The Agua Fresca I first enjoyed from my friend Alfredo’s family was cucumber and lime juice.  Then one day we had watermelon Agua Fresca and I was in heaven.  Both were very cooling and refreshing.  What intrigued me most is that these were two of the foods my acupuncturist recommended to me.  TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has diagnoses of “heat” in the body.  I often get this diagnosis and my doctor suggests three vegetables/fruits that are especially cooling to the body from a TCM energetic point of view…not just temperature:  Cucumber, celery and watermelon.  Turns out that ancient wisdom from TCM is the same as ancient wisdom from Mexican families. “Gotta love it” as a friend says.

There are lots of recipes on the web, but the concept is simple:

Blender 6 cups water 1 pound of Fruit or vegetable:  cucumber, watermelon are traditional. Also try melon, raspberries, strawberries, celery, herbs like lemon balm or basil or mint. Sugar (to taste) 1/4  to 1/2 cup.  Lime to taste. Run the blender to pulverize the vegetables or fruit and lime.  Strain if needed. Pour over ice cubes and add mint or cucumber slice or lime slice garnish.

Variations: Slushy:  Use only half the water. Run the blender a second time filled with ice cubes to get a slushy drink. Sorbet:  Make an agua fresca and put it in the ice cream maker for 20 minutes to make sorbet. Alcohol:  Rum, tequila or vodka added make excellent drinks or sorbets!

Stay Cool and Be Happy.

Photo credits:

http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/raspberry-mint-agua-fresca.html

Gardening as Winter Looms

by Sandy Swegel

Nothing like the first deeply freezing temperatures followed by a warm day to get people in Zone 5 areas asking if the gardening season is really over if they can still tackle their garden to do lists even though winter looms with Thanksgiving is around the corner.  We have two conflicting impulses…the really good bulbs are on sale at our local garden center AND there’s an inch of snow and refrozen ice on the garden bed.

What does happen to our soil in winter? Once soil temperatures are in the forties, all the creatures and denizens of the soil put themselves to sleep through dormancy or through laying lots of eggs or spores that will hatch when temperatures are warmer.  Seeds stop germinating or else require weeks and weeks at low temperature to come up.  They’re smart…no point in germinating if sub-zero temperatures in another few weeks are going to kill young growth. So the soil goes into stasis until the temperatures warm.

Here are some of the questions I hear people asking as our soil begins its freeze:

Can I still plant bulbs? Can I transplant daylilies now? Yes, if you can pry the soil open and get water to the plant, there’s a good chance your bulbs will bloom and the daylily will be fine. Daffodils especially prefer getting planted earlier to have some time to make roots. Sometimes blooming is delayed the first season, but I have had good success in planting bulbs too late…especially if I throw in some compost in the hole and don’t plant too shallowly. I’ve also had years when the bulbs just ended up being frozen mush…so plant earlier next year.

Can I put in a cover crop? In Zone 5, it’s too late.  The temperatures are too cold for seed germination.  Put lots of mulched leaves over the soil to cover it.

Do I have to water? Ideally, you got the garden well watered sometime in Fall through rain or irrigation.  If not or if there are long dry sunny spells, you should winter water.

What do I do with my Fall greens that are freezing solid? Keep eating…they get better every day.  Spinach frozen at 8 am is delicious at room temperature.  If you cover greens with row cover or a cold frame or even throw big bags of leaves over the plants, you can keep harvesting easily through January or longer if you haven’t eaten them all.

Can I still use herbs? Yep, remember where your herbs are and you can put your hand through a foot of snow for snippings of intensely flavored frozen thyme or oregano leaves.

Can I still fertilize? You can, but the soil organisms won’t be processing it.  Organic fertilizer like alfalfa meal stay on the soil and will eventually be used when things warm up next Spring.

Is there something I should plant?  Winter hardy violas and pansies don’t mind a little snow and ice.  In a sunny location, they’ll keep throwing up blooms all winter long…a surprise of color in a white or brown winter-scape. Plant well hardened off plants and keep them watered.

For more details on the science of soil in winter, check out this article from the Bountea compost tea company. http://www.bountea.com/articles/lifeinwintersoil.html

Photo Credit:

http://indianapublicmedia.org/focusonflowers/year/;

Truffles – Orange Frost Fest

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 you gotta grow at home because they 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

 

Straw Bales, Legos for Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

Whenever I start to think about a new structure I need for the garden, straw bales are what first come to mind.  Having a bunch of straw bales is like having an entire box of Legos….there’s not much you can’t build. 

I started thinking about a cold frame today because I was a little over eager about starting perennial seeds.  They’re already emerging in my seed starting tray and the question did occur to me now, a little late, where was I going to stash all these plants when I have to plant them up in larger containers next month.  Then I remembered my first cold frame.   A rectangle of old straw bales with an old shower curtain secured on top by big rocks was a great cold frame.

I  tried storm windows one year in a community garden plot, but they are breakable if there are kids playing with rocks or loose dogs in the neighborhood.  I got a sheet of recycled tempered glass (old shower door) that worked great but was heavy for lifting.

The next great garden project is a compost bin.  I use spoiled hay bales from a nearby horse ranch because the bales are free and they also eventually become compost too.

Your imagination is your only limitation.  Think of any structure you’d like and do a Google Image Search with the name of the structure and “straw bale” and you’ll find someone who has done it already and posted a picture:  straw bale hoophouse, straw bale fort, straw bale lounge chair, straw bale chicken coop, straw bale bed, straw bale wind break, etc. etc.  Have Fun!