One of the Joys of Maturity
One of the joys of getting a bit older is having the time to putter around in the garden. Below is my garden blog. This site also contains sections of recipes and features about specific, and often obscure, gardening lore.
We had another wonderfully warm day today. I took advantage of the good weather and cleaned up the flowerbeds on either side of our front steps. The beds had lots of oak leaves in them with a good many weeds peeking out between the leaves. I had to be a bit careful clearing the leaves and weeds, as we have tulips up in both beds. I also trimmed our surviving, biennial dianthus plants in the beds.
Because of the dianthus biennial and sometimes longer growth habit, I start a few replacement plants each year. Dianthus have turned out to be an ideal plant for these north facing flowerbeds.
The harvested leaves and weeds went to a spot near our East Garden, starting a new compost pile. That stuff was augmented with some kitchen scraps and a bunch of sprouted onions from our downstairs compost bucket. We're now down to about a dozen good onions left in storage from last year's crop.
While out in the field near our East Garden plot, I raked up the remains of our old burn pile and moved them a good bit away from the bordering woods. When I burnt off the pile earlier this week, I realized that we were burning awfully close to a lot of dry material in the nearby woods.
Besides the tulips and dianthus in our front flowerbeds showing signs of life, our few daffodils are now showing blooms. Our one rose bush has also begun putting out new growth after a pruning just last month.
The rose bush is from one of those miniature potted roses discount stores sell around Mother's Day. I bought one on sale after it was out of bloom and nurtured it on our kitchen windowsill for a year before uppotting it and eventually moving it into a flowerbed. It's produced lots of beautiful small blooms for us the last few years.
I long ago gave up buying expensive rose bushes at garden centers, knowing that I'd probably just kill them. I attribute our success with this particular rose bush to its hardiness, growing close to our house (which keeps the ground a bit warmer than outlying areas), and giving it lots of acidic peat moss at its base along with just a little commercial, balanced fertilizer.
One last job today was applying some systemic insecticide around our blue spruce trees. Since the systemic Cygon was taken off the market, we've relied on Thuricide (BT) to prevent damage from bag worms with mixed results. I decided to try using a systemic this year along with the the BT to prevent damage to our blue spruce. We lost one of them last year, probably to damage from bag worms.
Our egg carton petunias in our west kitchen window haven't done as well as I would have liked. I gave them a bit of fertilizer a week or so ago, and I think I overdid it. So on another beautiful day today, I worked from our back porch, moving the petunias to fourpack inserts. The plants went under our plant lights, where they'll remain until transplanted into ten inch hanging basket pots.
This was an easy transplanting. Since the plants were a month old, I could use standard potting mix, rather than sterile mix. I learned a few years ago that the best tool for moving the plants with their small ball of soil was a teaspoon! You just carefully spoon up the root ball and plop it in a hole in the soil.
With our kitchen windowsill free and space available on our soil heating mat, I started two more egg cartons of petunias. This bunch is for the garden, while the ones I transplanted today will wind up in hanging baskets, as they are trailing types. I seeded Carpet, Celebrity, and Ultra, going with a third variety simply because I ran out of Carpet petunia seed. The newly seeded egg carton petunias went into a tray covered with a clear humidome and over our soil heating mat. Once the new petunias germinate, they'll go onto the window ledge in the kitchen.
Our mild weather continues, with a high temperature today of 71° F. A cold front this weekend will bring in some more seasonal temperatures, but we're supposed to warm up again by Tuesday.
The two flats of onions I started towards the end of January were ready yesterday for their first "haircut." I'd actually let them get a little too tall, as some of the thin onion plants were falling over. I trimmed the rows of onions much like a barber holds hair between fingers before snipping it with scissors. Using a good set of shears, I trimmed them to about two to three inches tall. They'll quickly regrow, getting a bit stronger from the trimming.
We grow our own onion transplants to control the timing and quality of the plants, and also to take advantage of the many onion varieties usually available only as seed. While one might find healthy Walla Walla sweet onion plants at a local garden center, the chances of finding Red Zeppelin, Clear Dawn, Milestone, Red Creole, Yellow of Parma, Tropeana Tonda, and Southport White Globe are about nil.
We prefer transplanting onions over direct seeding, as weeding is easier with established plants, especially when we get them mulched quickly. And while onion sets are another option, they can be expensive and are limited to the varieties the vendor has to offer. Our how-to feature story, How We Grow Our Onions, tells in detail how we grow, harvest, and store our onions.
