Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Friday, December 26, 2008

Our Own Food

(Photo Caption: greens I picked on Christmas Eve)

On Christmas Eve, I went out to the garden and picked some greens. Some were out in the beds, the overwintering arugula, kales, chard, and mustards and others were in my new cold frame, mostly lovely green and rose-colored lettuces. Italian flat leaf parsley and sage are also overwintering and I picked some for a vegetarian “stuffing” for Christmas dinner. The thought struck me, as it often does, that I find nothing more satisfying than feeding my family on food I grew myself. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner we had home grown braised greens, fresh salad greens, apple sauce made from apples from our tree, and pickled beets and onions. All were organic, from the garden, and grown with love. I have the same feeling of satisfaction often, when I serve a dish or dessert made from home canned tomatoes, pickles, peaches, dried fruit, jams and preserves, even frozen berries…this is why I garden.

Happy New Year, happy gardening….if you garden now, do more next year. If you don’t garden now, start and nurture a pot of herbs and see where it leads. I'll be back after the 1st.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Southern Gardener's Book of Lists: Book Review

The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists: A Review of a Book by Lois Trigg Chaplin (1994, Taylor Publishing: Dallas)

This is a great book, though it is not a “great read.” It is not the type of garden book that you read page by page, learning new tips, salivating at great garden photos, finally understanding double digging. However, this book is incredibly useful for the southern gardener. This book is exactly what its title says it is: a book of list after list of all types of garden plants under all sorts of conditions (soil, sun, moisture) in three regions: upper, mid and deep south. Want to plant a tree in a wet site? There’s a list of suitable trees. Want to know the best perennials for heavy, clay soil? What trees produce leaves too big to easily rake? What are good evergreen vines or plants that do well under walnuts? How about shrubs that bloom in shade? It’s all in there.

The book is divided into chapters: trees, perennials, ferns, annuals, vines, shrubs, azaleas, roses and ground covers. Each section has multiple lists. I have found myself running to the book first, whenever I want to plant something new or need to pull out an under-performing plant and replace it with something that will work in a particular site. This book is a great gift for that southern gardener on your list.
Happy Gardening and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Seed Starting Indoors

Seed Starting Indoors (Photo caption: starting seeds in the garden, the good, old fashioned way!)

Starting my own plants from seeds is one of the great joys in gardening. When I started gardening, I had mom and dad take me to the garden center where we would willy nilly pick out plants to bring home, mostly lots of tomatoes. It was fun and I continued this practice as I gardened into my adulthood, picking tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc, from whatever garden center had to offer and buying seeds for lettuces and the like. As I read more about gardening, I learned that there were many more varieties available to the home gardener who starts her own plants. I bought my first heirloom tomato seeds (Brandywine) at a festival in Indiana15 year ago and haven’t looked back.

Now, the only time I buy vegetable plants is when I have a seed-starting failure (like this year’s eggplants), if I have failed to get enough of a jump on the season (yes, I bought 9 Romaine lettuce plants this spring for 99 cents, but got an earlier crop than I would have otherwise) or if my ambitions for that year have outpaced my available seed-starting space (which usually means I buy flower seedlings). I am often tempted to buy a veggie plant or two and some flower plants at a High School horticulture program sale (see entry on “Unusual places to buy plants”)-it helps the school and they sometimes do have a flat of two of unusual varieties or ones that are sold out elsewhere.

Starting seeds indoors has a few requirements:

1. Seeds (I love to go to Pinetree Garden Seeds, www.superseeds.com- they sell smaller quantities as low prices so you can play around with varieties)

2. Some sort of flat (I use standard, black plastic flats from a garden center)

3. Some sort of pot (I like peat pots or make my own out of newspaper and staples- they decompose)

4. Sterile seed-starting mixture (again from the garden center- don’t be tempted to use garden soil or regular potting soil- it will lead to damping off, sprouted weeds, bugs, or floppy seedling growth)(I get this at a garden center, though there are recipes available on line to make your own using peat moss and perlite)

5. Florescent lights, hung on chains so they can be raised and lowered.

6. For bottom-heat loving plants, some source of bottom heat (I use grow mats, not cheap, but they last a long time, but some people use old heating pads or set the pots on heat registers or baseboard- beware of this latter idea- it can literally cook and dessicate your seedling very quickly, depending on how hot it is). Plants needing bottom heat include several garden favorites, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Of course, the easiest way to start seeds is to stick ‘em in the ground! But when seeds need special culture, the plants have too long a growing season for your zone or you just want to get a jump on the season, starting seeds indoors is for you. Before you start your seeds, read the seed pack or catalog instructions carefully to learn seed starting requirements. Packages often tell you if the plant is best sowed in the garden or started indoors, time to allow until the plant is a good, transplantable size, soil, light, water and heat requirements. If you cannot find this info on the package, look it up. There is something quite disappointing to find out 6 weeks later that the seed you put under the soil needs light to sprout or the seed that you planted did not come up because it did not have bottom heat.

