Tools to be a Better Gardener

by Sandy Swegel Photo of the bbbseed $25 gift card.

Today I’ve been thinking about how the tools I use have made me a better gardener. I have spent a lot of money over the years on tools that break or tools that seemed clever but end up unused. I garden at least twenty hours a week for other people, so my tools need to be effective and efficient as well as durable. 

(Keep these in mind if you are trying to figure out a good holiday or birthday gift for a gardener friend or relative!  One of these and a great gift card for seeds is sure to be useful and welcome!)

My Must-Have Tools include:


Good Hand Pruners naturally. Felco pruners are great if you can afford them. A sharp edge is the more important feature of a hand pruners and you need a high-end pruner that does have cheapo soft metal that dulls the first time you use it. I like Felcos, but Corona and Fiskars both have high-end pruners that are good. For my use, I need a replaceable blade because no matter how much you sharpen, at some point you need a fresh blade. I have hand pruners in two sizes…a smaller pair for perennial maintenance because they are lighter weight and a larger pair for shrubs, roses and trees. Last year Costco had a great deal on a generic version of Felcos in a two-pack.

A Soil Knife. The original name of this tool was a hori-hori knife and my first one came right fromSoil knife with orange handle Japan. Now I like the bright orange soil knife from AM Leonard. The plastic resin handle holds up better than wood and the bright orange is easier to find when I lose it. You have to be careful of the extremely sharp edges (one side serrated and one side flat) but this is my combo trowel, weed digger, shovel, tool for dividing perennials etc.
Pruning loppersFiskars Power Gear Bypass Lopper 15 or 18 inches. I love the Fiskars PowerGear line. They really do give you more power per effort than any other lopper. I use the smaller loppers the most because they are lightweight and because they fit more easily between dense branches.

Black and Decker cordless (18V) sweeper. They don’t call this a vac because it’s not strong enough for big piles of leaves…but it ‘s the perfect quick cleanup at the end of working in the garden whetherCordless Yard Sweeper you’re “sweeping” a path or blowing debris lightly off of rock mulch. I also use it to sweep my kitchen floor. Sawsall pruning blade

Milwaukee Sawzall pruning blade. This vicious jagged blade is one of the secret weapons that let me do the work of your average 20-year-old male landscaper. Perfect for cutting trees or cutting right in the soil through old roots.

Mini Shovel and Mini Mattock Pickaxe. OK, laugh if you want, my friends do….but then they goMini Pickaxe out and get these mini tools when they see how much work they let me do. They are the same tools the aforementioned 20-year olds use in full-sized versions, but lightweight enough for me to use without ruining my rotator cuff, a common gardening injury. I use both while kneeling in the soil up close and personal to my job. Don’t get a wussy camping pick or a garden pick made of thin metal…get the real thing in the hardware store.

Those tools and a colorful TubTrug or two, (those bendable colorful garden buckets that are worth every nickel) and you’ll find yourself able to work faster and stronger in the garden without trying too hard.

Orange garden trug

 

Radical Ratatouille

A plate of tomatoes and other vegetables used to make Ratatouille.

Photo courtesy of Dgraph88 / pixabay

From the Kitchen of Engrid Winslow

Ratatouille screams to me of summer and there are dozens of ways to make it. The only real essentials are tomatoes, onion, eggplant and zucchini cooked down into a stew and seasoned with salt and pepper.  It is delicious as a vegetarian main dish and can be served hot, room temperature, or even cold. You can also top it with cheese, add chunks of chicken and serve it over rice, or roll it up in a lettuce leaves or a tortilla. It can be cooked in a crockpot, baked or stewed. Here is a “classic” preparation followed by a few variations for you to play with.  You can learn more about the history of this dish here.

 

Classic Ratatouille

Serves 5 to 6

3 TBL olive oil                                                             3 medium tomatoes, chopped or 14 oz. canned

2 medium onions, chopped                                        2 large crushed cloves of garlic

1 medium eggplant, cubed in 1” chunks                    1 medium green bell pepper, in 1” chunks

5-6 medium zucchini, sliced                                       1 medium red bell pepper, in 1” chunks

½ cup chopped fresh parsley                                      ¼ cup chopped fresh basil

½ tsp salt                                                                     2 TBL tomato paste

¼ tsp pepper                                                               1 cup shredded gruyere cheese (optional)

In a 4-5 Quart pot, heat olive oil and add garlic, eggplant, peppers and onions.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often until onions are crisp-tender (about 5 minutes). Stir in zucchini, tomatoes, parsley and basil.  Heat to boiling, then reduce to medium, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  Remove cover, season with salt and pepper and stir in tomato paste. Continue cooking, uncovered, for another 10 minutes. Serve as is or over hot cooked rice. Top with a sprinkling of cheese.

