The Midsummer Lull

by Sandy Swegel

I was surfing the garden internet last night at Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2012/06/grazing-my-way-through-the-lull.html where blogger Michele Owens is lamenting the lull in her vegetable garden.  It’s so true, late June is a difficult time in both the vegetable and flower garden.  There was the wild early June flush of color on roses and spring perennials.  Mid-June brought peas and tons of chard and kale and spinach.  But the intense unusual heat of the last couple of weeks made the spinach and arugula bolt and the peas and fava beans quickly went hard in their shells.  Tomatoes are full of flowers and tiny green tomatoes, but there’s not much for eating.  The one exception is zucchini…The zucchini are pumping out a new zucchini or two a day….but it’s hard to find other vegetables for dinner. How can the basil be so small when I started them months ago?

The flower garden is similar. The hot season rudbeckias are finally starting but there isn’t the lushness the garden of a few weeks ago had.  First of July is a great time to notice what’s in bloom in your (or your neighbor’s) vegetable and flower garden and vow to plant that this year or next.  Ideas I’m stealing that look great in this otherwise lulling time:

Leek seed heads.  I let the leeks perennialize and plant themselves each year….so right now the flower heads are tall and a lovely pink, covered with bees.

Monarda.  Drifts of monarda are abloom…and full of bees and butterflies.

Echinacea.  Although some think of echinacea as a full sun xeric plant, it is at its prettiest with some shade and with irrigation. Some of the nicest echinaceas grow at the edge of apple trees where the extra coolness makes them vibrant.

Daylilies.  Get the camera out so you can document the daylilies you really like (in your yard or your neighbor’s) so you can make divisions next Spring.

It’s great anticipating the bounty that’s about to burst in mid-July.  Hard to believe during this lull that we’ll soon be leaving tomatoes on the vine because there are too many to eat.

 

If Plants Could Walk

by Sandy Swegel

They’d run for their lives!  This week anyway.  Extreme weather conditions prevail here in Colorado and throughout the country.  Here in Boulder, we’re enduring day after day of record-setting temps over 100.  Plants are crisping just from the 4% humidity.  And as we learned in our last severe drought in 2002, no matter how much city water you irrigate with, plants don’t do as well with irrigation as they do with natural water from rain.  If my plants had legs this week, they would mosey on over to the shade next to the irrigation ditch for respite.

While we bake in the heat, my sister took her annual vacation to Florida so she could sit on the beach in the middle of Tropical Storm Debby.  Plants in some areas of the Gulf Coast desperately yearn for legs this week.  If only they could walk they would get out of the downpour of hard pelting rain and lift their feet out of the bog and mire that soil has become with excessive rain.  How’s a plant supposed to live when its roots are stuck in wet muck putrifying in the heat.

The happiest plants in dire weather can be the ones in containers with a doting human around.  My neighbor nudges her containers on wheels into the shade when the western sun is too debilitating.  Even her tomato loves the respite from the blazing sun.  Unlike my spinach, hers isn’t bolting because now that summer is upon us, she moved her containers of greens under the apple trees where cooling misters cool the greens enough they don’t have to bolt yet…and the apples grow big with the bit of extra water from the misters. One pot of summer greens was fortunate and moved inside into the air conditioning in a sunroom so the family could enjoy sweet lettuce greens a little longer.

Alas, for plants without feet, all you can do is offer some respite from the weather.  Shade cloth or row cover judiciously placed now might save some plants facing death from heat exhaustion.  If that’s not possible, a judicious mid-day misting sometimes helps.  The water mist may help the plant survive desiccation and it certainly helps perk up the gardener.

Plants that really need feet this week are the ones burning to death in the Colorado wildfires.  There are eight major wildfires in Colorado and over half of the wild-fire fighting crews in the US are in Colorado now.  We are so grateful to the men and women who come from near and far to battle out-of-control wildfires in 100-degree temps in heavy gear.  Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.

 

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.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in 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 crockpot 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 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

 

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.

 

 

How to Make Garden Friends

by Sandy Swegel

Many of the ideas for this blog come from questions I hear from an email list of gardeners I belong to.  I introduced a new gardener to our group this week and she was so grateful to suddenly have a whole network of people she could turn to when she had a question.  She’ll soon realize what we all know:  that it is so cool to have so many plant-geek friends.

Our group started rather accidentally, but you can start your own low maintenance group of garden friends.  You’ll learn lots about gardening and many of your gardening buddies will turn into real friends because gardeners are really nice people.

Most of our group had gone once or twice to a local gardening club but didn’t really fit in because we were interested in growing food and the garden clubs here were more interested in flowers.  Our group started accidentally by one of us posting a note on the virtual bulletin board of one of those proper flower groups that said, “Tomato Seed Swap, Saturday. Email for details.”  We just wanted to try some new varieties of tomatoes without going broke by each person ordering 10 different packs of seeds. We’d just order seeds together.  Well, ten people showed up for that first meeting.  Then, of course, we had to trade emails so we could find out how everyone else’s seeds were doing.  Then someone brought up the topic of manure and if that made tomatoes grow better.  Soon one person took a truck to a local farm and we all showed up at his house with an empty bucket for manure.  Come harvest season, another person invited us to her place to see her tomatoes.  The key to us becoming a cohesive group was that Niki saw how much fun we were having and declared “We needed a name.” and She announced we were the “Boulder Culinary Gardeners.”  Soon we were having email discussions about zucchini and herbs and organic pest control.  Although we had all been gardening on our own and felt we didn’t know much,  collectively, we knew a lot about gardening.  Post a question on the list and one of our small group had an idea of the answer.  Since then 10 people has become 150 and we all know so much more now.  We haven’t saved much money on seeds though.  Turns out gardeners can never have enough seeds.  So we still share tomato seeds, but we take the money we saved on those to buy heirloom squash and watermelons and plants we had never heard of before like broccoli raab.

You can make new garden friends pretty easily using this method.  Or help others build a community of friends who grow food.  A friend belongs to an HOA where people didn’t know each other well but all of them belonged to an email list for HOA business.  My friend offered HOA members a  free Seed Starting class and Seed Swap. (Seed avarice seems to be the real secret to bringing gardeners together.) Five people showed up and now are making friendships across the high fences of the HOA.

Make some new friends today.  Everybody wants to grow food these days but don’t know for sure how to do it.  Just about everybody wishes they had more friends with similar interests and don’t really know how to do that.  Seeds can bring people together.