Robins in winter

>> Monday, January 28, 2008

I just learned something new today. Robins don’t always fly south for the winter!

There are two Robins in my backyard as I type this. Looking on the internet for information lead me to a site called, simply enough, American Robin.

Almost every Robin migrates south to escape the cold but some actually stay even as far north as Canada. They have been known to survive blinding blizzards, ice storms, and nights as cold as 30 below zero without human help. I am amazed! Whatever happened to looking to the Robin as the first sign of spring?

The website says that their body temperature under the feathers is about 104 degrees thanks to their thick down feathers that help hold body heat in. They produce body heat by shivering. And they get the energy to shiver from their food. This is where I know I can help. And you too.

Sometimes robins gather in huge flocks in winter. Doug Von Gausig found a "robin convention" of about 1000 robins near Sedona, Arizona, and recorded their chatter. Check out his website for a recording of Robin music.

I have never seen more than five or six Robins at one time. And never really together, they run all around the neighborhood looking for worms and fruit. To see a 1,000 of them at one time must really be something.

Yesterday, I saw about seventy or eighty Cedar Waxwings sitting in the fruit trees in my backyard. First time I ever saw this bird anywhere! Very exciting times here at Utah Valley Gardens!

They were all facing southwest because there was a very strong wind blowing from that direction. I figured they must have landed here to rest and to get out of the wind for awhile. They stayed for about 40 minutes.

Both of these birds like berries so I am going to follow the advice of this website and set out some:

# fruits: cut up apples, pears, oranges; blueberries, cranberries, and other berries; raisins and currants
# softened dog food kibble
# meal worms, earthworms, and red worms

Robins never eat bird seed--their stomach and intestines are not designed to digest them.

The first problem with robin feeders is that most robins have never heard of such a thing! It never occurs to them to explore their winter areas for human handouts. One of the easiest ways to help robins discover a winter feeder is to put it near a bird bath. They recognize those readily because they are all over mine in the summer.

The second problem with robin feeders is that the food can freeze. Mike Houle of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, figured out a good way to solve this problem. He filled a heated dog dish with peat moss, sawdust, and other soft matter. Then he put the worms in that. The heat from the dish keeps the bottom of the sawdust and peat moss unfrozen so the worms stay alive until a robin digs in!

I wish I could take credit for these beautiful photographs, but I took these off of the web.

Here is a list of the best varieties of berry shrubs for any berry eating bird.
# bittersweet
# bayberry
# snowberry
# sumac
# mountain ash
# crabapple
# hackberry
# hawthorn
# red cedar
# highbush cranberry
# chokecherry

Look around and see if maybe there any Robins hanging around your yard that you can help out. You might be surprised.


Winter garden watering

>> Saturday, January 26, 2008

We are currently under a high wind advisory. This is not uncommon here in Utah. Pacific storms can throw a lot of nasty stuff at us. Southern California is experiencing very large amounts of moisture being dumped on them and this heavy rainfall creates a weather pattern that generates high winds across the western Utah and Nevada desert which means high winds for us.

Despite the fact that these high winds are the result of heavy rainfall, by the time we get these little blessings from Mother Nature, the wind is dry.

Too much dry wind can adversely affect plants that are not protected by mulch. Wicking action will dry out a plant pretty quickly, which brought up a question that I don’t know the answer to and probably won’t know until this summer. Do I need to water my outdoor plants in winter?

Everything has been mulched well with a blanket of bark chips and leaves to at least three inches thick. Plus, there is ten inches of snow on them, although this is temporary. Shrubs, however, are taller than the mulch cover so their branches are exposed to these dry, winter winds. Is plant moisture being sucked up away from their roots? I guess I would need to dig them up to know for sure. I doubt that I can do this, frozen ground being the serious obstacle it is to digging.

Beds on the south and west sides of the house, shed and fences are most at risk of drying out because of reflected heat. We get foggy mornings and heavy frost and I am sure they add some moisture, but I worry that it isn’t enough.

I really don’t want to start the spring growing season with stressed out plants. I want to do what I can to put these plants in a more favorable position to handle the dryness and heat that is already in store for them from the coming summer.

It seems really odd to me that there is such a thing as ‘winter drought’, but it is real and my research has shown me that winter drought conditions can lead to root injury or death. The worst part is that it could be happening right now without the plants showing any symptoms. According to my local county extension office I wouldn’t know until next season if the plants are dying. They may leaf out and flower just fine in the spring, relying on stored food reserves. Once that energy supply runs out plants weaken and start dying back. Even if a plant isn’t killed outright, it is made more susceptible to insect and disease attack.

With global warming rearing its ugly head, we can’t rely on receiving enough snow cover to protect our plants so it is becoming increasingly more important to mulch well. Shade trees with shallow root systems are especially susceptible to drying out. This includes Norway maple, silver maple, linden, Colorado blue spruce, Norway spruce, and many other evergreens. Shrubs are also vulnerable to winter drought damage, especially those growing up close to the house or in a warmer location. This includes junipers, Oregon grape-holly, and euonymus.

What I read is not encouraging for this year. Watering is supposed to be done when the air temperature is above 40F (some say 32F) with no snow cover and when the ground isn’t frozen. Yeah, right. Let’s see, that would be last month and two months from now. I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed.

Our clay soil holds water, sometimes a little too well, so this might be a blessing. If you have a more ‘perfect’ soil you should already have watered. Horticulturists used to say it was good practice to insure dormancy by drought stressing plants in the fall and thus decreasing the chance of winter injury. Research since then has indicated that the reverse is true. What you know yesterday may not be true today. Great, another stress point for the gardener.

If the soil can stay slightly moist down to about 12 to 18 inches then plants should fair well despite winter’s drying winds.

Be especially mindful of plants under the eaves of the house. I have noticed a strip about 18 inches wide around the house that is dry after a good rain that I thought was watering everything.

One thing to look for as a sign of moisture loss is cracked soil where roots can become exposed. If you see this condition add some soil to fill in the cracks and add about three inches of mulch and then water, if the temperature is right. You don’t want to water late in the day when night time temperatures could freeze the water directly against the plant base causing more damage. Water early in the day so it has a chance to drain away.

Best methods for watering include: twin-eye or frog-eye sprinkler, deep-root fork or needle, soaker hose or soft spray wand. Give plants a good, deep drink of water letting the water run for 20 to 30 minutes in each area, then move to achieve good overlap. For trees, as a general survival rule, apply 10 gallons of water for each diameter inch of the tree. For example, a two-inch diameter tree, needs 20 gallons per watering.

Newly planted shrubs require more water than established shrubs that have been planted for at least one year. Assuming shrubs are mulched, apply 5 gallons two times per month for a newly planted shrub. Small established shrubs (less than 3 feet tall) should receive 5 gallons monthly. Large established shrubs (more than 6 feet) require 18 gallons on a monthly basis. Decrease amounts to account for precipitation. Water within the dripline of the shrub and around the base. Note: In dry winters, all shrubs benefit from winter watering from October through March.

So, the result of my research on the drying effects of winter winds tells me that it is important to mulch well, water deeply before the ground freezes, and I won’t know if my plants are okay until I see them growing or struggling this spring/summer. Life is full of surprises. Hopefully, this winter will be kind.


Building a Raised Bed

>> Sunday, January 20, 2008

Here is a really easy project that adds a bit of formality to your garden and is actually healthier for your plants and easier for you to access them.

Several of my vegetable beds are raised beds. I built these because, one, they clearly define a space I set aside just for vegetables. Two, the soil in these beds never get stepped on, this is very important because compacting the soil is not good for any plant. Last reason is because the soil here in Utah is clay. Darn the luck. And being clay, it is difficult to work in, needs a lot of amending and it is a little more alkaline than I would like to garden in.

