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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

 

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 for starting your perennials. 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

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 start communicating 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 your own food and 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 to learn how to become a great gardener:

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 you can start outdoors 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/