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Rainy Weather Gardening

The weather lately is really putting a damper on my gardening aspirations. I am gong to make the best of it, and focus on what can actually be done in the cool and wet spring we are having, rather than on what cannot be done.

Paths are newly mulched with cardboard and bark mulch. The row cover tunnel just yielded our first harvest of mache and arugula and was just replanted with chard and broccoli raab. The row cover with hoops is one of the best ways to keep bunnies out without a fence. This is the year of the bunny. We even have a bunny statue to beg off the bunnies and ask them to spare us, but it is not really working. Chamomile and stone edging is looking cute and a new patch of self seeding Marble Arch Mix Salvia will provide us with edible flowers, cut flowers, and dried flowers for a few years.

Paths are newly mulched with cardboard and bark mulch. The row cover tunnel just yielded our first harvest of mache and arugula and was just replanted with chard and broccoli raab. The row cover with hoops is one of the best ways to keep bunnies out without a fence. This is the year of the bunny. We even have a bunny statue to beg off the bunnies and ask them to spare us, but it is not really working. Chamomile and stone edging is looking cute and a new patch of self seeding Marble Arch Mix Salvia will provide us with edible flowers, cut flowers, and dried flowers for a few years.

Here is what I am doing in the garden this week:

Clean up and mulch the path ways.

The weeds come out easily when the ground is wet. It is ok to walk on the pathways to clean them up and mulch them, but I avoid walking on the growing beds or doing much to the soil in the growing beds when the ground is really wet. Doing so would compact the soil and adversely affect the tilth. So, the paths are getting a little extra attention this year and I am mulching with a thick layer of cardboard and some rough bark mulch from Clifford’s lumber. This is not the regular bark mulch from a garden center - it is a byproduct of a local, family owned sawmill just down the road. I would not use it in all applications where mulch is needed, but it is perfect for paths and under trees and shrubs. It is a little too coarse for perennial beds (but that is a whole other topic, because really I don’t think bark mulch belongs in most perennial beds). Once the paths are clearly defined and mulched, the rest of the season will be so much less labor intensive in the garden. Some other mulch ideas for paths are burlap coffee bags (which you can find this Saturday at our New North End Plant Sale at Bibens Ace Hardware on North Ave in Burlington). straw (I recommend the organic straw from Aurora Farms in Charlotte), or a combination of newspapper and leaves. These are all pretty heavy duty recommendations for paths. I would not use a heavy mulch like this right under smaller growing plants because the decomposing organic matter uses up the nitrogen in the soil and starves the plants of the food they need for healthy growth. Mulching paths is satisfying and really pays off in the long run. Plus, you can do it in the rain.

Plant more salad greens and try out some new varieties of cool hardy vegetables, flowers and herbs

I just added two kinds of kohlrabi to the garden, green Swiss chard, some Italian bulb fennel, broccoli raab, dandelion greens and frisée. This weather is perfect for transplanting a few plants here and there into corners of the garden. Again, you want to avoid working your soil when it is wet, but it is entirely all right to loosen up small corners of beds and tuck in a few plants here and there. I just harvested my first planting or arugula and of mache and re-planted right into those spaces. I did not disturb the wet soil too much, and I think they will all be fine.

Make containers

Picking out colorful annuals and cool foliage plants is the perfect antidote to the grey and the wet days we seem to be stuck in lately. I am covering my mom’s balcony with pots of geraniums, agastache, salvia, herbs, petunias, argyranthemum, canna, millet, banana, and heuchera. Heurchera, or coral bells, is an under-used plant in containers, and adds broad texture, interesting contrasting color (so many to choose from), and looks good all season long. We have a dwarf red banana we are growing this year that has a beautiful glossy red tinged leaf and looks really striking with the wispy orange of the Kudos mandarin Agastache and the red veined caramel heuchera. Tuck in a red oak lettuce here and there, and you will have a gorgeous container with edibles, perennial and season long interest that holds up well in rain, cold, heat, and dry. I love helping people make containers and have two more Make and Take classes coming up in June for shade loving containers. There is still room to sign up in both.

Wistfully choose heat loving crops

This weekend, I plan to select the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, melons, cucumbers I want to grow, but I am just hardening them off for now. I am not planting them in the ground. This means that they will come inside at night if it is below 45F and they will go back out in the day time to feel the sun (wishful thinking?), wind, and rain and get used to real life outside. What I am not doing is planting them in the cold ground. That would just stress them out. They need soil that is 50F or warmer in order to grow well, and stressing them at a young age will weaken them when they are older and diseases start to settle in. Planting heat loving crops in cool weather is just asking for trouble down the road.

