The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

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

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

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

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

 

Tough Love

by Sandy Swegel

Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under light, your plants have one or two sets of true leaves. You can’t wait to have a big beautiful and blooming plant.  Now you have to be brave.  You have to take that nice tall plant and cut it down.  Ouch.

The result of this tough love is that you get better, bigger, stronger plants.  The gardening term is “pinching back” because you want to get “branching.”  When you pinch back your one main stem, the plant responds by sending up two stems. Presto chango, you have doubled your plant.  Let the plant grow another two sets of leaves on each new stem and again pinch back to the first set of leaves. Now where you once had one measly little stem, you have four stems growing out and a strong bush plant.

This works especially well with basil and other herb foliage plants.  It’s also amazing with petunias and annuals you want lots of flowers from.  Even if you’re buying plants from the store, pinching back can be a good idea. When the commercial growers are producing plants for sale, they want a plant that has a flower as soon as possible because even one flower makes a plant sell. If that plant is spindly or just very full you have to be strong and even pinch back that flower.

Pinching back is only for plants whose stems are branching,  It doesn’t work for herbs like parsley or flowers like lilies.  With perennials, it’s best to pinch back before the first flower buds have started.  The only other time I don’t pinch back is when I’m willing to sacrifice the greater good of the plant for the instant gratification of flowers.  Sometimes I just need a flower RIGHT NOW.

Knowing how plants act and react is the secret to having a beautiful garden.  You can learn about how plants behave by observing them and noticing things like how they branch when you pinch back a set of leaves. There are good scientific reasons the plants are doing what they are doing.  Scientifically, you are “interrupting apical dominance” and stimulating “axillary buds.” If you want to understand plant behavior more thoroughly, one way to do that is to read Brian Capon’s book, “Botany for Gardeners”  It explains plant physiology with words and pictures that are easy to understand.


www.amazon.com/Botany-Gardeners-Third-Brian-Capon/dp/160469095X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

 

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart?

by Sandy Swegel

One thing is certain.  The older you get, the more you understand the depth of this saying.  Most of us finally get smarter –in gardening, in life, in work, and in love—but some of us are slow or stubborn learners and by the time we finally “get” something and understand with clarity, we’re already getting a bit crickety and reaching a “mature” age.  But it doesn’t have to be this way with gardening.  Gardeners are natural teachers and mentors and are generous to share the wisdom of their hard-learned lessons.

And sometimes you find someone who is a learner and collector of wisdom and who has taken the time to reflect on that wisdom and share it.  Jane Shellenberger, a friend of BBB Seed, is a gardener who does all of those things.  She has created and edited Colorado Gardener, a free print publication, that six times a year presents articles from the leading gardening minds in the greater Denver area.  Over the years she has been an avid learner from our scientists, nursery owners, the people who invented the word xeriscape, and our home gardeners. In her spare time she writes about gardening for the Christian Science Monitor. (links athttp://www.coloradogardener.com/)

So you could spend whole days on her free website and get a lot “smarter” about gardening without getting too old, or you could read the book she has just published: Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West.  I’ve spent the last week with this book and I’m surprised how many new things I’ve learned….and I’m a gardening research junkie who scours the internet and grills friends and strangers about gardening practices.  Jane has gathered the gardening wisdom of her lifetime and the life-long wisdom of stellar home and professional gardeners, scientists and entrepreneurs, and written a book that will teach you advanced gardening techniques but is still beautiful to read and easy to understand.  Sort of Acres Magazine meets Martha Stewart Gardening.

We all yearn to pass on the wisdom of our lives. We want the young not to struggle as we did to learn life-lessons.  We wish we knew then what we know now.  Jane has gathered many lifetimes of garden smarts (and she’s not even close to old) and written a good and useful book.  In a world filled with garden books with the same old beginner’s knowledge rehashed, this one stands out and will help make you garden-smart.

 

Feed Me

by Sandy Swegel

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

 

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

 Photo credits:

http://www.imaginetheatre.co.uk/info/audrey-2-little-shop-plants.aspx

 

3 Easy Way to Get More Plants

by Sandy Swegel

No this isn’t about how to sneak into your neighbor’s yard at night with a shovel and bucket.  Although stopping by at your neighbor’s when she’s in full gardening mode can often score a few plants that she’s getting rid of.  But Spring is a time when plants are vigorously growing… so they easily transplant or divide or root.

Root in Water.
Easiest new plants this week were the forsythia and viburnum blooms and curly willows I cut to put in vases in the house.  By the time they were finished being beautiful, little rootlets were forming at the bottom of the stems…so I’ll leave them in water another week or so and then plant them directly in the garden.