With raised beds,

I can add good quality soil and mix it easily with compost and other amendments,
I am not tempted to walk on it because of the sides
and the soil is always fluffy and easy to work with (arable).

Alkalinity, just as a side note, locks up the nutrients and prevents plant roots from having access to them. The cure for this is iron chelate (pronounced key-late). It is a bit expensive but there is a huge market for it here in Utah. Before you go running out and buying this stuff, you need to know that you only have to use a small amount and if you use too much it will burn the plant’s leaves. As always, it is best to get a soil test before using any soil amendment.

Building these is pretty straight forward unless you want to get fancy and start making hexagons and octagons. Typically they are four sided and stand about two board widths tall.

Materials. If you want to use wood, get cedar or redwood and don’t use treated wood. These two woods stand up a long time against the wet soil typically found in gardens without rotting away. Pine is one of the worst materials, it can be used but plan on replacing it next year. Concrete or cinder blocks, bricks, or even bales of hay can be used. The thing about concrete blocks is that the lime content tends to leak into the soil. Lime is one of reasons our soil here is alkaline, so this is not always a good choice of material.

About pressure-treated wood, some people say that the treatment (which makes the wood rot and insect resistant) won’t bother your edible plants, but I figure why take the chance. We already have enough to worry about with our food chain, I am not going to add another possibility of contamination.

This bed, pictured here, is one of four, built of four 2”x6”x8’ cedar, cut in half and stacked two high. They are going through their fourth winter. I don’t plan on replacing these for another two to four years. Although I have heard reports of them lasting even longer. If they do, I will consider myself lucky. They cost me about fifteen dollars each for lumber and screws. Be sure to use galvanized so they don’t get rusty. This bed has eight pepper plants and one small lilac bush.

For the supports, I used two by fours but you could easily use one by twos. I cut the other end into a point so they could be hammered into the ground. Also, I placed about ten sheets of newspaper at the bottom of each to cover the grass growing there. It helps keep most of the grass out but I still occasionally have to pull some grass. I don’t consider it a major problem.

You can build them taller so you don’t have to bend over as far to get into them, but consider the extra amount of soil you have to add and the added pressure from all of that weight on the sides as they get taller. You can build a seat around all four sides or just one side, whatever suits your needs.

You can place PVC pipes on the outside, or inside before filling the beds up with soil, to hold hoops for row covers and for trellises. I’m planning on doing this within the next few months. Cut a length of 1" diameter PVC pipe just shorter than the height of the bed frame and attach it with 'U' screws to the bed sides. You then place the ends of a smaller diameter PVC pipe inside the larger pipe for support.

You can also build a cold frame the same size as the bed and attach this to the bed to help harden off transplants and to extend your growing season.

These boxes are pretty versatile.

To make them easily accessible from all sides they should be built no wider than 3’ to 4’. They can be about as long as you have space for them, but you do want to be able to walk around them so its impractical to make them too long. I had built two, many years ago, that were each eight feet long. Those worked pretty well because I didn’t have to walk real far to get around them.

This bed I built last year is 4’ by 14.5’ but it is up against the deck and I won’t have to access it from the back side. I put larger plants, Bee Balm and Phlox, along the back, to help camouflage the deck from the yard, and then shorter perennials up front.

Each fall, after pulling out all of the plants and tilling the soil with my pitchfork, I pile leaves and grass clippings on top, about 6” to 8” deep and let them breakdown over winter. In spring, I’ll pile about 3” to 5” composted steer manure on top and then till that in with my pitchfork. I have always had healthy fruitful crops this way.

If you want your beds to stand up to winter and remain easily workable then raised beds are the way to go.

Good gardening!


Weeding/Cultivating the garden

>> Friday, January 18, 2008

Weeding can be a zen thing. If you have ever gotten lost in thought while weeding or doing other mechanical or menial tasks you know what I mean. It can take you to a peaceful place where only you and your garden exists, far away from the troubled, hectic, stressful world around you.

Focusing your energy on the task at hand can free our complex brain to consider other more pressing worries on a subconscious level where the brain can devote more creative time to them. Some of my best ideas have come about while doing something totally unrelated to what I was worrying about.

Have you ever tried to find something and just cannot remember where you put it no matter how hard you try? Or, you just can’t seem to remember something important no matter what you do to ‘jog’ your memory? Put it out of your mind, go off onto something else and suddenly the memory comes back to you clear as day. Weeding the garden is like that.

Not many people truly enjoy weeding. Some of us have developed routines whereas, if given enough time, we can relax while weeding to the point where your mind is completely relaxed and the built-up stress and tension that knotted up your muscles drains away. Of course, pulling, bending, digging, kneeling, etc, in the garden may still strain those muscles, it is a good kind of weariness. The kind you feel after doing something you know is completely worthwhile.

Any amount of time I spend in the garden is considered a welcome break from the ‘outside’ world and I enjoy doing almost all of my weeding by hand just to prolong my time there.

With the help of raised beds, the weeding chores are very minimal. The open garden, however, is another matter. Weeds will creep under the fence from the neighbors yard or their seeds will be brought in on the wind or by birds so I will never be completely free on them. And I am glad. I suppose I view the never ending struggle between weeds trying to gain a foothold in my garden and my determination to not let them as a sort of job security. For if garden weeds never came back I would surely miss getting my hands dirty and the closeness that mingling with the plants provides.

When spring arrives, and the earliest of weeds begin popping up I can feel their taunting challenge to resume our battle. Before this past year I had grown only vegetables, which being annuals, allowed me to quickly dispatch any new weeds early in the year with a hoe. And then after that initial battle I would have the occasional skirmish with the more persistent weeds trying to grow among my crop. I chose to pull weeds throughout the rest of the year by hand because I was afraid of using the traditional weeding tools. It just seems that with their long sharp points I could easily rip up plant roots that I don’t want to disturb. Now this may sound like an irrational fear to those of you who have used these tools for years, but I have several weeding tools that have never seen soil.

A common misconception of new gardeners is the difference between a weeding tool and a cultivating tool. Weeding is, of course, the act of removing weeds from your garden. Cultivating is roughing up the soil to break up compaction that can occur from walking on it or from simply watering it. After the soil has sat undisturbed over winter it can become compacted as the snow melt seeps through the surface. Cultivating fluffs up the soil to make it easier to use for you and for the plants.

How can I overcome my fear of using the proper weeding tools? What I have read about ‘getting the right weeding tool’ hasn’t convinced me enough to use them yet.

I have seen some pretty interesting shapes for weeding like the Swoe that, so I have heard, has an almost cult-like following. Although, I have read more than one testimonial that said the tool is worthless because it takes about ‘three times the force’ to get a weed up. Maybe the soil is too hard for the tool. It is held like a golf club, right up my alley, and is used to cut just under the soil. This is the best photo I can find, it comes from White Flower Farm. You need to use this one on new weeds and when the soil is loose. Maybe I can work on my chip shots at the same time. Can’t you just see it, weeds flying about twenty yards right into the wheelbarrow.

The scuffle hoe, also called a stirrup hoe or hula hoe, looks like it would be easy to use. This one is advertised in several places as the best hoe on the market. It cuts weeds on the push and pull strokes. It doesn’t chop up the weeds so much as cutting them just under the soil line. If you shop for one, be conscious of the welds and the quality of the blade. Most blades are replaceable which also makes this one a good choice.

Here’s a tool called the Cape Cod weeder that is very popular. The narrow design makes it ideal for getting into tight spots between plants and odd shaped garden spaces. It is listed as a three-way tool, pointed straight down to dig holes for small plants, turned diagonally for cultivating, and sideways to act as a scythe or cycle in cutting a bunch of weeds in one swoop. This one can be found with a long handle so I might look into adding this one to my collection soon.