Move perennials

They love this weather. If you have an area that once was sun but now is shade, it is a great time of year to move those sun loving plants to a brighter spot, away from the encroaching shadow of shrub and tree. I took advantage of the dry and warm day on Wednesday to clean up a perennial bed and replant with shade loving plants under the shrubs that now cast shade. I used tiarella, pulmonaria, variegated Solomon’s Seal, Jacob’s ladder, and hostas. I love that sun to shade switch that inevitably takes place in a garden, the moving art of it all.

Hopefully, this gives you a good amount to do and scratches the gardening itch just enough. Happy gardening!

2018 Plant List Preview: Cut Flowers

Last year was the year of the cut flower program at Red Wagon. Not only did we grow and sell more cut flower varieties than ever before, but we also hosted a 3 part floral design workshop series with flower farmer / florist Nina Foster and had a chance to meet flower growers from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The fun and beauty continue into 2018 with an expanded offering of varieties that work well for cutting and arranging and crafting. Here is the list. If you are a home gardener, you can make a wish list now for summer dreaming and planning. If you are a commercial grower, feel free to contact us about purchase plants in larger quantities for your commercial operation. The photos below represent only about 1/3 of the plants we grow that are suitable for cut flower use. Most of our perennials and many more annuals and some herbs are also suitable for floral use. And please note that vegetables and berries can make unique and eye catching additions to those sprawling, romantic bouquets that are so in style right now. If you need any suggestions or want to make a special request,  please don't hesitate to let us know. 

Photo gratefully used with permission from Ball Horticultural and Johnny's Selected Seeds. 



Peek into the Plants, Week of April 10th, 2017

We have lots of lovely plants to show off this week! Here is a little show and tell.

Ramblings and a shout out to our neighbors....Late June, Early July 2016

As we transition into summer, the pace changes at the greenhouses and in the garden. The focus is on plant maintenance, fertility, pruning, culling and weeding. We are also busy transplanting at the herb farm and harvesting and selling herbs to local grocery stores and food hubs. We added the herb farm to Red Wagon Plants 3 years ago as a way to keep a few key people hired year round and to bring in revenue and activity during the months when people generally don't do any plant shopping. 

Sam weeding rosemary

Sam weeding rosemary

In the home garden, I have been busy looking for gaps in the perennials and filling in with some colorful annuals wherever I get the chance. I have learned ornamental gardening entirely by trial and error,  approaching it all as a vegetable grower, and some things work and some things don't! But one thing I have really appreciated is that garden mistakes easily turn into opportunities. As one plant gets pulled out for various reasons - not the right amount of light, planted too close to its neighbor, or any other number of oopsies- a gap is created for a new plant. For me this is often an annual flower - something that will give color all season long, will give me time to figure out what perennial to put in, and will be a good friend to its neighbors. Right now, a combination I am loving is Nicotiana langsdorfii with Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields' and Ratbida columnifera. The Ratbida is a perennial (we have it in 4" pots so it is possible to plant en masse without breaking the bank) and the other two are annuals. I just love how the rust and green and yellow play off of each other and catch the light. 

In the vegetable garden, we are harvesting snap peas, lettuces, escarole, frisée, beets, cucumbers (out of the greenhouse), swiss chard, and lots of herbs. The early plantings of mache, napa cabbage, boc choi, and lettuce have come and gone leaving spaces to fill. In go more beets, spinach, lettuce, and green beans.

In the kitchen, I keep making the same salad dressing over and over again - a crushed clove of garlic in a one pint mason jar, 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar, a hefty teaspoon of dijon mustard, 1/4 tsp salt, a good 2-3 grinds of the pepper mill, and 1/2 cup of sunflower oil. Close tightly, shake like mad. It is perfect for everything. If you like it more or less acidic, just adjust the proportions of oil to vinegar. Olive oil is good here too, but sometimes a more neutral oil like sunflower highlights the flavor of the greens a little more.  See my rave below about the sunflower oil at Family Cow Farmstand, our neighbors on the farm. 

Garden Chores this week:

  • fertilize with Pro-Gro all of the annual flowers to give them a little boost during the heat. Sprinkle a bit around shrubs and perennials that are finished blooming too. 
  • water everything religiously in the mornings
  • weed the vegetable garden and replant as needed
  • throw a handful of Compost Plus in the flowering hanging baskets and other potted plants
  • bring (finally) all the poor and neglected house plants outside for a good shower and leave them on the screened in porch.
  • fertilize the garlic with Pro-Gro (should have been done a few weeks ago, whoops). 
  • hill the potatoes 
  • plant a row of beans
  • transplant beets, spinach, and more lettuce

Public Service Announcement! 

