Ignoring what “they” say.

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun.  She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ.  And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say:  Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones who don’t do what “they” say without thinking about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”

 

 

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

 

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

Mid-Season Garden Report Card

by Sandy Swegel 

Here’s the report card for my garden. June had record high temperatures and little rainfall.  Lots of extra watering helped, but plants don’t grow as well without natural rainfall.

Lettuces and Spinach. The heat made them bolt early and they are all bitter or simply scorched and gone to seed. Time to pull them out and replant.

Chards and Kales.  The chards started to bolt but some judicious removal of seed stalks and they are still growing and yummy.  The kales look great.  I didn’t know they were so tough under stressful situations.

Peas.  Pod peas were done early…they went to seed almost instantly. Sugar peas actually were not too bad.  Not as tender as usual, but salvageable….although the season was very short. Like other crops in this heat wave, things just grew really fast and went to seed.

Cilantro. Long since gone to seed.

Dill and Leeks. Leeks have gone to seed but they are beautiful.  Dill has started to seed but still usable.

Beans. My beans are OK, but neighbors have had failures from pests.  There’s still time to replant and have beans this year.

Peppers. The superheroes in our heat.  Lots of irrigation combined with heat have made them flourish.  Tomatillos too.

Tomatoes. The verdict is still out.  They are growing and strong.  Not as many diseases as I feared in a stressful year.  But not so many tomatoes either. They quit flowering in extreme conditions.  The plants themselves are shorter than other years at this time, but I’m hoping a week of cooler temperatures will inspire them to start cranking out tomatoes.

Broccoli. Little heads early this year,  but they are still producing side shoots.

Bugs. Our warm winter enabled too many pests to survive the winter, so there is an abundance of flea beetles and slugs. The greens are ugly and holey….but perfectly good to eat.  Aphids and ladybugs balanced out.  There appear to be lots of young grasshoppers but I’m pretending not to think about them.

So how is your garden faring?  Just like in school, mid-term grades are just an indicator of how things are going…not the final grade.  So get out there and yank out the struggling plants and reseed and replant in their places.  There’s still plenty of time for producing lots of food

 

Tough Love

by Sandy Swegel

Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under a 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

 

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
The 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 the 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.
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.  :)