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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

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.

A Gift for Wild Animals

by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for outdoor animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html

Best of Show for Fall Flowers

by Sandy Swegel

And the nominees are:

Asters, Asters and Asters. I am always entranced by asters. They offer intense color at summer’s end and an alternative to the perfect rounded chrysanthemums you see for sale everywhere.  I don’t have many asters because sometimes they just dry up in late summer heat or they flop all over because I was too busy with the tomatoes to stake them…This year the asters bloomed and bloomed and bloomed.  Even wild asters were beautiful.  The Aster novae-angliae is a wonderful performer that does well even in partial shade.  Included with the nominees this year is the Daisy Aster, not a real aster but an Erigeron, but I have it lined along the edge of the garden where it has formed a mat of little white flowers for months this year.  Next year, I’m trying all of the blue asters.  They are just magnificent this year leaning through the neighbor’s chain link fence.

Yellow Columbine Always a good performer, yellow columbine is still pumping out flowers this fall. One little plant will probably get the “Most Determined” award by managing to seed itself and then grow up through the juniper. Yellow Columbine and Blue Scabiosa have competed in past years for being both the earliest and latest bloomers.

Red Salvias The blue salvias were nice enough this year, but the red salvias rule this fall, having tall bright flower heads in full bloom, glorious when highlighted by the gold foliage of nearby trees and shrubs.  The Salvia coccinea in the wildflower garden and the Salvia greggii and Salvia splendens in containers are competing for who can be the most vivid.

Agastache Hummingbirds and bees love the red salvias, but the agastaches must be very tasty this year.  A couple of weeks ago some wild winds had knocked over the agastache so I went out to try to stake them up a bit.  The bees that were out there happily feeding had a definite opinion. Their hum changed from a happy “I’m just eating and going here and there” to a menacing “Don’t touch my dinner” as I was jostling the plants and I decided the flowers looked just great, leaning over the nearby echninacea.

The judge for the garden awards isn’t very impartial, so the asters will probably win because they haven’t gotten any awards in recent years, but I think all four of these flowers would look fabulous planted together in a wildish meadow type design.

Primping for Winter Interest

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers. You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.  Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may. I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed.  The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be. It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself. I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.

2 Easy Ways to Have More Flowers Next Year!

by Sandy Swegel

Your task this week is to go stand in the part of your garden that has wildflower-y plants.  You’ll notice two things. The first thing is that there are lots of spent flowers and seed heads that need to be deadheaded. Everything from rudbeckia to dill to penstemon has mature seed heads. You can always collect these seeds and put them in little envelopes to save for spring or you can take my lazy way out and Snip off the seed head and Fling it in the general direction you’d like it to grow next year.  Flowering plants always seem to migrate to the edge of the garden bed and need some encouragement to move to the middle and back of the bed.  Keep flinging seeds knowing that some of them will germinate right in the place they fall…so Fling merrily.

Your second assignment is to find a spring or early summer bloomer and stand in front of it.  A Columbine or Penstemon, Agastache and Echinacea are good possibilities.  Often right at the feet of these now finished beauties are dozens of little plants or even seedlings that have germinated in the past month and are growing next year’s plants.  I take my hori-hori knife and gently dig or carve out (we have lots of clay soil) a nice plug of soil that keeps the baby plants roots intact and plant it where I’d like more plants.  If the plant is young and you didn’t disturb the roots much, there won’t be transplant shock…just a new perennial that will bloom next year.

Whether you are flinging seeds or digging up plant plugs, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time and fussing with seed starting trays under lights and you’ve tricked Mother Nature into letting those perennials bloom next year.  New plants easy, quick and free.  That’s my kind of gardening.

Stalking the Wild Monarch

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Show and Tell time.  It’s time to take the kids or some curious adults outside and prove your superior knowledge of the ways of nature and introduce them to butterfly eggs.  It’s been a good milkweed year in the wild this year. Lots of spring rains followed by warm days have made the perfect home for milkweed plants.  Milkweeds are growing in my garden and along roadsides and ditches.  If milkweed plants are fully grown…mine are in tight bud about to bloom…you can walk up to almost any plant and look under the leaves and find little tiny white monarch butterfly eggs.

Milkweed plants, Asclepias, as you probably know are the ONLY host plant for the monarch butterfly.  The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs hatch hungry little larvae that chew up the leaves.
The larvae get big and fat and eventually form pupae, also on the underneath side of a milkweed plant.
Finally, “ta-da” a monarch butterfly emerges.
I have two favorite kinds of milkweed plants in my garden.  The “showy milkweed” Asclepias speciosa with the big pink seed head you’ve seen in fields, and “Butterfly weed” Asclepias tuberosa which is my favorite because it’s bright orange and looks good in the dry August garden next to the Black-eyed Susans.  It also makes a great picture to see a Monarch butterfly on one of the orange flowers.

Monarchs are happy to choose either of these two “milkweeds” or any of the other more than 100 different species of milkweeds around the world. So you can pick the flower you like and grow it in your own garden. Grow it and the monarchs WILL come.  I’ve had good luck with fall or winter direct sowing of the seeds that easily grow into blooming plants the next year.  After that, they reseed themselves gently.

Video links http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=9Q2eORu1hP8

http://www1.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?title=Monarch_butterfly_laying_eggs_on_milkweed&video_id=51640

And, just in case there are any monarch butterflies out there that don’t know how to do this, there’s an instructable!

http://www.instructables.com/id/Monarch-Butterflies-Egg-to-Butterfly/

Bumblebees Love Purple

 by Sandy Swegel

I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday.  It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome, and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.

Bees were everywhere.  Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass.  In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighboring. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds.  But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur.  Curious, I  asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation.  They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason.  Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.”  I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers.  He assured me they had watched the field for the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for purple flowers.  And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.

I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees preferred purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.

I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best.  But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color.  In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food.  Very clever bees.

More info: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/21/bees-can-sense-the-electric-fields-of-flowers/