For most seeds, I start then in rows in a flat. I transplant them to individual peat pots when they have their first 2 true leaves. The first leaf like things that come out of a seed when it spouts are usually not true leaves, they are cotyledons (part of the seed). I prick (dig) out the seedling with the handle of a teaspoon and place it into an already filled and watered peat pot. Remember, if you are starting any plants of the tomato family, they need some sort of bottom heat to sprout. They no longer need this supplemental heat once they are transplanted. And, you can bury the stems of tomato seedlings deeply, leaving the leaves and a bit of stem uncovered, which encourages root growth.

All seedlings need supplemental light to grow. Standard florescent bulbs suspended on chains about an inch or two above the plant are sufficient. Some specialized “grow lights” are expensive and encourage flowering (you do not want your seedlings to flower in the small peat pot indoors-this can stunt its growth). The lights need to be on chains so you can move them upwards as the plant grows. This encourages growth, but make sure to keep the lights at that inch or two distance, or seedlings might get leggy and flop over. Some seedlings need light to germinate and must be spread across the surface of the soil and placed under a light. The seedling packet should tell you this.

I like to run a fan on low in the room with the seedlings for at least half the day. This improves circulation to keep fungi at bay, gently dries plans off after watering and helps make the stems thicker and stronger, thereby helping to harden them off. Once plants are at the transplantable stage, you must harden them off before planting them, or they might just keel over and die in the garden. To fully harden plants off you need to slowly, over the course of a week, put them outside for longer and longer periods of time, starting for a hour or two one day, three the next, etc, until they are outside full time for several days. Some garden books say to do this for two weeks, but I find that conditioning the seedlings by running a fan on them while inside shortens the time needed. They are then acclimated to outdoor conditions and ready to plant.

Some seeds can last, stored in dark, dry, cool conditions, for 5 years (e.g. most of the tomato family), other for just a season (lettuce). Seed starting can be a cost-effective way to produce plants. When you get some experience, you can start seeds that require special conditions, For example, I am cold stratifying (keeping cold in the fridge for 6 or 8 weeks) some paw- paw seeds to start in spring. I’ll let you know what happens with them!

So go to it! Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reblooming Poinsettias

I love poinsettias. I get them every year and, for a few years, managed to coax them into rebloom! First, cut them back after flowering in March (BTW, the part we think of as a flower on poinsettia is a modified leaf, called a bract. The little yellowish things inside the colorful bracts are the true flowers, both male and female on the same plant). Then, Starting around October 1st, they need a place where they get light (florescent tubes are fine) for 14 hours, then total darkness. I use a plant stand with lights, put into a closet, to restart mine. After a few weeks, you should start to see new growth, and later see the flowers form. Keep them evenly watered, then enjoy!

These photos are of specialty poinsettias from the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., December of 2007 (I’ll have a field trip report from there next summer!) and some I bought this season.

Happy holidays! And gardening!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home: A book review
Tallamy, D.W. (2007). Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
(Photo caption: A native: American beautyberry)
Douglas Tallamy’s book is a good addition to the book shelf of anyone concerned about wildlife, sustainability, organic yards and gardens and the health of our native lands. Tallamy’s main premise is that we have substantially reduced the wild areas in which native creatures live, have introduced (accidentally or intentionally) exotic and, at times, invasive species, and that our yards and gardens can provide havens for displaced native creatures. IF there are native plants to provide forage and shelter for them. He suggests that many of the plants we use for landscaping are often chosen because no native creature eats them, but this is exactly the wrong thing to do if we want to preserve these creatures. For example, butterflies in their caterpillar stage are often restricted to eating one or a few types of plants (think Monarch caterpillar and milk weed). We might not like the caterpillars eating our landscaping plants (and indeed, pay a lot of money in chemicals to kill them), but their reduced habitat makes out yards and gardens their “life boat” for survival.

Tallamy gives many examples of his beloved insects and their native-plant needs, along with those of some other creatures. He shows you photos of plants that bugs won’t touch (for example the ubiquitous Bradford pear) and those they will (native black cherry). I guess it is a little “unsightly” to see black cherry leaves with holes chewed in them, but which is worse- unsightliness or extinction? I must admit that I like many exotic plants, but my eye will turn more and more toward natives after reading this book, especially as I live in a once wooded area that is being rapidly developed, forcing native creatures into my yard.
Tallamy gives ideas for creating diverse plant communities that will sustain native creatures, landscaping tips, and choices in native plants. His last chapter “Answers to Tough Questions” is good to read if you don’t have time for the whole book.

Happy (native) Gardening!