Now this last weeder, the Warren hoe, looks promising too. This is like the standard hoe but has only one point instead of the traditional two. Its heart-shaped head offers a little more precision so that you can work around plants a little easier. It isn’t used for moving soil so the common hoe, pictured below, is not going to be replaced.

As for cultivating, the standard hoe is what I have always used in early spring. It is great for hacking up the soil to loosening it up, making trenches for seeds, moving soil around and making hills for my squash plants. It’s a bit too imprecise to use among growing plants because of its size, so it is not good as a weeding tool. This is why I have relied on mulch and hand picking of weeds.

The standard tool that many of us mistake for a weeder is actually a cultivator. No, not that kind of cultivator, I am referring to a hand cultivator. It’s true intention is to loosen the soil’s surface to allow water to penetrate under the top layer and for scattering seed.

This tool is one the few combination weeder/cultivators I might use for my hard soil. It is known as a Korean plow but is sometimes sold as an EZ digger. It looks very comfortable to hold and the backward pointed head seems like it would easily cut into the dry hard soil it is meant for. I can see why this tool would not be a practical candidate for a long handle because you would have to get down on the ground anyway for the curved head to be effective. It is best used on larger weeds and, as I mentioned, hard soil. You could turn it sideways too and hack away at a bunch of weeds at once, but you would still need to come back and dig at the roots, probably with the Swoe.

Lately, there has been a lot emphasis on ergonomics. The traditional straight handles are out and the smoothly curved almost sexy looking handles are designed to create less strain on your wrists and hands. I don’t have any of these yet but I also have not had any problem with the hoe and shovels I use. I imagine by the time I get around to replacing my tools ergonomic handles will be all that is available anyway.

After reviewing these tools, I might pick up a Warren hoe and the Cape Cod weeder but that is no guarantee I will actually use them. Right now, I’m still counting on mulching to help me save my plants. Even though I realize this method probably can’t last very long.


Extending the gardening season

>> Thursday, January 17, 2008

Those of us who garden in the northern U.S. and Canada are forced to take a 3-4 month break from gardening every winter. And few of us actually welcome that break.

Philosophically, we have always accepted this as a time for the garden to rest and recuperate in anticipation of springs arrival. But, some of us don’t want to wait. We do not have to accept this traditional waiting period to get our hands dirty and salads fresh.

There are techniques and devices to allow us to garden year round, despite the weather. Ah, where would we all be without techniques and devices?

And now, with the threat of shorter winters, due to climate change, the ability to garden all the time is even easier.

You are only limited by your own imagination in cheaply creating a sustainable environment out of found or recycled materials to grow all the ingredients for your next salad.

Solar energy is almost always available. How we use it when it is available is the key. If we can protect our plants from winters wind, freezing rain and snow and store this solar warmth, we can pull this off.

For those times when the sun cannot help us, then we must use our imagination to generate heat until the sun does come out.

Extravagant methods involve using heating cable wound throughout a growing bed, installing light sources, and even installing heaters under a protective roof. These require electricity and of course electrical wiring running through the yard that, quite frankly just doesn’t sound very safe.

For simpler, less dangerous methods, read on.

Over the years gardeners have discovered cloches, forcing jars, solar-charged hot water bottles, row covers, cold frames and all sorts of other devices to stretch the growing season by as much as four to six weeks in Spring, as well as in Fall. With a greenhouse, gardening can become an all-year endeavor.

Any of these devices can be made of glass or plastic and they can be purchased or made out of materials you probably use on a daily basis.

Cloches, in their simplest forms, are glass jars. Traditionally bell shaped, they have also been made to look like lanterns and pyramids complete with a metal framework to add a touch of decoration to the garden. You can create the same effect by attaching panes of glass on a wood, wire, pvc or bamboo frame. They were first designed by the French to keep out the bitter cold and frost and to warm up the soil surrounding the plant in spring to hasten their crops to early maturity. They also protect plants from insects, birds and strong winds.

Any clear glass or plastic jar you have in your home can serve the same purpose. You can also use plastic milk cartons, soft drink or juice bottles or any semi-rigid container that will allow sunlight penetration. The larger the better to allow for breathing room. You just need to devise a way to prevent them from being knocked over by the wind. I personally have used landscape fabric anchors of heavy gauge wire poked through the sides of milk bottles and shoved into the ground to anchor the containers. It works pretty well if you anchor them deeply enough.

Cloches come in all sizes and can even be used as terrariums as the ones pictured here.

There are umbrella cloches, which are basically very large cloches, but some are made without sides, or with sides that don’t reach the ground. These can be used in warmer weather to shade individual plants or a small number of plants from an overbearing sun.

In spring, cloches are great for heat-loving plants that are spaced a little further apart, such as tomatoes, peppers and sqaush. You can have tomatoes up to four weeks earlier with these handy devices and this in itself is well worth the effort.

Here’s an example of a home-made cloche using a wire hanging basket and poly film. The film is strong enough to last a few years and is easily replaced if it breaks. Cover the hanging basket with a piece of the film, folding the film over the edge of the rim and then attach it to the frame with cellophane tape. Use a hairdryer to shrink the film until all the wrinkles disappear and it goes tight. Snip off any surplus film with a pair of scissors.

One drawback to most cloches is they have to be constantly monitored and occasionally lifted or propped up to allow the built up moisture and heat to escape. Some cloches you have a lid on top that you can lift off for this purpose.

Another drawback to cloches is they only cover a few small seedlings or individual plants. This led gardeners to create the row cover. Look at it as a continuous cloche. It’s a tunnel-like structure, made of plastic or glass or mesh and supported by wire, wooden or plastic hoops. It can be opened at each end or closed but should be easily opened to allow air circulation and to allow heat to escape. It can also be used throughout warmer weather to act as shade and a barrier against insects and birds.

Forcing jars are used to force bulbs. They are made of clay and do not allow light to enter. Typically they are very use specific for rhubarb and chicory. (picture of forcing jars from blog pictures)

Row covers are constructed of hoops and sheeting available from a variety of sources and are made of materials that can transmit up to 85 percent of available light. Depending on its weight it can keep heat in, bugs out, allow water in and creates a great windbreak. It can be cut to any size frame you have and at the end of the season can be folded for storage. In summer, for shade purposes, there is fabric that can allow up to 70 percent light in for those plants that need more light.

Hot caps are basically simple cloches used in cooler zones to protect seedlings from cold weather and birds. They are made of plastic or a heavy translucent waxed paper. They only provide 2-3 degrees of frost protection so plants can go into the garden 1-2 weeks earlier than without protection.

Wall-o-water are great for protecting from freezing weather and can allow less cold-hardy plants such as tomatoes, peppers, squash up to 6 weeks early start without fear of freezing. These are very easy to make yourself by grouping 2 liter soda bottles around one bottle (or anything else to act as a form) in the center, tape the outside bottles together and pull out the center form to create a donut. Fill the outside bottles with water and set them around individual plants. The sun heats the water during the day and envelopes the plant with heat during the night. You need to place something over the top to help keep the heat in. When the warmer weather arrives, your plants should already be popping through the top and you can remove the wall-o-water.

Cold frames or Sun boxes are usually home made structures of wooden boards, plywood, concrete blocks, or bales of hay with glass, plastic or fiberglass sheeting to act as a lid which is hinged at the back. They are built higher at the back so that when the frame sits on a raised bed or on the ground, the sun can reach into the box to the plants. You prop the window up during the day and close it at night to keep heat in. The optimum size is between 2 by 4 feet and 3 by 6 feet so you can reach all of the plants inside. If you have raised beds it would be ideal to match the size so the cold frame sit on the sides of the bed.

The frame should be facing the south or southeast for maximum sun exposure.