Cutting Back Laurel Bushes
I missed trimming two laurel bushes last summer and one of them had totally blocked the view out our west facing kitchen window. I hacked the bushes back with a chainsaw on Friday, as many of the branches were too thick for our hedge trimmer to handle. I did do a little final cleanup with a pair of lopping shears.
Years ago, I recorded baby praying mantises hatching out of an egg case on one of the bushes with our Brinno GardenWatchCam. I only found one egg case while trimming the bushes on Friday, but saved it in a baggie in the fridge until I can re-hang it on one of the bushes.
Besides praying mantises, birds and bees love laurel bushes. Birds nest in them, and bees are drawn to a sweet secretion on new leaves.
In between trimming sessions and hauling two pickup loads of trimmings to the burn pile Friday afternoon, I made a batch of Grandma's Yeast Rolls. A eager granddaughter has attacked them with abandon, almost finishing off the whole batch single-handedly. (Only half of the batch are shown in the photo above left!)
Just beginning to show in the window photo is the beginning of an incredible evening sky. I got outside on Friday with a backup camera to record the beautiful sky.
I'm still ordering a bit of seed here and there. I placed an order with High Mowing Organic Seeds late Saturday night, February 11, mainly for their new storage carrot, Dolciva. I also picked up a few other seed packets I could use to avoid any shipping charge. I was a bit surprised when the filled order arrived in the mail on Wednesday, February 15. That's a pretty quick turnaround for an order at this time of year.
If you haven't yet ordered garden seed and are looking for good sources, we maintain a commented list of Recommended Seed Suppliers who we've come to trust over the years for good seed, fair prices, and good customer service.
Our extended weather forecast from the Weather Underground now runs through the end of February. From it, I see no change in our current warm weather pattern for the next ten days. Sadly, little precipitation shows in that forecast. We're stuck at just 0.16 inches of rain so far this month.
Turning Compost Pile
Today's big gardening job was turning our compost pile. I'd added some stemmy material to the pile last fall, and it had just sat and dried out since then. So it went to the bottom of the new pile, with some semi-finished compost blended in. I added balanced fertilizer and lime periodically as I shoveled some mostly half digested stuff onto the new pile.
When I'd turned most of the dry material and was thoroughly worn out and ready to quit, my eleven year old granddaughter, Katherine, showed up and asked if I wanted some help. Time with grandkids is precious, so I persevered and we finished the job together. She had a lot of fun trying to identify stuff in the pile (peppers, butternuts, onions, etc.), and the pile got totally turned.
When done, I raked the old pile site, as we'll probably plant butternuts or pumpkins on it.
With this turn, we won't be adding any more vegetable scraps or organic material to the compost pile. The next time our kitchen compost bucket needs to be emptied, we'll start a new pile on another site.
I'm a little bumfuzzled by our weather this winter. We've had some snow and really cold periods, but overall, it's been a mild winter so far. Of course, there's always March with its surprises. Having garlic, daffodils, and tulips up already had me checking our asparagus patches this week. Fortunately, the asparagus appears to still be dormant under a heavy layer of fresh compost.
Our current ten-day forecast calls for temperatures ranging from 32° to 70° F. While occasional days in the 60s aren't all that unusual here in February, the predicted, extended warm spell is uncharacteristic. I'm not unhappy with the warm days, but do worry a bit about a late, extended cold snap that might damage all the stuff already up. A little rain would be nice, too.
Drought Monitor and Outlook
Without having mentioned it in the paragraphs above, a warm winter and possible early spring bring back some unpleasant memories. The warm winter of 2011-2012 preceded the summer drought of 2012. So I took a look at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center site. Looking at the projections, it appears that we may be in good shape this summer. Other severely impacted areas such as the southwest and southeast also appear to be in store for drought relief. The outlook for parts of Florida, though, don't look good.
Over the last few days, I've gotten several things started. I used deep sixpack inserts to start six cells each of Goliath and Premium Crop broccoli. Since I decided to use up some old seed, several of the cells of the inserts got extra seeds. If the seed is still good, that should give us all the broccoli transplants we'll need this spring. And if the planting fails, there's still time to try again with fresh seed. (I noticed a couple of early sprouts in the broccoli this morning!)
Not being sure if our tender, perennial herbs will survive the winter in our herb bed, I started more of them, just in case. I seeded three inch pots with oregano, rosemary, and thyme, and a larger pot with sage. Having our herb seed out, I also started some parsley and dill, both annuals. Other than the parsley, all of the herbs started need light for optimal germination. The parsley seed got covered with vermiculite, while the rest of the seed just went on top of the sterile potting mix. All of the new starts went into a tray covered with a clear humidome under our plant lights. I also turned our soil heating mat back on, setting it at 75° F.
