When Hard Frost Finally Comes

by Sandy Swegel

We’re supposed to get freezing temperatures soon, and it’s getting beyond the point where a bed sheet thrown over the tomatoes is going to help.  This is when it’s time to harvest those green tomatoes and put them in the house or cool garage.  I personally don’t start immediately making green tomato recipes because I’ve found most of the tomatoes will ripen and turn red if they’re big enough and don’t have wounds where mold will form before ripening happens.

I also harvested cucumbers and some late-season beans and three red peppers hiding under some tomato foliage.  A blanket is going over the big pumpkin that the neighbor’s kid (he’s 30 years old) wants to keep growing until it’s heavier than he is. Last year he made it with a 147 pounds of pumpkin!  All the greens and root crops and cabbages will be fine.

As I walked around the garden yesterday afternoon, I noticed the biggest threat to the remaining plants was drought.  The weather has been cool so I didn’t think about water, but the low humidity all week is sucking all the moisture out of the air and out of the plants.  So I do need to run the overhead sprinkler for an hour or two to return moisture to the leaves.  That extra water on leaf surfaces will freeze at night and help protect the plants.

Water is important now if you garden in an arid place because we tend to let the garden’s needs slip from our minds while we’re enjoying the fall colors.  When we see foliage browning we first assume it’s just the season, but as my poor limp Comfrey showed me, everything needed a good soak.  Rain a week ago has long evaporated from the surface of the topsoil.   A local plant expert told me once that he found the key to helping plants overwinter was making sure they went into winter well watered. Water in the soil will freeze and help protect roots.

One more thing I’ll do before it freezes tonight:  get out there with my camera and take pictures of the garden in its final days of glory. Something to warm my heart on dreary gray winter days.

Coming Soon: Grand Finale of Color

Coming Soon: Grand Finale of Color

by Sandy Swegel

Quit tidying up. There’s something you seldom hear. Sanitation in the garden is important year-round, but September is special in that we are slowly building up to the grand finale of Fall Color that changing leaf color brings. You can help make that more spectacular in your garden.

Leave colorful fruit where it falls. Keep the leaf blower locked up. This is the time to let the red hawthorn berries litter under the tree.  Likewise, crabapples and plums can be beautiful fallen amid leaves. In the vegetable garden, pick the huge squashes that are past their prime, but leave a few gnarly yellow gourds or huge white patty pan squashes next to the plant to show off in the crisp fall light.

Plant fall plants. Fall blooming crocus are sending up vivid purple heads now. I’ve spread them around so they come up like wildflowers here and there. I do the same with fall mums at the garden centers. I pick the smallest pots I can find and plant them here and there throughout the garden…like little mushrooms of bright color popping up.

Water if it’s dry. Lots of places had a drought this summer so you need to water to be sure that trees and perennials go into winter well watered. You also want to water so that the last leaves on plants stay in place and turn color instead of just drying up brown and falling off. A fall garden that is too dry just desiccates into brown ugliness.

No more deadheading. Let the rose hips turn brilliant orange on spent flowers.  Leave the finished sunflowers in place for little finches to land on.  Keep picking up diseased leaves and apples so rotten they call every raccoon in the neighborhood to gorge. But otherwise, get out the rocking chair and wait for the show.

Photo Credits: http://shysongbirdstwitterings.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html

 

Best Wildflower Seeds

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds

Organic Vegetable Seeds

Make Your Own Mud Puddle

by Sandy Swegel

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better. So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.

 

 

Pollinator mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower seed mixes

A Year of Surprises

by Sandy Swegel

People often ask how long do seeds last, but they usually are referring to seeds in packets.  The question I’m astonished by this year is “How long do seeds last in the soil?” Colorado is a pretty dry place and there aren’t that many plants that reseed prolifically the way that happens in warmer, more humid places.  But this year is a year full of surprises.  Most years we are lucky if we get 20 inches of rain all year. But last September we had 17 inches of rain in one month and the highest annual precipitation ever recorded here.  All that moisture refilled our underground water reservoirs, remoistened soils desiccated by recent years of drought, and awakened seeds and roots that had long been dormant.

Since September, gardens have been a constant surprise for me. It started in October when Naked Lady bulbs I planted 6 years ago appeared. The bulbs had bloomed the first year I planted them and then never again.  I assumed they died….but somehow those small bulbs were deep in the ground just biding their time for the right conditions.