The key to using a cold frame successfully is paying attention to the temperature—and the trick is in keeping it cool rather than warm. The temperature inside the cold frame should stay below 75 degrees F for summer plants, below 60 degrees for cold-tolerant plants like lettuce, carrots, etc. The way to keep temperatures cool inside a cold frame is to lift the lid. A good rule of thumb: when outdoor temperatures are above 40 degrees, prop open the lid 6 inches; when the outdoor temps stay above 50 degrees F for several days in a row, remove the lid. Be sure to restore the lid in late afternoon to trap the heat inside for cool nights. You can also buy automatic venting devices in some gardening catalogs.

On frigid nights, the plants inside the cold frame may need a little extra protection to keep from freezing. Most heat escapes through the glass, so pile insulation on top. You can use old blankets, straw, newspaper or whatever is handy. Snow insulates well, too, but brush heavy snow off the glass so it doesn't break.

These are great for hardening-off seedlings on their way into the open garden.

Hot beds are cold frames heated by soil-heating cables, steam pipes or fresh manure buried beneath the rooting zones of the plants. Everything else is basically the same.

Solar-charged hot water bottles are any water-filled container painted flat black to absorb solar warmth during the day and release it at night. These are stacked at the back wall of a cold frame as a layer of insulation. Use square, plastic milk jugs so they are easy to stack, or you can incorporate black water-filled barrels in any wall of your cold frame’s design. You can also use soft drink bottles and juice containers, simply stack them loosely or duct-tape the cylinders together to build a heat-absorbing wall to give any tender seedlings an earlier start.

Greenhouses are the ultimate in indoor gardening and come in a wide range of sizes and shapes from stand alone to lean-to type to place against your house, garage or shed. They are constructed of plastic, glass, or fiberglass with the frames made from metal, wood, plastic, bamboo, or pvc pipes. The panels are sometimes doubled up with a layer of air between them as an extra measure of insulation. There is a huge market for all of the accessories you could possible need or want for a greenhouse, from potting benches to heating and ventilation elements. These are pretty impractical for the smaller yard but if you have the space then they can provide a great way to grow year round.

Winter sowing is the latest method of seed germination. Aside from the typical method of starting your seeds indoors, this method takes place outdoors. You create mini-greenhouses out of containers such as gallon plastic milk cartons, 2 to 5 gallon water bottles, two-liter soda bottles, salad take-out containers, and big plastic jars (the kind pretzels come in at warehouse clubs) . These containers should be large enough to hold about 3 inches of soil and have enough head room for the growing plants.

Punch holes in the bottom of the containers for drainage. If the opening of the container is small, cut the top off to allow access to the inside. For convenience in lining it back together, leave part of it attached to use as a hinge, add soil and then wet it good. At this point it is best to allow the water to drain well and add the seeds later. After adding the seeds, tape the two halves together and set the container outside in the sun. Keep checking your containers for condensation, if there is none then it means you either have too many holes in the lid or the soil is drying out. Water as often as is necessary to keep the soil moist but not soggy.

If you are using large mouth jars then punch holes in the lids for ventilation, for small mouth containers don’t bother, just throw the caps away.

As the weather warms up in spring, make your transpiration holes larger until you can take the lids off entirely. This process is the hardening off period and after this is completed simply take your plants out of their containers and put them into the open garden.

You could actually put your seeds in jiffy pots inside these containers so you do not disturb the roots when you transplant them.

Virtually any seed you can start indoors will work for this winter-sowing method. So experiment, the materials are all re-useable so it doesn’t cost much to try.

Before you know it we will all be eating fresh salads from our very own garden year round.

All of these devices work very well for non-edible plants as well so don’t be afraid to experiment. Part of the joy of gardening is discovering the little tricks that help make you a more successful gardener.

Happy gardening to you!


Saving seed can get you sued

I don't mean to get too political here in the garden blog world but Monsanto is getting too invasive and the more we all know about it the better, in my humble opinion.

Here is an article, written by Tom Philpott of, about Monsanto's latest tightening of their iron grip on our nation's food supply.

This is scary stuff and the implications of Monsanto's future influence on the home gardener should not be overlooked.

Please read, if for no other reason than to cast light on how a multi-million dollar biotech firm is suppressing our farmers right to save seed.


EcoForms biodegradable pots

>> Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Here’s an interesting alternative to plastic pots I learned about from the Alternative Consumer blog.

They are called EcoForms and are made of grain husks. The ad says they are suitable for inside or outside use. I wonder if they are able to stand up to rain and constantly wet soil, my fear is they might begin to degrade before I’m ready to let them go.

They come in a wide variety of colors and shapes and are strong and durable, again, if they break down in the landfill how long will they last on the deck?

The ad says they will last five years, I suppose people normally would toss out old pots for new one by that time anyway so maybe breaking down from watering is not that big of an issue.

If you want more information, click here.

And, here’s another set of recycled pots. These are made of paper and resin and they actually hold water. It would not be too much of a stretch for the designer, Jo Meesters to create plant containers too.

The collection, called PULP, started out as a research project searching for alternative materials that could be made out of waste paper. By combining the paper pulp with epoxy and polyurethane, a new material is born that can hold water.


Genetically modified food crops at our doorsteps

Home gardeners could see an influx of drought tolerant plants soon. Large biotech firms, such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Syngenta AG of Switzerland, are racing to come up with new strains of vegetables that can thrive when water is in short supply.

Of course they are more focused on cash crops, but this could very well affect the home gardener in years to come.

Water shortages cost farmers and major growers billions of dollars a year in crop shortfalls around the world and the coming droughts that are expected with climate change are sure to increase that loss.

Australia is hardest hit by a drought that has lasted since 2002. Last year wheat farmers failed to harvest for the first time in forty years!

Argentina had to delay planting their corn this year, they normally produce 22 million tons a year. These shortages are sure to it the U.S. in cost increases and possible decreases in availability.

Forty percent of the world’s corn crop comes from the U.S. so corn is where researchers are focusing their attention. What is learned in these trials could be used for other crops and maybe we can begin to see a decrease in the amount of water we need for our backyard gardens.

They are leaning heavily on genetically modified crops to help us get through the coming drought but if this is what it takes, then we are going to have to welcome it.

Last year more than 73 percent of U.S. corn acres were planted with biotech varieties, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2006, biotech crop acreage globally reached 252 million acres in 22 countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. It’s a sign of the times.

Modifying for drought tolerance could be easier to accept than genetically altered food has been especially when we see that it is what is needed to maintain our food supply.

The dirty side of the biotech firms is that they load extra genetic traits in with the desirable traits that farmers don’t want to pay for, but in order to get the desirable traits they have to accept the whole seed. Much like buying a new car with ‘all the extras’ we don’t really feel we need or want. Plus, biotech firms habit of producing patent-protected seeds tend to gobble up smaller seed companies who cannot afford to compete with these new more desirable seeds.

Monsanto’s “triple-stacked” biotech corn, which protects against pests and is immune to weedkiller, goes for $245 for a bag. The traditional cost is $100 a bag.

The upside is that the home gardener could one day benefit by not having to use as much water, but by then prices for water will probably be higher so there may not be much savings.


Gardens help fix climate change

>> Thursday, January 10, 2008

Here’s an interesting article I found at

A proposition was brought up that if we dedicated an area the size of Germany and France to planting biomass fuels for 25 years we could manage carbon levels in the atmosphere.

It got me to thinking about how our, much smaller scale, gardens do our part in cleaning up the environment. It could be argued that since we are using the same acreage to grow flowers and vegetables instead of grass that we are not truly adding any substantial carbon dioxide cleansing biomass.

But it sure looks better, doesn’t it?


Phase three in preparing your Spring garden: seed starting

>> Wednesday, January 9, 2008

There are basically four phases in spring garden preparation: cleaning up the fall garden, seed selection, seed propagation, and pruning. Of course, you could just buy plants and skip the seed thing altogether, but, come on, where’s the challenge in that.