VARIATION #1

Make it Middle Eastern by omitting the basil and cheese and stirring in the following spices when you add the zucchini and tomatoes:

½ tsp ground cumin                ½ tsp turmeric                                    ¼ tsp coriander

VARIATION #2

Change up the vegetables in the classic recipe or just add more.  Some favorites are corn, peas and beans, or other summer squash such as patty pan.

VARIATION #3

Make it Italian: Melt a couple of anchovies into the oil along with the garlic and tomatoes.  This adds a layer of umami flavors that is quite good. Then add a sprinkle of toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar just before serving.

VARIATION #4

Consider serving it with a different grain besides rice. Quinoa, farro, couscous and others are a delicious and very healthy twist.

 

 

My 10 Favorite Drought Tolerant Plants

By Heather Stone

 Here in Colorado, our summers are often hot and dry and there’s often some sort of “watering restrictions” in place. Those two words can bring just about any gardener to their knees.  But, you can still have a garden filled with beautiful flowers even if you’re on a tight water budget.  In my Zone 5 garden, these plants perform well whether we have a temporary or longer-term drought situation.

 

Yarrow- Achillea

This long-blooming perennial comes in a rainbow of colors (pink, white, red, orange and yellow).  The colorful blossoms are attractive to butterflies and make a good cut flower. Yarrow is hardy in Zones 3-9 and is best planted in full sun.

 

Lavender- Lavandula

Purple Lavender blossoms.

Photo courtesy of Hans / pixabay

This native Mediterranean plant is accustomed to dry, sunny conditions.  The beautiful purple flower spikes look great on their own or in the border.  Lavender is prized for its fragrance and medicinal properties and is attractive to many pollinators. Hardy in Zones 5-10.

 

Sedum –Sedum spp.

There are many varieties of sedum from upright to low growing groundcovers.  They are sure to fit in just about any garden design from the back of the border to the rock garden. These easy to grow plants need little care once established.  Hardy in Zones 3-9.

Coneflower –Echinacea spp.

These beautiful, long blooming perennials are not only drought tolerant but will thrive in almost any soil and often self-sow. The blossoms are attractive to both butterflies and birds. The goldfinches love to eat the seed. There are several species and many varieties of this rugged plant with flowers in many shapes, sizes and colors. Don’t leave this trusty plant out of the drought-tolerant garden.Purple Coneflower bloom with bumble bee.

Soapwort- Saponaria spp.

A profusion of pink blooms covers this low growing plant for weeks in the spring attracting many bees and butterflies. This hardy evergreen plant grows best in Zones 3-8.  Soapwort was used by the early settlers to make soap.

Mexican Hat- Ratibida columnifera

This sun-loving wildflower is both long-lived and long blooming and thrives in dry conditions.  The dark red blossoms look great planted in masses, attracting many bees and butterflies. Mexican hat is both a great cut and dried flower. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Veronica spp.

Covered in blue, purple, white or pink flowers for weeks in spring or mid-summer this long blooming perennial comes in a variety of sizes. Clump forming varieties look great along the edge of the garden or the groundcovers really make a statement in the spring when covered in a mass of blue flowers. Plant in full sun. Hardy to Zones 3-9.

Beardtongues- Penstemon spp.

Native to most parts of North America Penstemons are a great choice for the dry garden. Their flowers are attractive to many pollinators and come in a variety of colors, sizes, shapes and bloom times. Some excellent choices for the dry garden include Penstemon Mexicali, P. pinifolius, P. eatonii,  P. strictus.

Catmint- Nepeta spp.

Catmint is a show stopper, blooming from early spring to early fall. The fragrant blue-purple flowers are attractive to many pollinators. This nearly indestructible plant is both deer and rabbit resistant and thrives in full sun in Zones 4-9.

 

How to Get Rid of Weeds

by Sandy Swegel

That’s the question I hear most often in Spring.

The question comes most often from my friends who are very smart and successful in busy lives.  Their garden is one aspect of their beautiful complicated lives but it’s always a challenge because it’s not easy to make nature conform to what you want with one big weekend cleanup.