Yesterday I watched new blooms on pink columbines that were first planted 14 years ago. Those hybrid columbines gradually all reseeded to yellow but yesterday, about 20 feet from the original bed of pink columbines, a seed that had waited patiently in dormancy suddenly lept to life.  Pink! That seed had been brought by the wind or birds to a spot where it was just waiting for its moment.  Near the asparagus bed, tulip bulbs that had been planted too deep many years ago found their way to the surface and are now late bloomers blooming with the iris. A strawberry patch that had dwindled to just a few puny plants exploded three feet in every direction. Even weeds seem like old friends.  I thought I had successfully weeded horsetail out of the rock garden years ago but ten shoots are poking up through the snow in summer.  There is something so abundant about this year that I’m even happy to see the weeds.

I can’t wait to go hiking in the foothills this weekend.  Reports from around the state suggest that we are having a stellar wildflower year. All of Colorado is going to look just the pictures on our wildflower seed packets!!!

Photo Credits
Todd Caudle http://outtherecolorado.com/gallery/1735/pictures/281747

 

Spring Tune-up for your Drip Irrigation

by Sandy Swegel

For gardeners in dry climates, irrigation is a necessary evil.  Irrigation makes growing possible, but it can be a

royal pain trying to keep it intact and actually watering the plants it is intended to water.  You will have fewer problems with your irrigation (and thus fewer dying plants) if you take the time in Spring to tune-up your drip system.

To tune-up your drip system, wait for a fine day in Spring after there has been a dry period, and manually turn your drip system on and run it for about 15 minutes.

Here’s your check list:

 Obvious leaks and holes.  This is easy….a big spray of water up in the air is the surest sign an emitter has popped out of its hole or a line has been accidentally cut.  I use the little flags on sticks to mark places that will need repair.

 Dislocated or broken lines. The reason you run the drip system for 15 minutes before you start to check individual plants is so you will easily be able to see the spreading moisture in the soil under each dripper.  If you can physically see a little drip line but no water, then the line is clogged or has been dislocated from the main supply line.  How does this happen?  Squirrels and dogs disconnect lines when they run through the garden.  Little creatures like mice have figured out that water runs through these lines and a little nibbling on the tubing provides a water supply from the water left in the line.  Most of the time you just reconnect the tubing and are done.

 Clogged emitters.  Sometimes emitters just break but most of the time an emitter that’s not emitting is just clogged.  Tiny insects have figured out this water source too….and sometimes lay eggs right in the emitter tip, which from their perspective is probably a nice moist cave. Usually just taking the emitter and blowing into it is enough to clear the line.  I’ve also seen plant roots grow up a tube looking for water.

 Sliced lines.  This is from human error.  A garden full of tiny drip lines and sprinkler supply lines shallowly buried means the gardener accidentally slices through the irrigation system, sometimes not realizing it.  A big puddle of water instead of the small moist area around an emitter is your clue.  Just fix it and resolve not to dig in the garden without checking for the location of the irrigation line.

Spring tuning your irrigation can be tedious, but well worth it in terms of keeping your plants alive.  While you’re at the task, this is a good time to check the times on your controller.  Sometimes in August and September when it’s hot and dry, we crank up the length of time the irrigation runs….Plants don’t usually need so much water in Spring, so you can save water and money by having different run times in Spring and Summer.

Drip irrigation is still my favorite way to water frugally.  You get water to the roots without having the waste of high pressure sprayers over spraying and watering the street.  Sprayers also encourage fungus from the moisture sitting on the leaves.  Installing a drip system requires us to get in touch with our Inner Engineer, but it’s a very successfully way to water if you just do a Spring Tune-up.

 

Photo: http://www.dripirrigation.com/drip_irrigation_tutorial

http:///http://home.howstuffworks.com/irrigation3.htm

 

 

 

Dowsing The Garden

by Sandy Swegel

OK so this might seem a little weird.  And it’s not something I talk about with my clients. But some years ago, I realized I had studied everything there was to learn about plants.  I took the Master Gardener class, read all the best books, worked with the experts.  But despite this great expertise, I had to admit, that I would never be the amazing gardener my friend Barbara was.  True, she spent many hours working in her garden, but still she seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of what her plants wanted. She tolerated my asking a million questions about why she did this or that in her garden, as if I could somehow write the plant care protocol that would recreate her artistry.  Alas, I was no plant psychic. I didn’t know how to talk to the plant spirits or fairies.  She didn’t talk about those things, but she’d say things like ‘I just planted it where the plant seemed to want to be.

