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

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 at http://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.

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.  :)

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.

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.

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!

Go Play in the Dirt!

by Sandy Swegel

Two health articles came across my desk this week praising the virtues of getting in touch with dirt.  Now most gardeners know that one of the best things about gardening is getting to play in the dirt.  Spring gardens are always well dug and turned because it’s such a joy (weather permitting) to prepare the garden beds for first planting. Now, apparently, instead of just being fun, getting in close contact with dirt is good for you.

Dirt is Good for your Gut.
High-end probiotics now include soil bacteria in their mix of other ordinary acidophilus bacteria.  Scientists at the Sage Colleges of Troy, N.Y., have discovered that exposure to certain kinds of soil bacteria can reduce anxiety and increase learning capabilities when ingested or inhaled, reports Physorg.com.http://phys.org/news193928997.html

Dirt is Good for your Feet.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has a vast website of health information, wrote that “When walking on the earth barefoot, free electrons from the earth transfer into your body via the soles of your feet. These free electrons are some of the most potent antioxidants known to man. “ http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/04/29/james-oschman-on-earthing.aspx
Walking barefoot in the grass or on dirt is now known as “earthing” and everyone should do it every day.

Other studies have been done saying dirt is good for your skin, and that kids exposed at a young age to dirt have fewer allergy problems.

So enjoy getting dirty. Eat some vegetables with bits of dirt still clinging to it.  Let the free radicals of the earth heal your body.  Playing in the dirt is good for you!

The Versatile Dwarf Conifer

by Chris McLaughlin

Conifer trees are easy to recognize with their evergreen, needle-type leaves and the cones on their branches.

 In my opinion conifers offer some solid, reliable backbone to any yard — not to mention they’re handsome. I don’t know about you, but aside from the useful plants, I enjoy a little handsome in my yard, too. Standard conifers get big, like 50 or 70 feet tall, big. There’s a lot of us that can’t offer a proper home to such a monster, handsome or not.

Enter the dwarf conifers. You can fit a ton of these versatile mini-versions into a small landscape as they have a compact growth habit, which makes them container friendly, too. By using grafting techniques or rooted cuttings, dwarf conifers are reproduced asexually. By the way, when they’re grafted, it’s not onto dwarfed rootstock; they’re cultivars originating from mutations or seedling selections.

Unlike other plants that are grafted onto a smaller plant’s roots or “dwarf rootstock”, dwarf conifers or dwarf evergreens are simply tree or shrub varieties that are extremely slow-growing. In other words, they haven’t been bred to stop growing at a certain height. According to conifer nurseries, a regular hemlock will grow to reach 25′-30′ tall in 20 years time. While its dwarf hemlock cousin will reach 2′ in that same amount of time.
“Witches brooms” are another way to get a dwarf conifer. These mini conifers usually start as a bud that can be found anywhere on a regular conifer tree. Sometimes a bud’s genes will mutate and produce a clump of growth that’s dwarfed. They’re harvested from the parent plant and more plants are propagated from the brooms — creating more dwarf specimens.

Dwarf conifers bring year-round interest to the landscape and many perform seasonal color changes. Keep your eye out for variegated varieties and those in various shades of green, orange, blue, yellow, and lavender. Some also have patterned or bi-colored leaves, as well. Inside this conifer class are the yews and junipers that produce berries instead of cones. Also, along with the pines are firs, spruces, redwoods, cedars, cypresses, junipers, yews, and hemlock. Word of warning; cypresses do lose their leaves come fall.

Dwarf conifers come in many shapes and forms (just in case you can only picture a Christmas tree):

• Prostrate: These are plants that hug the ground like a carpet (and stay that way).

• Globose: These have a rounded, globe shape to them.

• Narrow upright: These plants grow taller than they do wide.

• Pendulous: These plants grow upright with branches that hang down or have a downward curving leader and require staking. Or they can have strictly descending branches from a central leader.

• Spreading: While these are upright, they grow wider than they do tall.

• Broad upright: These are all of the plants that grow upright but aren’t in the globose, narrow upright, or pendulous categories. Generally, these grow broader than they do tall.

• Irregular: These guys grow erratically without a pattern.

• Culturally altered: This means that someone made their own shape(s) with some pruning shears. Think topiary shapes.

Dwarf conifers are one of my favorite plant group of all time. If you’re interested in making them yours, check out The American Conifer Society’s website.

First There Were Wildflowers

by Sandy Swegel

Cecilia posted a question on our Facebook page this week asking if we knew a website like ours for wildflowers.  Wait, I thought that’s us.  We’ve gotten very enamored of vegetables lately but we know our roots:  we started as a wildflower seed company.  BBB Seed’s name came from our original name, “Beauty Beyond Belief” which means the beauty of natural wildflowers that can be in your garden all year round.  Later BBB Seed also stood for Bounty Beyond Belief (heirloom vegetables!).  Once we added the great line of botanical products, it meant Botanicals Beyond Belief.  And I can imagine a time in the future, no doubt accompanied by a few margaritas after work when we’ll come up with some more BBB’s.

But wildflowers were our first love…and if you see the photos of our head honcho Mike’s house, you’ll see a wild meadow of wildflowers.