So there was an animated discussion about best digging tools and homemade vinegar solutions. Everyone wants to protect the earth and the bees but frankly feel they have failed when the same weeds overwhelm their garden every season.  You know the weeds I mean.  The ones that have grown very tall when walk into your yard in late June  and see they just went to seed making thousands of new baby weeds.

At some point someone asks me what my tool is as a professional gardener.  My friends never find my answers very entertaining, so they usually return to a discussion of their latest internet surefire natural weed killer.  Nevertheless, here is my answer from years of experience of dealing with weeds.

The best tool is diligence.  Weeds have a strong will to live and procreate.  You have to be vigilant for them and keep after them.

After setting a firm determination about what weeds are permissible and which aren’t, then here are some techniques.

Get them when they are little.

Right now in your gardens there are thousands of tiny weed seedlings you could control with one stroke of your hand hoe.  Off with their heads:  tiny seedlings don’t survive losing their leaves. Learn what young weeds look like.  Bindweed babies are cute little heart shapes.

 

Learn to love them. 

Dandelions are the best example of a “weed” you can learn to love.  In moderation of course.

They are very cute…children love them.  They are one of the first foods of hungry bees each Spring.  You will have more time and less frustration in your garden if you don’t have to eradicate all the dandelions.

 

If you do decide to get rid of perennial weeds…be smart and determined..  Don’t just hack it up in frustration every Spring and let it grow and strengthen the  rest of the year.  You can’t get nasty perennials all at once….but you can wear it down and weaken it.  I have a sharp hori hori knife and dig out at least four inches of root.  If the weed reappears, I recognize it and dig a little deeper the next time.  Soon it will exhaust itself and give up.

 

Finally, have a cup of tea.

Or at least get the electric kettle out.  Boiling water or hotter steam does an excellent job in rocks and walkways,  especially when weeds are young. And it is very satisfying.

 

Photocredits

https://weedecology.css.cornell.edu/weed/weed.php?id=6

http://www.blikk.hu/eletmod/tippek/elleptek-a-kertjet-a-gazok-igy-szabadulhat-meg-toluk/f38r539

 

 

YELLOWJACKET TRAPS, THEN PANSIES

By: Sandy Swegel

Is Spring about to happen in your neighborhood? Before you start getting pansies or collecting daffodils, stop and put out your yellow jacket traps…if yellow jackets are a problem for you in the summer.

The yellow jacket life cycle is pretty simple. Almost all the yellow jackets die off in winter. Single queens that already “mated” go into winter hibernation…in the ground, or your shed, or woodpile. Once warm weather starts in the Spring the queen wakes up, builds a new nest and starts laying eggs for this year’s yellow jackets. One little queen easily lays 500 eggs. Conservatively, every queen you catch now means hundreds fewer yellow jackets gathering at your picnics in the yard this summer. It is so much easier to catch one queen now than to tackle nests full of angry yellow jackets under your picnic table in July.

A simple pheromone trap works great…it lures the queen to those yellow plastic hanging traps. This is no time for simple soapy water. You’ll be glad you spent the $5 for the pheromone lure refills. And the lure doesn’t affect honeybees.

Catching the queens isn’t always predictable. I put up more than one trap. Last year the trap by the BBQ grill caught ten queens. And a trap under a tree caught two. It seems to differ every year. But I will be grateful come summer.

It’s definitely time in this warm March we’re having in Colorado. It was 80 degrees today…I got stung cleaning up debris in the perennial bed. The queen rolled over from her winter nap and sunk her stinger into me as revenge. Ouch. Yellow jackets hurt so much more than other wasps. If you don’t go outside in the summer, then let the yellow jackets live. But since they don’t play well with others, I believe in a strong birth prevention policy.

Photocredits:
www.rescue.com/bug/yellowjackets
greenbugpestandlawn.com/learning-center/flying-pest

 

The Windy Garden

By: Sandy Swegel

This could be a perfectly beautiful early Spring. We’ve had a week of warm sunny weather that is waking up the daffodils and tulips. Birds are flitting about and energetically singing out mating calls. It’s a joyful break from dark winter days. But then there’s the wind. Chinook winds. Or as they were called the year I lived in the Alps, “scheiss foen.” Everyone understood if the foen had arrived that you could be in a foul mood because of the irritability and headaches from the air pressure changes these mountain-made winds caused.