Starting plants from seed, ranks as one of the most satisfying aspects of gardening and it adds another dimension that further claims your ownership in your garden. You can proudly say “I grew these plants myself, from seed”. It also lets you expand the gardening season by getting yourself into the fray earlier in the year.

I must confess, starting seeds indoors is something that mystified and intimidated me for many years. The process itself is not so much the mystery, no, I’m talking about the ability to raise the seedling from its first tiny starter leaves to its first true leaves and on toward being an individual plant that creates fruit and flowers and more seeds to replicate itself. That whole process is fascinating and no one who can call themselves a gardener can not be touched by that miracle.

I have never had an ideal place in which to start seeds. One year, I came to the realization that if I wait for the ideal location then I would probably never get started.

It seems everywhere I looked for advice, for the equipment needed, i.e. the table, the lights, the trays, the soil (or soilless) mixtures, whether it was online, in books, etc, what I saw was this process that required perfect timing and an intuitive knowledge of what plants need. I was convinced that if something did not happen just right or at just the right time then everything would be lost. It was bloody daunting! I thought, I’m not going to spend money to do something that I have no confidence in ever pulling off only to have to buy plants anyway. So, I just bought plants. Let someone else deal with the hassle.

A few years ago, after reading a multitude of success stories, I decided, what can I lose? I’m not getting any seed starting experience by not doing it. So, I jumped into it and none of the plants I started that first time made it. I was introduced to a nasty little fungal surprise, known in the gardening world as, “damping off”. Okay, maybe I didn’t follow all of the instructions to the letter and I was correct in assuming that if something goes wrong at just the right time then the whole thing is lost. But I learned from it and now provide heat and air circulation, the best defense against “damping off”.

With that experience under my belt, I was more determined that this was going to work. And I now grow pretty much all of my vegetables from seed. So, in hopes that you won’t have to suffer this same misfortune, and want to expand your gardening experience by becoming a seed-starter here is what I have learned.

Truly, anyone can grow plants from seeds. When you start them in winter for the purpose of setting them out into the spring garden, they need to be big enough and strong enough when the time arrives. On every seed packet you will find the length of time a seed takes to grow to maturity. This amount of time is counted backwards from the ‘last average frost date’ for your area. This is when you start your seeds click here for a website that helps you determine your date.

Determining this date is not an exact science, that why it is called ‘average’. Your plants will be fine if they have to wait a little longer, plus there are measures you can take to protect your transplants if you set them out too early, such as, cloches, wall-o-water, milk jugs with bottoms cut off, bed sheets, etc. All you really need to worry about is getting frost on the plant. A good rule of thumb is if the night time temperatures are above 32F for about five days in a row you should be okay, but we all know how Mother Nature can pull a fast one.

The basic equipment needed is a standard propagation flat, a clear cover (called a humidity dome), plant pots, seed-starter mix, light fixtures and fertilizer.

Propagation flat – preferably without drainage holes, these are where you will place your plant pots. The tray measures roughly 22” long by 11” wide and about 2” deep. This is where the plants will most likely stay until you set them into the garden.

Plant pots – these come in a wide range of sizes and materials. There is no standard seed-starting pot, traditionally they are plastic about 4” deep and 3.5” square singles or six-packs. You can place 12 six-packs in a tray to get 72 planting ‘holes’. Also, there are peat pots (square- and round-singles and 6 packs and strips), peat pellets.

You can use typical plastic containers found in your kitchen, such as these examples.

You can even make your own out of newspaper or cardboard. The important thing to remember is they must drain well. Soggy soil is a death sentence for seedlings.

The plus side of using Jiffy pots and other biodegradable pots is that the whole container can go into the garden without disturbing the roots. Pulling plants out of their soil to put them into more soil, to me, just seems counter intuitive and creates undo stress, so why not just leave them in their original container? You can also start the seeds in a tray using the pots and the then cut out little squares of soil each with a plant and put these into the garden, again this disturbs the roots too much, in my opinion.

Seed-starter mix, or Germinating Mix - There are many good seed starting mixes on the market. Some manufacturers embellish the basic mix by adding a time released fertilizer or a fungicide, but none of this is necessary for starting seeds as long as you closely follow the necessary steps.

Soil out of the garden is strictly forbidden. First of all it is too heavy so it doesn’t drain well enough. Secondly the soil needs to be as clean as possible to prevent soil-born diseases and fungus from attacking your plants.

The different bags of soil you see in the garden center used to make me scratch my head and wonder what the difference is. Dirt is dirt, right? Well, there is a huge difference between ‘dirt’ and ‘soil’. Soil is refined and formulated dirt. It is a vast improvement. For instance, for seed starting purposes, soil should have a finer texture, be sterile and hold water while allowing air to pass through, that is to say it should ‘breathe’. A soilless mix, typically made up of any combination of peat, perlite and vermiculite, and other ingredients, features all of these attributes for seed starting mix.

Light fixture – Standard fluorescent tubes commonly associated with shop lights work great.

Fertilizer – Liquid is best because it is more readily available to the seedlings.

Now on with the show:
Prepare space for the seed trays. You need a room that stays above 50F at night. If you have a heated garage or space in the basement or even on top of the refrigerator, you can start seeds.

Firmly pack your soil mix into each container and wet it down.
Not so it is rock hard, but don’t leave it too fluffy. When you wet it down the air pockets will aork their way out soil the seeds get good soil contact.

Place your seeds at the proper depth.
Here is one of those points where seed starting can get messy. Just read the instructions on each packet for what is required. Some seeds don’t need to be covered, some require light to germinate, some should be lightly covered and some you push into the soil deeply with your finger. For those seeds that need to be lightly covered, the best trick is to pour some seed in the palm of your hand, pour some soil into your hand and mix it together and then sprinkle this onto the top of the pot.

Some seeds require they be placed in the refrigerator first in order to germinate and some need to be scarified or scratched to break the hard outer shell. It really is best to read the seed packet, plus there is a lot of other good information there.

Cover tray to prevent evaporation.
A propagation dome is perfect for this. If you have a kit the dome should be part of it. Otherwise, you can buy them separately or make one out of saran wrap, just drape it over tight enough to prevent water evaporation.

Remove cover when seeds begin to sprout.
Within a couple of days to a week you should see tiny plants pushing out of the soil. Once the seedlings begin to sprout you need to take the cover off so the seedlings get air circulation, this is what prevents damping off from getting started.

Give them light.
The first leaves you see are actually the inside protoplasm from the seed and not really leaves at all. Its like egg whites in that it provides whatever nutrients the plant needs to get started. Quite often the seed halves will hang onto these first leaves, don’t worry, they will eventually fall off as the leaves shrivel up. The second set of leaves you will see are the first ‘true’ leaves. At this point the plant is totally dependant upon you for everything. So, do it right and you will have healthy, thriving plants.

When these first ‘true’ leaves appear, the plant begins its photo-synthesis and you need to provide light. There is a lot of talk about special plant grow lights with red-spectrum and blue-spectrum getting much play. The best and cheapest lighting comes from the standard 4-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. Either a single tube or two or even three, as long as every seedling gets access. Placing the light about 2 inches above the plants will cause them to grow up at a controlled rate. If you put the light too far away, they will reach for it too quickly and will become ‘leggy’. If this happens, the plant’s chance of survival is greatly diminished. As the plant reaches the light, move the light up another 2 inches and repeat this process until they become bushy and are ready to go outside. The bushier a plant is the better its chance of survival.

Give the plants 12 to 14 hours of light every day. You can also set plants in a windowsill and place aluminum foil walls around the other three sides to reflect light back onto the plants. The danger in this is that the temperature at a window could be colder than the rest of the room. Be sure to move them away from the window at night.

