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 02.21.14ajoined 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 02.21.14bheirloom 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.

02.17.14aGrowing 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 are02.17.14b succulents like sedums or hen and chicks.  Break open a leaf and a gel-like water oozes out. Some sturdy wildflowers save water in their roots.  The tubers that liatris makes are a good example.

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, love 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 when02.14.14a making an arrangement is 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 needs 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 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 an02.14.14b 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 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 somebody02.10.14a 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 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 time for basil yet.

Wildflowers02.10.14b
Edibles are great, but one must never forget food for the soul—the beautiful wildflowers.  If you think starting 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

 

Best Supporting Actor Dark Opal Basil

by Sandy Swegel

Some plants are meant to be the star of the garden.  Dahlias, for example.  You can see them from across the yard and they02.07.14b elicit gasps of delight at their beauty.  While stars do make the garden, they only really dazzle when surrounded by a strong supporting cast. And that’s where Dark Opal Basil really shines. Its black shiny leaves provide a color background that makes white and brightly colored flowers in the garden “pop.” But as they say on late night TV, “That’s not all…”

Here are five more ways Dark Opal Basil really is a superstar.

Dark Opal Basil is super cute planted as border in front of the tomato bed.  Brushing along the basil releases its great hot summer aroma.  Some say Dark Opal Basil, like all basils, helps repel tomato hornworm.

Its own pink to white flowers on dark purple bracts shine on their own.

Its dense foliage fills all the empty space in containers and display beds.  Visually, it pulls together a lot of other plants like zinnias and salvias that can look bare at the bottom.

02.07.14cIt is yummy.  I like it growing near the cherry tomatoes so on a warm summer afternoon I pick one leaf of basil and wrap it around one cherry tomato for a refreshing flavor burst.

Dark Opal is said to be the favorite purple basil for cooks because of mild flavor and a tender leaf.  It looks and smells great in a salad, served with fresh mozzarella or as a sprig in a Bloody Mary.

Hurry up Springtime. I’m ready to plant Today!

Photo Credits:
gardening.ktsa.com/pages/7670364.php?
foodwineclick.com/2013/08/25/basil-tasting/

 

 

Beautiful Food.

by Sandy Swegel

Romanesco broccoli is a favorite of gardeners, chefs and mathematicians.  Gardeners love its exotic shape and lime green color. Chefs adore its presentation on a platter and its great flavor, especially roasted.  And mathematicians laud Romanesco as a perfect example of fractal geometry in nature with its swirling spirals.

My first glimpse of Romanesco broccoli was on a trip to Italy as a 21-year-old with a backpack doing the great European hosteling trip.  I was in love with everything Italian and spent the day in the Italian farmers market where strange exotic vegetables and fruits were displayed alongside great salamis and pungent cheeses.  I wasn’t much of a cook back then, but Italy is where I learned that all vegetables taste best roasted with some good olive oil, salt, garlic and served with a nice pasta.

Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

Romanesco broccoli, popular in Italy since the 16th century, is a favorite here at BBB Seed, especially now that we’ve found an organic source for the seed. It grows just like any of the broccolis or cauliflowers (good soil, water, and cool weather bring out the sweetness). Steaming it or serving it raw in salads preserves the great color.

One more great thing about Romanesco broccoli?  It’s just weird and alien-looking enough that you might be able to get the kids to try it.

Photo and Recipe: www.gastronomersguide.com/2010/11/pasta-with-roasted-romanesco.html

 

 

Basil and Chili: A Love Affair

by Sandy Swegel

Do you like chili peppers?  The plants are super easy to grow and tolerate a lot of drought and benign neglect in the garden. Thechilli pepper Capsicum annuum Medusa red only problem I’ve ever had with peppers is that the seeds take forever to germinate. One year my seeds still hadn’t germinated for three weeks, so I gave up and bought plants…. only to have healthy seedlings come up the next week.  I decided I just hadn’t given the seedlings enough heat.

But new research this year taught me something new about seed germination that made me think maybe my pepper seedlings were just lonely.  Turns out that if you grow basil near peppers, the pepper seeds sprout faster and grow healthier plants than if you just grow peppers alone. Companion planting scientifically documented.  A controlled scientific study this year thinks it’s because the basil plants emit sound vibrations near the peppers.  We have no idea yet if the basil is just whispering encouraging words or playing a wild marimba tune.  But the chili plants come out and dance to the music.

Practically, here’s what I’m going to try.  I’m going to start my basil seeds in the tray next to the pepper seeds.  Basil always01.31.14b germinates first for me so I’m hoping they’ll come up and then peppers will come up faster.  I’ll plant both in the garden together too.  And finally, next August…I’ll fix a great salsa and eat them together. It’s a fiesta!

 Photo Credits and More Info:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/plants-talk-to-each-other-nanoscale-sound-waves-grow_n_3229021.html
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130507-talking-chili-plant-communication-science/