The common sage I started is insurance against losing one of the sage plants we use as border markers for our East Garden plot.
The pot of dianthus I seeded on Saturday was up this morning. That pot didn't get any bottom heat, but was covered with Glad Wrap to let in light and hold in moisture. It appears that both our saved seed and some old commercial seed germinated well.
As we move through the winter months, I'm finding that I'm getting really excited about our garden for 2017. Cutting back on some things we'd been growing way too much of has opened up space for other things we like to grow but haven't due to space considerations. We'll get back to trying to grow good sweet potatoes this season for the first time in several years. We'll also be planting spring sugar snap peas. We've been buying steamer packages of the delicious vegetable at a local grocery for the exorbitant price of $2.19 per 9 oz. box!
Having reduced our planned melon planting to just one row opened up space to grow lots of tomato and pepper plants in our East Garden this season. While we remain committed to growing and preserving the open pollinated Earlirouge, Moira, and Quinte tomato varieties and the Earliest Red Sweet pepper variety, there are lots of good hybrids we'd also like to grow (Bella Rosa, Mountain Fresh Plus, Mountain Merit, and the new Oh, Happy Day variety). I'm hoping to put up lots of whole tomatoes and tomato purée this season.
While we remain partial to sh2 hybrids from Twilley Seed, we're going to try the new Jaws sh2 variety from Burpee Seed alongside our other sh2s. We've grown Twilley's sweet corn seed since the 1980s when we roadsided 2-4 acres of sweet corn each year during our farming years. Call me a sucker, but a free sample of the seed from Burpee plus their catalog photo have seduced me into trying the new variety. Of course, we've lost all of our sweet corn the last two years to deer and raccoon depredation.
I'm once again considering using a hot wire around our East Garden plot to deter deer and raccoons. Like most folks who've used electric fencing in the past, I'm loath to do so again. The high cost of just the solar charger is staggering, and then you need wire, a good grounding rod, posts, insulators, and gate handles to do the installation right. We mostly fenced our hogs and cattle with electric fencing during our farming years. It's effective, but a real hassle on upkeep (mowing weeds under the wire, repairing breaks, etc.).
A funny aside: When we got ready to move sows from one pasture to another, they were more than reluctant to cross areas where a hot wire had been. On the other extreme, new bucket calves would lean against the electric fence wire, twitching as each pulse of electricity hit them through their yet undeveloped nervous systems. There were many times when we had to throw an 80 pound bucket calf back over the electric fence after they've jumped it.
It was so nice outside today that I did some potting on the back porch in the diminishing light of late afternoon. I filled four, ten inch hanging basket pots with the wandering jew cuttings I'd taken last month. Some of the cuttings had been rooted in potting mix and others just had water roots on them from sitting in a glass of water.
With the warm weather we're having, I put the newly potted plants on a south facing shelf in our sunroom. This is about as early as I've ever used our unheated sunroom for plants, but with the current warm spell, they should do okay. If we have a cold night, I can always open the door from my office to let some heat leak into the sunroom.
I noticed yesterday that we have tulips up in our front flowerbeds. I'm not really sure how happy I am about their emergence. It's pretty early for tulips to emerge. I attribute it to a relatively warm winter plus the somewhat protected location of the flowerbeds. Since they're up, I'm going to be happy to see something green outside and hope they don't get zapped by a hard freeze. From the dense clustering of some of the plants, it appears that I'll need to dig and separate some of the tulip bulbs this summer, replanting them in the late fall.
I took advantage of another warm, but windy day today to prune our ten sage plants. Only two of the plants are in our raised herb bed, with the others serving as corner and halfway markers of our large East Garden plot.
We grow sage for a variety of purposes. Marking the borders of the East Garden with a true perennial is one. Obviously, we cut and dry sage every so often for cooking. But even if I didn't grow it for those two reasons, I'd probably still have it in our garden plots because it's so pretty when it blooms.
Today's pruning was necessary because we didn't take many sage cuttings last summer. We picked a little for cooking, but didn't dry any, as our sage jar in our spice cabinet is still over half full.
Yesterday, it was warm enough to turn on the hose outside and wash the cobwebs out of our kitchen window. A bit of elbow grease and Glass Plus made our view out the window much more attractive. Gotta love these warm winter days!
I also started a small, communal pot of Carpet dianthus (sweet william) yesterday. I used seed saved in 2016 plus our oldest commercial dianthus seed (2014). We've had very good luck saving dianthus seed. The seed went on top of sterile potting mix in a shallow pot that is covered with a piece of glad wrap. Dianthus needs a bit of light to germinate, but doesn't really require any bottom heat.