Fertilizer and water.
Now, while these plants are reaching for the light they need food and water. Seedlings are tender so it doesn’t make sense to give them the same strength of food you give a fully grown plant. But you can use the same stuff. Just dilute it by about half and keep the soil moist but not soggy. The fertilizer you use should be in liquid form for best absorption. You can either spray it on the leaves, called foliar feeding, or pour it into the water tray so the roots wick it up.

Keep the soil damp enough, but not soggy. Someone once equated the perfectly moist soil as the consistency of a fresh slice of bread. That seems a fairly easy test. If the plant dries out, it will perk up with water but its growth has already been stunted and will most likely not be as strong as it could have been.

People use all kinds of tricks to help their plants get stronger. You can’t make them grow any faster than they are predestined to grow but if you provide a little cross-ventilation from a fan, simulating an outdoors breeze, they will develop a stronger trunk and therefore a stronger roots system. You can, instead of using the fan, simply run your hand over the leave tops every day or so.

Another way you can help ensure a stronger, healthier transplant is to feed them with fish meal, fish emulsion, seaweed extract or kelp. This is not necessary, you can use the typical standard 10-10-10 just as well but the added nutrients these high-nutrient mixes provide are proven to help develop a stronger root system. Spray the liquid mixture directly on the leaves or from the bottom every other watering. More is not necessarily better so resist the urge to over-feed. Dilute the solution to one-half or less, but use manufacturers guidelines.

This whole process is just a matter of repeating these steps of adjusting the height of the light and fertilizing and watering until the plant is ready to be set outside. This brings up an important consideration. When do you start the seeds?


Just too many choices

>> Monday, January 7, 2008

I’m still getting used to the idea of actually being able to grow more than just vegetables. I finally have a yard large enough to fill with more flowers than I ever planned for previously.

In anticipation of having such a yard, I have been receiving garden catalogs for many years. Even after seeing the variety of plants in these catalogs I still can’t get used to the number of choices.

If I could plant everything I wanted to just from the few catalogs I receive, I would need everyone’s yards in my neighborhood and then some.

Violas alone have 500 varieties!

There are over 6,500 different roses! How can there be that many?

115 varieties of Hydrangea, 150 species of Viburnum, over 500 varieties of Iris. These numbers are simply amazing to me.

There are entire societies and organizations formed and devoted to the care and love of each and every plant you can imagine.

How can anyone possibly choose one ‘favorite’ plant over another?

It is over-whelming to say the least.

If I change my garden every year by replacing every plant with just the new varieties coming out each year I would not cover them all in my lifetime.

Maybe I can concentrate on just the All-American selection winners. There is even a website devoted to just these plants! To get on this exclusive list a plant has to be tested by a network of independent judges to determine the plants performance in the garden, and that plant has to be deemed superior compared to other varieties. These trials have been conducted for 75 years now and with the number of plant varieties I don’t see them running out of candidates for testing.

Or, maybe I can grow only heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are commonly thought to be vegetables but there are many heirloom perennial plants as well. There is Yarrow, Monkshood, Hollyhock, Aster, etc.

Perhaps I can narrow my selections to only plants that fit a certain theme, say color, or flowers found in a tea garden or English cottage garden or herb gardens or water gardens.

Even the choices of themes are numerous.

I have no idea what ‘theme’ my garden is developing into. I tend to cater to butterflies and hummingbirds so I guess I have already made a choice for that theme garden. But I am not thrilled about labeling. I find labels too restricting. There is no way I am going to limit myself to plants that only attract this form of wildlife, besides nature isn’t restrictive so why should I be?

The one thing that is restrictive, thank goodness, is the zone I live in. But this only narrows the possibilities a fraction. Besides, Palm trees look pretty ridiculous surrounded by snow.

So how do you make your choices for what to put in your garden?


Dreams and aspirations for my garden

I am looking forward to the rebirth of my garden with the anticipation of a father expecting his first child. Even though I know I mulched it, I worry “Did I mulch it well enough?” I weeded it in hopes of preventing some small amount of weeds from getting a foothold over the winter under that carefully laid out mulch. But was it enough?

For now, all I can do is wait. Waiting is difficult for someone who likes doing things. Waiting is even more difficult for someone who has experienced the loss of plants for whatever unknown reason and has begun to doubt himself for not knowing, and since winter is the harsh mistress it is, I realize that some plants just won’t make it.

My garden is expanding, and with it, my experience. But this is no guarantee that this season’s garden will live up to my expectations.

My dreams are to see healthier fuller plants, tastier fruits, more birds, more butterflies, more beneficial insects (which means more non-beneficial insects so this is a double edged sword).

I want to delight in the sounds and fragrances wafting from the garden on every breeze, to be delighted with the constantly changing colors and textures that only a healthy, thriving, well-laid out garden can provide.

I want people to stop and enjoy the activity as well as the static loveliness a well-cared for garden promises.

Is this asking for too much? Perhaps, but dreams are what they are and without them nothing is much worth the effort.

One aspect of having this ‘down-time’ from gardening is it offers the opportunity to examine gardening habits. So, just as I have done in winters past, I reflect over the year to see what I need to change in order to make things, in general, work ‘better’ or ‘more smoothly’.

A garden is one of those things we bring into our lives for the enjoyment of it, to make our lives richer and more rewarding, and so the maintenance of it becomes a labor of love.

Even though it is a labor of love, the mechanics of gardening can become routine and tedious so we take short cuts to get things done quicker in order to give our attention to more ‘pressing’ and ‘demanding’ parts of our lives. Sometimes we may skip or put off a chore until later. This can become a bad habit to get into.

Some bad habits I find myself getting into that I hope to correct this year are:

Throwing compost material in the trash. I simply do not have a good compost system going yet. Even though, intellectually, I jnow it is worth it.
Buying too many seeds that never get started due to lack of space for them or not enough time or space to start them all.
Putting fall cleanup chores off until spring. This past fall I did press myself to get a lot more of it done than in years past. So this part s getting better, if I can make it a habit.
Not pruning my shrubs/trees so they can bloom to their fullest potential. It’s more the overcoming the fear of screwing it up so badly that I do more harm than good that keeps me from doing it.
Starting container plants and not feeding them regularly enough for their fullest potential. They need much more attention than plants in the garden.
Not tagging and organizing garden photos so I can find them when needed. This has got to change.
Waiting a little too long to put bulbs in the ground or applying winter mulch.

I’m sure there are other bad habits I have gotten myself into but this list is painful enough so I’m going to leave it here. I can see I have my work cut out for me if I hope to correct these habits and keep up with all the other things a garden requires.

In an attempt to ease the pain from listing these bad habits, I am going to have to list some good habits.

I feed the birds everyday and make sure they have fresh water.

Wow, that’s pretty pathetic if this is the best I can do for listing good habits. So, I will have to delve into the art of rationalization.

My garden gets watered and fed fairly frequently.

Oh well, here’s another attempt at rationalization, I prefer to look at these ‘bad-habits’ as the nuances that mark each of us an individual. So what if the photo system is in disarray? Who cares if your patio plants are not going to be some botanical society’s poster subject? The enjoyment of getting out there and doing something creative is a reward in itself and we don’t “need no stinkin’ pressure” on us to detract from that enjoyment.

We all have lives outside of the garden and priorities have to be set and adhered to.

Nature is very forgiving. So what if the 2008 edition of my garden doesn’t live up to my dreams? And so what if my aspirations don’t necessary jibe with what nature will allow me to do? I do love doing it. And that means eventually everything will come together.


Next phase in Spring garden preparation: Ordering Seeds

>> Saturday, January 5, 2008

The piece of furniture I share my office with is a desk secretary that collects all of my ‘to do’ stuff. This morning it finally caught my attention. It has become unsightly with its catalogs to go through, books to read, and snacks to eat.

Due to this weekend’s cold, wintry forecast, predicted high winds and high snowfall, I think the time has come to dive in.