Wind can have devastating effects on a garden. Sure the strong winds can break stems and tree branches, but the greatest stressors comes from the drying effects of the winds. Plants close their stomata (leaf pores) to reduce water loss, but that slows the plants’ ability to grow. The winds desiccate the plant tissue and dry out the top inches of the soil meaning the plants need more water. Even plants under snow cover can get very drought stressed because the winds evaporate the snow before it can melt.

If it’s going to be a windy season, I make a few mental changes in my garden plans. Here’s things to consider if you have a windy garden:

Use more drought tolerant plants.
Increase your watering after the winds die down.
Grow shorter plants.
Grow plants like lavender with thinner leaves that won’t desiccate so easily.
Plant some tall ornamental grasses through the flower garden. They look beautiful in the wind and provide some wind break protection.
Plant evergreens as windbreaks.
Consider a garden wall.

And take an aspirin for your sinus headache.

 

Photocredits:

http://clarenbridgegardencentre.ie/
Top Tips for Windy Gardens
http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/waterton/ne/ne-galerie-gallery-2.aspx?a=1&photo=%7Bdfae32e8-4d1e-47e4-a909-08c9ea68dd13%7D

 

February Plant of the Month – Carrots

Plant of the Month

February 2017

 

Common Name: Scarlet Nantes Carrot

Scientific Name: Dacus carota var. sativus

 

Native Range: Mediterranean Region

Hardiness Zone: 4 to 10

Days to Maturity: 65-75

 

General Description: Scarlet Nantes Carrot is a standard market carrot that has a long, cylindrical shape and a rich reddish-orange color. Flavor is sweet and delicious. Roots are fine-grained, containing almost no core. High moisture content makes this variety perfect for juicing. Carrots can reach up to 7 inches long. To prevent diseases, rotate planting location every season.

 

Site Requirements:

  • Light: Full sun. Will tolerate very light shade.
  • Water: Moderate moisture. Crusted soil can suppress germinated sprouts.
  • Soil: Well-drained soil with organic matter. Area needs to be free of stones.

Seeding:

This cool-weather crop is easily over-planted due to its fine seeds. Sow seeds directly into loose soil in early spring 2-3 weeks before last frost date. Carrots are slow to germinate, emerging in 2-4 weeks. Cover seeds with ¼ inch of soil—no more than ½ an inch. Lightly water seeds everyday for best germination. Once sprouts emerge thinning is critical to reduce competition. Thin seedlings to 1/2 – 1 inch spacing. Best time for thinning is when soil is damp. Plant seeds every 2-3 weeks throughout midsummer for continuous harvest.

Harvest Time:

Start harvesting as soon as carrots have reached desired size (up to 7 inches). Try pulling up one at a time to check size. Watering the area before harvest can make pulling by hand easier. Harvest by mid-September to avoid pest damage.

Fun Facts:

  • Carrots are a great source of fiber, potassium and vitamin A.
  • Carrot greens can be used in soup stock, pesto, curries or tea.
  • Common pest: carrot rust fly
  • British gardeners plant sage around the area to repel the carrot fly
 

February Plant of the Month – Beets

Plant of the Month

February 2017

Common Name: Detroit Dark Red Beet

Scientific Name: Beta vulgaris var. crassa

 

Native Range: Europe & Asia

Hardiness Zone: 2-7. For zones 8-11 grow as a fall crop

Days to Maturity: 55-65

 

General Description: The Detroit Dark Red Beet is the most popular all-purpose red beet. It is globe-shaped, tender with blood-red flesh that is sweet and delicious. Beets are easy to grow and tolerate a wide range of climates. Beets prefer cool weather; in zones 8-11 where summers can be hot, grow them as a fall, winter or early spring crop.

 

Site Requirements:

  • Light: Full sun to part shade
  • Water: Consistent moisture
  • Soil: Well-drained, sandy loam soil high in organic matter. Avoid acidic soil areas.

 

Seeding:

Sow seeds directly into soil in early spring as soon as soil can be worked. Beets tend to have spotty germination. Presoaking seeds for 1-2 hours will soften seed coat and speed germination. Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart. Seeds need close contact with the soil; it is best practice to press down on soil after planting. Sprouts will emerge in 10-20 days. Thin seedlings when they reach 4-5 inch to 3 inches apart.

Harvest Time:

Pull up plants when exposed root tops are 2 inches across.