The commercial seed produces lots of bicolor blooms. Our saved seed give us lots of solid red blooms.
We'll use the resulting dianthus plants to fill in gaps in our front flowerbeds. Since dianthus is a biennial (that sometimes last through a third year), we lose a plant or two each winter. Extra plants will go wherever we have space, as they bloom in their first season.
The cauliflower, trailing impatiens, and daisies I seeded recently are doing well. Sadly, my packet of the old Envoy trailing impatiens variety didn't germinate. The new-to-us Cascade varieties germinated. One packet came up well while the other packet had pretty poor germination. But together, they'll make all the hanging baskets of trailing impatiens we want.
The cauliflower germinated exceptionally well. I had to move one extra plant to fill an open cell, but also had to trim many extras that I'd seeded to get things down to one plant per cell.
Our print copy of the Seed Savers Exchange Annual Yearbook arrived in the mail yesterday. While almost all the information included in the Yearbook is available online, I still appreciate having the annual volume to peruse and save for future reference.
For folks hunting an obscure or heirloom variety of vegetable seed, the Yearbook, online or in print, is the place to look. There aren't photos of offered varieties in the Yearbook, but there are a lot of them. This year, it contains 15,272 unique varieties of vegetable seed, potatoes, herbs, grapes, grains, and flowers!
The catch to the Exchange is that one has to be a member of the Seed Savers Exchange to order from the yearbook. Beyond that, some seed varieties that members have in limited supply are available only to "listed members," folks who have listed varieties to share via the Yearbook.
SSE membership runs $50/year with a "paperless" membership coming in at $25. At one time, Seed Savers offered senior and hardship memberships, the latter for whatever one could afford. Those options have disappeared.
I linked to and told about our listed varieties on the Exchange back in September, so I won't repeat it here again. Sadly, I'm still the sole source for two of the five varieties we're offering. For me, it's not a competition or sales thing, it's all about preserving endangered vegetable varieties.
It's warm again today (56° F), but with howling winds. It appears from our long range forecast that we'll have a bit above normal temperatures for at least the next week or so. Yippee!
Under our plant lights, our soil heating mats are getting a rest. Our cauliflower, daisies, and impatiens are all up and no longer require bottom heat. While I may start some dianthus over the weekend, we're pretty much on hold on starting vegetable transplants until we seed our broccoli later this month.
I made some ham salad today from leftover ham scraps. When I went to the basement to get a jar of pickles for pickle relish, I realized that we only had one more jar of pickles remaining on the shelf. Since pickles keep forever, we only make them every other or every third year. It appears that our cucumber crop this year will be more for pickle making than for seed saving.
We've had lots of freebie wall calendars the last few years. Vendors, charities we support, and family have kept us in gorgeous calendars...until this year. Other than one single sheet calendar, we didn't get any freebies this year. So in January, I put together some of our better photos and ordered a calendar from an online source. It turned out pretty well.
Here are the shots I used:
Our high temperature today was 63° F! Snow flurries are possible tomorrow, as temperatures are supposed to steadily drop for about the next day and a half. By the weekend, temperatures are predicted to be near 60° again.
Not wanting to waste such a wonderful day, despite occasional showers, I raked the mulch off our garlic. The mulch had begun to mat a bit which can smother garlic shoots not strong enough to push through it.
I also finished weeding around some daffodils that have emerged in a flowerbed on the east side of our house. After working in a bit of balanced fertilizer around the daffodils, I applied the mulch raked from the garlic bed around the daffodils.
Growing Your Own Transplants
I updated our How-to feature, Growing Your Own Transplants, this week. The revision includes some improved images and updated links.
I seeded cauliflower today! It might seem a bit early to be starting a brassica, but we already are within eight to nine weeks of our target transplanting date. Transplanting our brassicas around the first week in April helps avoid the disappointment of the brassicas turning bitter in later hot summer weather. In another week or so, I'll seed our spring broccoli, as the cauliflower always seems to take longer to mature than our broccoli, and I like to harvest and put up both at the same time.
I'm again staying with three tried and true varieties of cauliflower: Amazing; Fremont; and Violet of Sicily. Amazing and Violet of Sicily are both open pollinated varieties, sure to be around for many more years. Fremont is a hybrid. All three varieties' leaves self-wrap around the heads to prevent yellowing of the heads.
Since we'll only need eight or nine cauliflower transplants, I seeded two deep sixpack inserts - a total of twelve cells. After filling the inserts with sterile potting mix, I watered them with very hot water and let the soil cool for a bit. Then I made a small depression with my fingertip in each cell, dropped in a seed, and lightly covered the seed with soil. I added a couple of extra seeds at the corners of two cells in case all the seed doesn't germinate.