Spring catalogs are no stranger to this household. Over the years of gardening and non-gardening (anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows I have not been able to garden every year, but my heart has always been there) I have come to expect no less than seventeen seed catalogs to fill my mailbox and secretary desk. This year is no exception.

The old standbys are Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co., Stark Bros., Stokes and Burpee Gardening. I order my fruits and vegetables from these catalogs pretty much exclusively. They have all been great suppliers of the tried and true varieties and I go through them comparing prices and looking for new varieties.

Since this past year was the first time I really jumped into perennial flower gardening I have become acquainted with White Flower Farm, Bluestone Perennials, Springhill, Jackson & Perkins, Michigan Bulb Co., Wayside Gardens, and Parks Seeds. A couple of others have arrived that I have not asked for, my best guess is they were sold my name and address by one or more of these other seed companies in an entrepreneurial fit that I wish I could be a part of. After all, it is my personal information. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to sell your own name and address the way these companies do? Why should they alone make money off of your personal information? I gave them my information for the sole purpose of conveniently purchasing from them in my own home not so they can profit from my information. Anyway, subject for another post.

Pricing can be confusing when looking at different catalogs. An example, Wayside Gardens sells Hydrangea Annabelle for $24.95 while Bluestone sells the same plant for $10.95. Pretty obvious which is the better buy, right? Until you examine the plant size that they are selling you. The Wayside Hydrangea is in a gallon container, the Bluestone Hydrangea is in a ‘jumbo pot’ which stands 5” tall and therefore the plant is fairly small.

White Flower Farm weighs in with six varieties of Hydrangea, but they are not your run of the mill offerings. Their shrubs come in one gallon containers at $29.95. This higher price seems to run true with everything they offer, so I have never purchased from them.

To cloud the picture even further, Bluestone offers 24 varieties of Hydrangea, Wayside offers 15 varieties, and White Farms offers 6.

My point is, these seed/plant catalogs do not all offer the same plant, nor do they all come in the same size containers and therefore it is not easy to make an informed decision in order to get the most for your money.

What I like to do is go through each catalog, after tossing out the expensive ones, marking plants I want with a yellow highlighter. The second and subsequent passes start bringing my selection list more into reality with my budget and then space available.

I also keep a spread sheet of plants I have seen in magazines, books, and blogs that I want and then look for these in the catalogs. I don’t always find them which tells me there are other catalogs lurking about that I know nothing of. Gasp! Just how large of a stack can I create?

This brings up another point, I have always done my ordering online. True, way back when, I ordered some seeds from catalogs before the internet, shiver, that was a long time ago. Anyway, why do I even receive catalogs in the mail? It is more convenient to look at the gorgeous pictures that all of these suppliers are producing and I am thankful for that. But I can see the same images online unless my computer breaks down. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t even go here.

There are also the garden supply catalogs, Gardeners Supply Company, Audubon Workshop, Gardens Alive, and Lee Valley, just to name a few. These each have some great tools, supplies and general garden accessory stuff.

Oh by the way, I bought a copy of The Bountiful Container by two ladies whose love of container gardening shines on every page. Rose Marie Nichols McGee (of the Nichols Garden Nursery clan) and co-author Maggie Stuckey have written a book that I find very informative and has inspired me to fill my back deck with their suggestions. They cover what they call Hardware (containers, trellis, tools, storage) and Software (soil, seeds, plants) and present chapters on vegetables, herbs, fruits and edible flowers in a very easy to read dialogue. This has become one of my favorite garden books.

Another book on the desk is Basic Country Skills by John and Martha Storey. This book is a ‘practical guide to self-reliance’, it says so right on the cover. After skimming through it I am struck by its range of topics. It covers everything from building your own country home to designing, building and maintaining your garden, yard and orchard. Their purpose for this book truly is self-reliance. Topics also include using your produce in country recipes, preserving your harvest, and everything you want to know on how to raise farm animals. A must have for anyone wishing to break away from city living.

As far as what I am going to plant this year, well, that’s what cold winter days like this are for.

The snow outside has been steadily falling (and piling up) so its either shovel the walks, again, or read. My cozy easy chair looks awfully inviting, I think the sidewalks and driveway will have to wait a few more hours. Besides, I always have snacks to attend to.


Growing Herbs as Houseplants

>> Friday, January 4, 2008

Every time I pickup a garden book I start getting giddy about what new things I might learn. This giddiness is something that has been with me for years and hasn’t let up once even though for many years I didn’t even have a garden.

Growing herbs has the same effect, or rather, the prospect of growing herbs.

The same picture always comes to mind when thinking about growing my own herbs. The scene is in the kitchen at a bright sunny window. On the ledge is a long tray holding several pots of lemon grass, basil, thyme, and parsley.

I have no idea why I always picture these particular herbs, but the lemon grass (pictured here) really stands out. I think it’s the combination of colors and textures that appeals. Have you ever seen trays of various types of grasses growing in health food stores? My image is kind of like that.

This past summer I grew parsley and dill out on the deck in a container, along with several varieties of coleus. When the cold weather hit the coleus was the first to go. The dill followed shortly thereafter, but the parsley lasted a long time, even with snow on it. The container was an experiment of sorts in texture and color. And no plans were ever made to actually use the herbs.

I’ve grown basil with tomato plants in a container and they looked beautiful together even before the Basil bloomed. But I kept them for their blooms instead of actually using them in any food dishes.

Well, this year is proving to be no exception to opening myself up to all the possibilities of what I want to grow. I can already feel that familiar giddiness and not one garden catalog has been opened yet.

Our kitchen is on the north side of the house so that little indoor herb garden that is planted so vividly in my mind will not come to pass in this house. Setting up grow lights might work but some rearranging is going to have to take place. In the meantime, I might start something in my office, which sits on the south side but behind the dogwood tree. I still get about six hours of sunlight which is considered full sun, so it should be okay, but more would be better. I also have enough room to set up a grow light here if I need to.

If you are interested in growing your own indoor herb garden here are a few tips I have picked up over the years and will hopefully try this year.

Good quality potting soil. It provides good drainage, because herbs don’t like wet feet. Organic is best if you plan on actually eating the herbs. Also, with good potting soil you don’t need to place stones or pebbles in the bottom of the pots for drainage.

Water the plants when the top of the soil feels dry.

Fertilize sparingly. Herbs don't require much when grown outdoors, but they will appreciate an occasional feeding. In keeping with the idea of eating the herbs then an organic fertilizer would be best.

Temperature is easy, Herbs should grow well in temperatures that are comfortable for people. No problem here, I like it toasty warm too.

There are some herbs that won’t grow well indoors but unless you plan on going gonzo extreme in exotic herb choices you should be okay. I think size is the biggest limiting factor. Some of these herbs can take over a room if you let it. Just read the labels for the herbs you want to grow and make certain you and they can tolerate each other indoors.

Another tip to consider is that some herbs are rapid growing, spreading like crazy, such as any member of the mint family. But seeing as how these are going to be in their own containers this should not be a problem. Most herbs don't mind being a bit crowded in the pot and the size of the pot will curb the growth to an extent.

Good choices for herbs to grow indoors are mint (the variety is amazing), chives, thyme, rosemary and oregano.

There are many uses for Mint. The leaves can be rubbed on itchy skin. It has a cooling, slightly numbing effect. Also, you can rub them on your gums to relief a toothache.

Mints can be used to aid digestion either by simply chewing the leaves or steeping them in hot water to make a tea that if drunk before bedtime will almost guarantee no indigestion.

Peppermint tea is great for menstrual cramps, diarrhea, and tummy aches.

Dried or fresh leaves in your cupboard will keep mice away. Growing pots of pennyroyal mint will help keep mosquito populations down.