About this time, I took a class in biodynamics and part of the class talked about dowsing.  This is super simple beginners’ dowsing:  a homemade pendulum – needle and thread, a necklace with a stone, even my car keys. All I learned was how to ask the pendulum what meant “yes” (clockwise for most people) and what meant “no.” (counterclockwise).  I myself use north-south movement for yes and east-west for no.

So off to the races I went…asking lots of yes and no questions.  I’d hold a plant at a place in the garden and ask “Is this a good place for this plant.”  If I had two kinds of fertilizer, I’d hold one of the plants and ask “is this the right fertilizer right now?”  One fertilizer would always give a much more positive response. I’d ask a plant, ‘Do you want to live next to this plant?”   It was amazing….and I wondered if it was real or just in my imagination.

 

So I secretly started testing plants with Barbara.  We were planting together at my house one day and I had dug holes where the new plants went.  When my friend wasn’t looking (because I was embarrassed at being silly), I’d hold my pendulum over the plant and ask it what direction it wanted to face. I’d actually ask? “Is this the right direction?” as I rotated the plant 360 degrees. I made a note of my dowsing results.  Then I asked Barbara to plant all the plants for me.  I was delighted to see that the directions she chose were exactly the same ones my pendulum told me.

I spent this weekend at a dowsing workshop and am learning so much about Earth Acupuncture and the many forces that influence our land.  I’d encourage you to give dowsing a try.  Use it for plant location or type of plant or method of treating pests.  I even get out the pendulum when I can’t decide what seeds to buy.  I hope my pendulum over each seed picture as ask “Is this the right plant for my garden this year.”  I use this especially for things like tomatoes when there are too many choices.

There are lots of beginner books on dowsing or you can just play with your car keys sometimes. I’ve been experimenting with my pendulum long enough now to know it’s helping me make better choices.  Maybe it’s the plant talking or maybe I’m just tapping into my inner knowledge. But it sure is fun.

For more information, http://www.motherearthliving.com/gardening/garden-tools.aspx#axzz2zUObAKCy

Photo credit http://www.amazon.com/Dowsing-your-garden-gardening-houseplants/dp/1490326146; http://planbperformance.net/dan/blog/?p=693

 

Two Tips for Starting Seeds in the Ground in Spring

by Sandy Swegel

 

Two weeks ago during a warm spell I had a little seeding frenzy and made tiny rows of lettuces and Micro Greens in a community garden plot along with the usual St. Patrick’s Day peas.  Every thing is coming up now (OK with their weed friends too).  There are two things I do whenever I put seeds directly into the ground to make sure I’m successful.

Here’s my basic process for seed starting that works for me.

Weed and smooth soil out.
Water soil with a soft sprayer if the soil is dry.
Sprinkle seed over the soil
Pat the seed lightly with my hands so there is contact between the seed and the soil.

TIP #1
ROW COVER
I lay a sheet of row cover loosely over the seedbed.  You want it loosely so the plants can grow and the row covers lifts with them. I use some heavy rocks (of which there are many in our soil) to hold down the row cover so it doesn’t blow away.  The row cover helps the seeds stay moist enough to germinate and raises the soil temperature a few degrees so the seeds germinate faster.

Water with the soft sprayer. Note…I water right on top of the row cover.  It’s permeable so the water makes its way through.

Sometimes there are seeds that are slow to germinate.  That’s when I use

Tip #2
PRE-SOAK AND PRE-GERMINATE the difficult seeds.
Seeds like peas or carrots respond well if you soak them overnight, drain them, let them sprout in a baggie with a damp paper towel for a day, then put them in the ground.  The peas get cute sprouts.

 

I get a high germination rate even from difficult seeds when I use these two tips.  Which means I get more plants per packet of seeds and save a little money.

It’s Spring!  Enjoy playing in the Dirt!

Photo credit: http://frontrangefoodgardener.blogspot.com/
http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/row-covers?page=0,1

A Gift for Wild Animals

by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for outdoor animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html

One Reason to Weed Right Now!

by Sandy Swegel

It’s the week after Thanksgiving and the beginning of a month of serious holiday celebrations. In Colorado, night temperatures are getting colder…my compost pile freezes at night.  I’ve given all the garden and especially the trees a good watering and turned off the irrigation system.  It is time for our well-earned winter rest. Even if you are in a warmer climate, it’s a good time to take a good winter rest.  People are thinking about festivities…not whether your garden is in perfect condition.  All of nature has cycles of dormancy where nature just takes a rest.  It’s the gardener’s turn to do that now.