 

Fun Facts:

  • Reddish green leaves make a great addition to summer salads
  • Planting garlic and mint with your beets will improve the growth and flavor
  • Beets are very sensitive to toxic substances in the soil and may not germinate if planted near walnut trees or soils containing herbicides
 

Garlic Chives – A Rugged Plant with Pretty Flowers

by Sandy Swegel

Garlic Chives

It’s that time of year when I nominate plants for this year’s Garden Awards. All Fall I’ve been admiring one plant that is a “crossover” plant able to be a contender in both the “Tough and able to handle the absolute worst soil and little water” category AND a nominee in the “Aren’t You Pretty” category. That stellar plant this year is Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum). It gets extra kudos for being a late season nectar and pollen source for bees and butterflies too.

The flowers are beautiful little white stars. Even as they turn to green seeds pods, they are still attractive enough to put in a vase. I’ve never seen any bugs or pests or disease on the chives…probably because they do smell like garlic.

Garlic Chives

Pungent aroma is one reason they aren’t a perfect garden flower. The greens are edible just like garden chives (and known in Asian cooking as Chinese chives). The flavor is more garlicky than onion-y. They are lovely thrown in a stir fry or sauteed and served in egg or tofu dishes.

Now full disclosure requires I tell the other downside of garlic chives: they make a lot of seeds. And they love to reseed in rocks and crevices of garden walls. I deal with this by dead-heading the seed heads in about October before the black seeds drop. While this can be a bother in an irrigated flower garden, it’s not a problem at all in a tough xeric area where there’s not much water anyway.

Garlic Chives

You can direct seed the chives or start them and transplant. The only extra requirement they have is that they need dark to germinate well….so sprinkle some soil over the seeds. Most of the time the chives overwinter or reseed. They grow in clumps about a foot tall and the flowers are one – two inches wide…depending on your water and soil fertility. If you have sun and moist soil they grow big and spread quickly. But part shade is fine. So is very dry or heavy clay soil. The plants will be smaller, but still impressive.

Yes, that’s what the garlic chives were this year: impressive. Tough plants and pretty.

 
Photo Credits
http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/FullImageDisplay.aspx?documentid=10864
https://www.mountainvalleygrowers.com/alltuberosum.htm
http://statebystategardening.com/images/uploads/article_uploads/11June_mwnews_5-B2.jpg

 

Stop the Powdery Mildew Cycle this Fall

by Sandy SwegelPowder Mildew

Powdery mildew had a grand time in my garden this year. I often have a nonchalant attitude to it growing on a few leaves and don’t mind a little bit. But it started early this year on roses, then showed up on the bee balms and finished out the season inundating the sweet peas and squashes. By the time I paid attention, it was out of control.

But now it’s Fall and my inner lazy gardener says…ah well this season is over. Next year it will be different. But if we want to make progress against disease in our gardens, now is the time to act.

Powdery Mildew

Do you Want Less Disease in your garden next year? Then take these steps now:

In the Vegetable Garden
As your squash and cucumbers and pea plants are dying back, remove those leaves and put them in the trash. Not in the compost pile. Don’t let them overwinter and deal with it in the Spring. Fungus and disease spores are sitting passively on the backs of those leaves, just waiting for rebirth next Spring. They do not reliably die in home compost piles. Powdery mildew survives the winter by forming minute fruiting bodies called cleistothecia And tomatoes? I put the whole plants in the trash after frost. There are just too many diseases on them to risk.

In the perennial beds, leaves infected with powdery mildew like rose or phlox or bee balm often drop before Fall. Before the big tree leaf fall, I use the blower to blow the diseased leaves out of the bed and PUT THEM IN THE TRASH.

This vigorous sanitation is a good idea for all pests too. If you had bean beetles…get rid of those leaves that might have next year’s eggs.

But don’t be too clean.
That’s the important lesson here. In the non-diseased parts of the garden, lady bugs and lacewings and lots of beneficial insects are going to lay eggs and overwinter. We want them. I learned last year especially to let willow leaves be…there were dozens of beneficial babies at the base of willow plants last spring.

Powdery Mildew

And next year…be attentive to the powdery mildew. I now promise to treat early and often with something gentle but effective such as a horticultural oil or a baking soda. I lost a lot of production in my vegetables this year because I let the powdery mildew have its way. And the roses and phlox really took a hit. I’l do better next year. I promise.

 

 

Photo Credit:
ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7406.html
startorganic.org/tips-for-treating-powdery-mildew/