Wildflowers are really easy to grow.  There is an entire procedure you can follow to properly install a wildflower area:  kill all weeds first, spread seed in Fall or late winter and let spring rains gently bring them to life.  But sometimes life is busy and you don’t have time to do things properly.  I’m waiting with eager anticipation to see what happens with the package of Butterfly and Birds mix I gave my neighbor Dana.  She has over an acre of property and she’s in retirement, so can’t spend too much work in any one spot in her garden. But she loves wildflowers.  Last weekend I saw her with her hoe, scratching a six-inch path of bare soil along the entire length of her property.  She was removing grasses and weeds.  Then she sprinkled the seed mix the entire path of her narrow trough.  She followed with the hose watering everything in.  I heard her explaining to the seeds that she didn’t have a lot of time to make a fuss over them, but she’d make sure they got lots of water to germinate and grow and that she couldn’t wait until they made a beautiful fence of wildflowers along the edge of her property.

I think she’s going to be right.  A wildflower garden shouldn’t take more than that.  The consistent watering until the plants are established is important.  And weeds and grass will grow (and she’ll probably cut down the thistles that come up), but I’m pretty sure the wildflowers will prevail and make a natural fence of color and beauty for the butterflies and birds and especially for the people.

How to Manipulate Your Microclimates

by Chris McLaughlin

Whoever said “You can’t fool Mother Nature,” never met a gardener. We can and we do fool her as often as we can get away with it.  Anyone living anywhere can learn to use their unique microclimates and to take the greatest advantage of their situation.

Permanent structures such as houses, walls, and neighboring buildings can have a huge effect on the immediate area surrounding them. For instance, all of these things can serve as wind barriers or conversely, create wind tunnels. But gardeners can take advantage of the very things that would otherwise seem to be in the way.

Walls made of brick, stone, cement, or stucco will absorb the heat and radiate it during the cool night hours. Walls not only hold heat effectively, but they can also provide shelter and be a protective wind-block for plants.

The sun’s exposure can also be the difference between a perennial plant making it through the winter or not — even when its tag says it won’t survive the cold months in your zone. Bougainvilleas, for example, don’t usually make it through a Northern California winter like they do in Southern California. But there are Bougainvilleas that are alive and well in the San Francisco Bay Area because they were planted against a wall with a southern exposure.

If you’re planting heat-loving vegetables this season, be sure to plant them on the south side of your house. If you’re planning on using a wall for vertical vegetables, plant them against any wall but the north-facing one, as they won’t get enough sun there to produce well.  A southern exposure sees the longest hours of sun; a west wall will get the intense afternoon sun; the east wall will have morning sun, and a (true) northern wall will receive no direct sun.  A word of caution here: the southern side is also one of the most drastic sides for perennial plants because of temperature fluctuation during the changing seasons — it can be a circle of freezing and thawing.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a cooler place to plant your lettuce, then go for the north side. The northern side of your house might also be the best place for early flowering fruit trees like cherries and peaches. A late spring frost will set fruit production back, and the idea here is that if fruit trees are planted where there’s a northern exposure, it can help suspend blossoming until the frost date has passed.

A good place for tender plants is on the eastern side of any structure because morning sun is the most gentle at that time of day. While sun-worshipping roses like the brilliance of the west side. Keep in mind that a southern exposure is no longer the hot spot that it could be if there’s a structure such as a neighboring building or large tree situated between your planting space and the sun. This is a perfect example of a man-made microclimate.

Use a wall’s upwind and downwind sides to your advantage by remembering the upwind side is the right place for water-loving plants as it’s going to receive more rain than the downwind side. Plants growing on the downwind side will be protected against a driving rain. This can be a handy little microclimate to have around. These are just a handful of ideas — other examples of creating microclimates is using mulch, paved surfaces, fences, balconies, and rooftops.

 

Earwigs

by Sandy Swegel

If I were making a low-budget movie about alien invaders, I’d definitely use close-ups of earwigs to make the scariest monsters with their pincers coming at you.  And no fan of Star Trek can help but shudder and remember the image of the earwiggy centipedy thing Khan puts into Mr. Chekov’s ear.  Earwigs actually get their name from going into ears of corn, not human ears, but there’s a primitive cringe factor that rises in us anyway.

Most people never notice earwigs, but if you do get an infestation, you’ll quickly find they can wipe out new seedlings by chewing the stems and leaves.  And in large numbers, they have no problem climbing corn stalks or fruit trees to get at yummy food.

It’s usually easy to catch earwigs…they gather under anything dark and damp such as mulch or an old board. Rolled up wet newspaper is pretty good because it’s a disposable container….just toss the whole thing in the trash.  I personally let a couple of chickens loose and they find the apparently delicious earwigs in minutes and eat them as fast as they can scratch them out.  If you have a serious infestation of earwigs, UC Davis has the best scientific integrated pest management protocol.http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74102.html

This week  I went to a bug talk by our local extension entomologist Carol O’Meara and learned a new tip about trapping earwigs. Trapping is usually the best way to deal with earwigs.  O’Meara’s twist to catch the critters is to put out little bowls of vegetable oil and soy sauce.  The soy sauce is an attractant and the earwigs are suffocated in the vegetable oil.  An old tuna can and a couple tablespoons each of soy sauce and oil (some people add a little molasses), and you have a great trap.  The folks at Deep Green Permaculture designed this little trap to give you an idea of the concept.

http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/strange-brew-homemade-garden-sprays/

Happy Earwig Hunting!