I did see in the news one reason when it is absolutely essential to do some weeding if you have this problem.  A young toddler in China had to go to the doctor because a dandelion seed had flown into her ear and germinated.  It was starting to grow.  That’s about the only good reason I can figure to weed in December.  Otherwise, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the beauty and the bounty as we like to say at BBB Seed.

There is one other gardening-related task I do in December.  It’s time to try to recover the poor gardener’s overworked body. It is no longer OK to have dirt under my nails and cracked fingers and dirty feet from spending all my time working in the garden.  It takes a bit of effort, but you can heal those cracks in your fingers in time for holiday parties.  So use those gritty soaps and herbal lotions and get cleaned up and re-moisturized.  It’s the season to enjoy and celebrate. You deserve it. It’s been a good year.

Tomatoes: What to do When There are Problems in Paradise

by Sandy Swegel

OK so only gardeners think of their tomato gardens as paradise, but what a grand time of year this is.  In some places, tomato growers are boasting about having ripe tomatoes before the 4th of July. Here in Colorado after a long cool spring, we’re just happy to see them thrive in the heat.  But with tomato plants comes the anxiety over pests and diseases.  Aphids are having a banner year and everyone is fearful of the psyllids that fly up from Mexico or the early blights/late blights, middle of season blights.

A friend with a bunch of kids compares growing tomatoes with having kids.  Parents are so worried about the first-born—you call the doctor at every sniffle. You watch the kid constantly, fearful that impending disaster awaits around every corner.  My baby sister wails that when you’re the last kid you have to practically be on fire to get mom’s attention.

As the first born, I am greatly amused by this.  But this is no way to grow tomatoes. You’ll go crazy if you try to treat or prevent every affliction.  If you can remember last year’s garden, you’ll remember similarly panicking over tomato problems at the beginning of the year.  But by September, you had to see the tomato plant in distress from the neighbor’s house two yards over before you thought, “Gee, maybe I should check that plant, the next time I am pulling buckets of tomatoes off of it.”

Most of the time your tomatoes survive the diseases and pests that come at them.  Your job is not hypervigilance, but simply creating the best environment to make them strong.

• Good Air Flow. Air circulation is one of any plants best defenses against disease and pests. Space your plants so they aren’t all crowding one another so that if one tomato does have a problem, it doesn’t instantly spread to everyone else.  The market farmers here help air flow on larger plants by pulling the leaves off of the bottom six inches of plants so fungal spores don’t splash up on the plant.

• Adequate and Consistent Water.  Tomatoes thrive when they can count on their soil being evenly watered…and not going through dry as dust or swamp cycles.  Put a soaker hose on a timer if you have trouble remembering.

• Food.  As I’m sure you’ve heard before, tomatoes are heavy feeders.  If you planted in a big potting hole full of compost or manure and natural fertilizer, that might be enough. Otherwise, you’re going to have to do some feeding to get the big crop of tomatoes you want.

• Tolerance. Most pests of tomatoes resolve themselves.  Flea beetles leave their shotgun holes all over the leaves, but the plant outgrows them.  Aphids fester, but in a pesticide-free garden, the ladybugs will usually show up a few days later. Or you can use the garden hose to spray them off. For more serious diseases like viruses, there’s not much you can do this season (just like antibiotics don’t treat colds.) You can pull the plant if it’s dying and start deciding where you’re going to rotate the tomatoes to next year.

• A little bitty bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Dr. Bronner’s is pure castile soap and available in little bottles for $2.  Mix a couple of drops with water in a spray bottle and that’s enough to treat most pests and fungal disease. Don’t overdo it.  And don’t go to the store to get all the chemicals to kill those pests that just end up killing your soil and you.
• Look at websites about tomato diseases.  If you have a healthy environment with air and food and water for your plants and you still see disease you worry about, go in and research it.  With any luck, the internet will suck you in and soon it will be dark and it’s too late to do anything today. By tomorrow you’ll forget and by next week your tomatoes will be pumping out tomatoes so you won’t worry anymore.

So just pretend tomatoes are your last kid. You love them just as much and you give them everything to grow healthy and happy and strong, but you don’t hover.  Relax and watch the miracle of tomatoes happen in the paradise of your garden.