Chives are mainly used in cooking. As a member of the onion family with a very mild taste, it goes well with potato dishes. I have even heard it used in pasta dishes. The flowers are an interesting shade of pink and since I will be growing herbs mostly for decoration, this plant will add a nice contrast to the mostly green foliage.

Thyme has a multitude of uses as a flavoring in vinegars, jelly, herbal soaks, soups, stews, gravies, stuffing and vegetables. It is a basic ingredient in Spanish, French, Italian, and Turkish cuisines, and is also widely used in Lebanese and Caribbean cuisines. It has a particular affinity to and is often used as a primary flavour with lamb, tomatoes and eggs.

Rosemary is a member of the mint family and as such, lends itself well to growing easily anywhere. It can be used fresh or dried and is used frequently in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. It has a bitter, astringent taste, which complements oily foods, such as lamb and oily fish. Since it is attractive and tolerates some degree of drought, it is also used in landscaping.

Oregano is another, what I call, ornamental herb. The purple flowers can be used as a garnish, but its leaves are used in Greek and Italian cooking. Americans are most familiar with its use on pizza, tomatoes sauces and fried vegetables. Oregano is also used in medicine for its high level of antioxidants and is known to have antimicrobial activity against food-borne pathogens which is useful in food preservation.

The great thing about herbs is that when the weather is favorable for them they can be taken outdoors and planted in the garden. They can also be brought back inside at the end of the season. Just be sure to allow some time for adjustment to light and temperature changes. Also, you will want to clean up the plant and check for pests before bringing them indoors.

My indoor herb garden will probably only be for looks, but hey, isn’t that what ‘houseplants’ are for?


Produce prices going up, grow your own

>> Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The headline reads “Get ready for $4 lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower”

I found this on the Project: Green Industry blog this morning and immediately accepted it as further validation for growing your own.

The Arizona legislature came up with this plan to force all illegal aliens out of their state, or to become legal, by enacting Arizona’s Employer Sanctions Law which went into effect yesterday, Jan.1, 2008.

The blog author predicts consumers will begin seeing higher ‘winter-produce’ prices within a few months, if not sooner.

The law has already survived two legal challenges and will be reviewed again on January 16, 2008 in Phoenix, where business and civil-rights groups are expected to present their case for blocking enforcement of the law.

The law enforces the use of a federal system, called E-Verify, to electronically verify employment eligibility of newly hired employees against a federal database maintained by the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security. Employers that fail to begin using the E-Verify system risk having their business licenses suspended or revoked.

According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, farmers in the Yuma area provide 80-90 percent of the country’s salad crops from November through April and need an estimated 25,000-30,000 workers a day. Last year farmers estimated they faced a 20-30 percent shortage of workers. The shortage caused a price increase of a couple of dollars for a carton of lettuce.

Picking America’s produce has become the domain of illegal immigrants. Farmers have been forced to hire the cheap labor because Americans don’t want to do it and because demand for cheap food prices makes paying a decent wage cost preventative.

The farmers are not sure how big of an impact the new law will have on the availability of workers but they are already planting fewer acres, having workers work longer hours, looking at using the federal H-2A program and moving more production to Mexico.

Moving to Mexico? Oh no! The first thing anyone learns when going into Mexico is you don’t drink the water! That same water is going to be used to grow vegetables that are made up of a lot of water. The picture I am painting is not a pretty one.

Illegal immigrants concerned about the effects of the new law are already returning to their home countries or moving to other states. Some employers have already started to fire workers who cannot provide the proper documentation.

I lived I Southern California for twelve years and I can tell you that there are a lot of illegal immigrants picking our produce. The influx of these illegals into surrounding states is going to create problems.

Aside from the politics of the situation, the author states that Americans better get used to paying more for their food and they better get used to buying more imported food--especially “fresh” produce.

One thing that struck me about this statement is that the author did not even mention the option of growing your own. Is this a sign of how far away from gardening this country has gotten? What has happened to our self-reliance? Those of us who grow our own, of course, know all the benefits of doing so. I realize not everyone has the plot space or the time or the inclination to undertake our passion but one day the increasing prices for what we eat is going to have to be addressed more seriously.

Now, I am all for giving anyone who wants to work a fair shake and, hey, if Americans don’t want to pick our produce and someone comes along and says they will then we ought to let them do the job. It works out best for everyone involved.

I don’t really want to get into the politics of this law or whether it is the right way to handle the national problem of immigration but it does help bring to light the fact that we need to start seriously considering growing our own food.

So, gardeners everywhere, lets hone our crop growing skills and start spreading the word to our neighbors about the benefits of growing our own. We can all recite the benefits of being outdoors for the exercise and fresh air not to mention the better flavor or our own crops provide and the satisfaction that we grew them ourselves is immeasurable. Now we can add to the list the benefit of saving ourselves some money.

One of the reasons I have been given for people not growing their own is that they can buy whatever they need at the grocery store without the mess and bother of gardening. Well, this law, in my opinion, is an indication that surrounding states, namely California, will soon force their employers to follow Arizona just to handle the influx of illegal immigrants. This in turn will result in higher produce prices, not just in winter, but year round. As a result, politics is going to cost us even more in the very near future.


Mysterious tracks in my backyard

>> Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Actually, they are not so mysterious, but I found it intriguing when I went out this morning to top off the feeders.

See how some just ended in the middle of the yard?

Most of these, I think, are from the Mourning Doves. Usually, while I sit and watch them through the window they stay pretty close to the feeders.

I have never seen them walk around much except between the feeders.

And what bird track scene would be complete without cat tracks?


Help feed the birds

I saw a photo the other day of a Christmas tree trunk used as a prop for peanut butter used to feed birds. I agree it is a good idea. I have been doing this same thing for a couple of years now, but with a twist. I am one of those families that doesn’t buy a Christmas tree every year. Yeah, that’s right, I have an artificial tree and it is just as beautiful as any real once-live tree and it works just as well to satisfy our need for celebration.

Anyway, I put thick globs of peanut butter on my existing trees and the birds love it. I simply smear a large glob in the crotch of two branches and they find it without any problem.

Whenever I go grocery shopping with my wife, or when I do it myself, I look for the cheapest, largest jar of peanut butter I can find and the birds and I are set.

Birds eat up the peanut butter quickly so it never sits around long enough to spoil during those warmer days of winter we are beginning to experience more frequently.

Every winter we see an increase in the number of birds as well as in variety because of the suet feeders (and the fact that very few people put food out for birds). Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Redwing blackbirds, Chickadees, Starlings, and Dark-eyed Juncos all come around to enjoy the free offering. At times, the noise from the birds is almost deafening but it is a very satisfying noise as I know they have a better chance of survival due in some small part to me and cheap peanut butter.

There are many recipes on the internet for suet-based or peanut butter-based mixtures but I find that plain peanut butter works just as well.

Here is a very basic recipe that can be used as a ‘starter’ mix and keeps well even in warmer weather:
peanut butter (you can use smooth or crunchy, I have not noticed any difference in bird activity so do it for yourself)

oatmeal (Quaker oats or whatever)
lard (do not substitute vegetable shortening)
white flour (just to make it not so sticky)

Melt the lard and peanut butter, and stir them together. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture into freezer containers or muffin tins or a brownie pan, about 1 ½ inches thick. When cool, cut into squares, wrap in wax paper or plastic, and store in the freezer. You can add a bit more peanut butter to make a softer mixture which allows you to stuff into any holes or nooks in your tree.

You can get as creative as you want with recipes by adding pieces of fruit, corn bread mix, popcorn, raw seeds, fruit juice, eggs (as cannibalistic as this sounds the will eat it.) Just keep in mind that most of this embellishment is more for you than for the birds, sure they will eat it but you really don’t need to go to the extra expense.

So, be creative and join in on the fun of bringing birds to your yard.


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