While brassicas will germinate in fairly cool soil, I put them in a tray over our soil heating mat which is running at an optimal 75° F for brassica germination. The cauliflower is actually sharing space in the tray with some trailing impatiens and daisies that are just now coming up.
I'll need to keep a close eye on the cauliflower, as once they emerge, the plants can get tall and spindly if not moved under good light. The light through the clear humidome isn't enough to prevent this from happening. But if they get away from me and get leggy, brassicas are pretty forgiving about being lifted and set deeper in their pots to correct for spindly stems.
The area where we'll grow our spring brassicas was prepared last fall and covered with a heavy layer of grass clipping mulch. That eliminates having to wait in the spring for the soil to dry enough to permit tilling. When we get close to our transplanting time, I'll rake the mulch off that area of our main raised bed to let the soil warm up a bit in the sun. I'll save the mulch, as we mulch around almost all of the crops we grow to hold back weeds and retain moisture in the soil.
Our How-to feature story, Growing Great Broccoli and Cauliflower, tells how we grow our brassicas from seeding to harvest, both spring and fall.
The row of Yellow of Parma onions that hadn't yet emerged well as of yesterday popped up overnight after being moved over a soil heating mat. I don't know whether they just take longer to germinate or if the bottom heat helped. Either way, I'm a happy with the result.
The two trays of onions I seeded last Friday are petty much up and on their way. I took the tray with our main onion varieties (Clear Dawn, Milestone, Red Zeppelin, and Walla Walla) off the soil heating mat today and removed the clear humidome covering the tray. Too much time on the mat with the dome can induce mold to start forming on the soil surface.
Our second tray of onions seeded with older seed came up fairly well. While the row of Yellow of Parma looks to be a bit of a washout, the Red Creole, Tropeana Tonda, and Southport White Globe onions all germinated well. I moved this tray onto the heat mat, as these onions germinated without any bottom heat. I'm hoping a bit of it may encourage the Yellow of Parma seed to fill in its row a bit.
We also have some nice vinca and hostas growing in individual insert cells. There's also a gloxinia in the tray I hope will bloom again. Another tray is filled with geraniums starts in 3" pots and wandering jew cuttings that have rooted and are putting on new leaves.
The petunias I seeded in egg cartons early last month are about ready to be thinned to one plant per egg cell. Because of the small volume of soil in each cell, I now have to bottom water these plants every day.
The weather has been cold here for several days, limiting any outside work. I'm looking ahead to a few warm days early next week to do a little weeding in one of our flowerbeds and pruning a rose bush.
February is the last of our slow winter months of gardening. That may be good, as it leaves us lots of time to prepare Super Bowl treats like our recipe for Texas Nachos.
We've already started onions and some flowers for this year's garden, but we'll mostly be patient throughout the month. Some herbs and brassicas will be about the only things we seed this early.
The herbs are necessary, as the perennial oregano, thyme, and rosemary we already have in our herb bed are all tender perennials. It would be nice if they overwinter, but I'll also have new transplants ready in case they don't survive the winter. I'll also start a few sage plants in case we lose one of our corner marker sage plants around our East Garden. Sage is usually hardy enough to survive our winters, though.
Since broccoli and cauliflower are the first transplants to go into our garden in April, we will start them this month. We like to have our brassica transplants six to eight weeks old when we put them in the ground.
Outdoors, there may be a little pruning and weeding to be done on nice days. Weeds had taken over a section of flowerbed where some daffodils are already emerging. While such plants may come up early in warm winters, I attribute these plants benefitting from growing beside the house where the soil remains a bit warmer than elsewhere.
I'll also continue to check the mulch over our garlic planting to make sure the mulch hasn't matted. Matted mulch can kill garlic shoots that can't push through it. At some point this month (or next), I'll need to gently remove the mulch from that area of our main raised garden bed.
Good Gardening Books
There are lots of good gardening books on the market. My personal favorite remains Crockett's Victory Garden. First published in 1977 as a companion to the PBS/WGBH Victory Garden television series, Crockett's Victory Garden's month-by-month log of James Underwood Crockett's activities in his garden plots greatly helps me with gardening techniques and timing for starting plants. Long out of print, Crockett's Victory Garden, Crockett's Indoor Garden, and Crockett's Flower Garden are still available used at very reasonable prices through Amazon and Alibris. Think five bucks shipped as a maximum fair price for a used paperback copy in good condition. I keep my original paperback version of Crockett's Victory Garden in my upstairs office and a hardback copy I picked up used on a downstairs bookshelf.
at Senior Gardening