When I’m weeding out plants that are in places I don’t want them to be, but I don’t have time to save each little plant if I want to finish cleanup, I keep a bucket of water with me and throw in stragglers that might survive till I have time to deal with them.  Got some nice yarrows, perennial geraniums and veronicas this week.

Annuals like geraniums root easily in water. I’ve also gotten fuschias and the wing begonias to root easily.

I’m not saying rooting in water is the best way to propagate plants….but before I knew much about gardening, I rooted lots of plants this way and it’s fun to watch the roots grow in the kitchen window while I wash dishes.

Cut off divisions.
For plants one is traditionally taught to dig up, divide and transplant, (shasta daisies, veronica, salviaphlox, among many more) I’ve found great success just taking a shovel or my trusty soil knife and slicing through about a 3 inch piece on the edge.  I leave the mother plant undisturbed so its growth and bloom is normal.  The division transplants easily although it may bloom later.  This works great with hostas and I’ve gotten dozens of baby hosta plants this way.

Direct seed.Geranium Roots
I was hanging out in the parking lot at the local garden center drooling over all the perfect annuals being unloaded.  And such a deal.  $2 or $3 for a four-pack…how can one resist?  However by the time I get to the checkout stand, all those couple of dollars added up to a lot of money that wasn’t in my budget.  Then I remembered my first garden as an adult.  We sprinkled one pack of marigold seeds.  True, they didn’t look like much in early May….but come June, they were blooming and there were dozens and dozens of little marigold plants for less than the cost of that four pack. Come mid-summer the tiny field of marigolds were much prettier than that four-pack would have been.  PLANT MORE SEEDS.  🙂

Photo Credits:

http://radmegan.blogspot.com/2011/03/rooting-herbs-from-cuttings.html
http://mytutorlist.blogspot.com/2009/05/rose-and-geranium-propagation-three.html

 

Seed-saving: Collecting Dry Seed

by Chris McLaughlin

It’s easy to save seeds from plants that produce pods, husks, and other dry casings such as peas, beans, and flowers. The technique is called “dry processing” and is faster than collecting seed from fleshy, pulpy fruits such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  Seeds that are dry-processed can be allowed to dry right on the plants unless there’s wet weather in the forecast.

Gardeners collect these seeds in different ways. Seeds often fall where they may, naturally, little by little. Some gardeners make collecting them easy and as the seeds begin to mature, they secure paper bags over the seed heads and attach them to the stems of the plants. Thus, catching any seeds that ripen early.

Once you have the seed, you’re actually left with a mixture of seeds and what’s called “chaff” as opposed to pure seed. Chaff is pod or husk coverings and other debris that fall in with the seeds.Long seed pods hanging in a treel.

Separating the seeds from the chaff is a technique called “threshing.” Threshing is used to remove the coverings from the seeds. Commercial threshing is done by multitasking machines that can harvest, thresh, and winnow the seeds all at once. For the home gardener, a bag, pillowcase, or small sack is all that’s necessary.

Simply put the collected seeds into the bag, secure the ends, and roll it around, lightly crushing the contents a bit. Don’t get all macho on me and break out a hammer for this — you don’t want to damage the seeds. For the tinier ones, there’s nothing wrong with using a flat board to gently press on the seeds to loosen the chaff.
The next step of dry harvesting is called “winnowing.” Winnowing is just a five-dollar word for getting the loosened chaff off of your seeds before you store them. In nature, this would be taken care of by the wind, but you can use the same idea by placing the seeds into a bowl and shaking the bowl around a bit. Most of the chaff is lighter than the seeds and it’ll rise to the top.

Be sure to have a large sheet underneath your workspace so if any seeds are blown away with the debris, you can retrieve them. Work outdoors only on a day without wind. Now, blow gently into the seeds to remove the lighter-weight chaff. Repeat this process until all (or most) of the chaff is gone.A Sunflower head showing sunflower seeds.

Be sure all wayward seeds are removed from the sheet underneath before you do any winnowing with other varieties. Another option is to use a screen or sifter where the holes are smaller than the chaff to simply sift them apart. The size of the sifter holes will depend on the size of the seeds and the chaff.

Label the seeds with their name and the date they were collected immediately after you’ve finished dry harvesting each variety. Excellent record-keeping is your best friend when it comes to seed-saving. It’s amazing how easy it is to mix up seed varieties!

Photo Credits:

1. Photo of dill seeds by Kirsty Hall

2. Photo of seed pods by Steve R

3. Photo of sunflower head by Joy bot