And finally,  I have been meaning to let you all know about our new neighbors! Family Cow Farmstand was purchased in April by Scott Hoffman and Aubrey Schatz. You may have noticed the cows sweetly grazing next to the greenhouses this spring. Please go visit Scott and Aubrey's farm stand! They are selling the cows' delicious raw milk (they do sell out, so consider signing up for a weekly membership), pork from previous Family Cow owners Lindsay and Evan (best pork chops and chorizo ever), veggies and strawberries from Shaky Ground Farm, their own eggs (the hens are pastured out with the cows), sheep's cheese from their friends in Marathon, NY, and their own pastured, organic chicken. And lots of other goodies like sunflower oil, yarn, maple syrup, caramels, etc. Some of you know me personally, and you will know that I can be a little particular about how food is produced and how it tastes (okay, not a little .... a lot). So please hear me clearly when I say that you should absolutely try everything at the Farmstand! The chicken is the best I have EVER had. Yes, EVER. It is huge, with plump, juicy meat and that iconic chicken flavor that is often masked by  poor feed or improper processing. Scott and Aubrey move the birds onto fresh grass every day and use the birds and cows together as a way to manage the grass. The sunflower oil is velvety and perfect for any dressing. The sheep's cheese is some of the best cheese I have had in the this country (the French person in me is being extra emphatic here, my hands are waving around, and I am really begging you to listen)...a blue cheese like a mild Roquefort and a sheep's Tomme that is perfectly aged and has that nutty, sparkly taste and texture unique to the best alpine cheeses. The chickens are available fresh every other Friday or in the freezer anytime. To get a fresh chicken, you have to sign up - just email Aubrey and Scott (familycows@gmail.com) or stop in and talk to them....they are often around and do their evening milking between 5:30 and 7:30.

Pardon the horrible picture, but I just wanted you to see how plump and huge these chickens are from Family Cow Farmstand. Before putting it in the oven, I took out the backbone (just slice down either side of the spine with a sharp knife) and split the chicken open so that it would cook faster (about 1 hour and 15 minutes) and so that the skin would be super puffed and crispy (it was, yum). I also slathered it in softened butter mixed with finely chopped fresh oregano, salt, pepper, and a little lemon zest. The whole thing got laid on a bed of sweet potatoes and sweet onions.  I roasted it in a super hot oven (450F) for 15 minutes then turned it down to 375F.  Prep time - 10 minutes. While it cooked, I ran some errands, weeded a raised bed and planted a whole tray of annuals. How easy is that? 

Pardon the horrible picture, but I just wanted you to see how plump and huge these chickens are from Family Cow Farmstand. Before putting it in the oven, I took out the backbone (just slice down either side of the spine with a sharp knife) and split the chicken open so that it would cook faster (about 1 hour and 15 minutes) and so that the skin would be super puffed and crispy (it was, yum). I also slathered it in softened butter mixed with finely chopped fresh oregano, salt, pepper, and a little lemon zest. The whole thing got laid on a bed of sweet potatoes and sweet onions.  I roasted it in a super hot oven (450F) for 15 minutes then turned it down to 375F.  Prep time - 10 minutes. While it cooked, I ran some errands, weeded a raised bed and planted a whole tray of annuals. How easy is that? 

One more bit of business: We are starting our summer hours this week.

We will be open every Tuesday through Saturday 8 am to 6 pm. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

It has been a great season, and I hope you have enjoyed your spring and early summer with us. We certainly have loved seeing all of you. We are staying open through August this year with lots of fantastic perennials, veggie and herb plants to replenish the garden, annuals for pops of color, and houseplants and succulents for gift giving and adding to your personal collection. Come visit! 

Focus on Allison!

Allison scouting the greenhouses for pests

Allison scouting the greenhouses for pests

During our 10th anniversary season, we'll feature profiles of members of our amazing Red Wagon team. This week we interviewed Allison Lea, who manages our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. 

You’re one of the longest term Red Wagon employees. How did you end up here? What keeps you here?

I started working for Julie when she was farming in Starksboro, and when she started Red Wagon I came along. I love working for Julie. She’s basically family at this point. I watched her daughter get on the  bus to kindergarten, and now she’s in her second year of college!

What keeps me at Red Wagon is that I love plants and I love what I do. I taught myself about integrated pest management (IPM) and have continued to develop that role. It’s an interesting job; I’m very much behind the scenes. It’s looking for very small pests and/or the small signs that the creatures are there, and that they might be getting out of balance. I’m tuning into a different sort of sight. I spend a lot of time by myself, looking through the plants and walking around examining things.

It’s a bit surprising because I’m an English major, not a science person. Well, I say that I’m not a science person, but when I started learning about IPM, I got interested. It’s fun to geek out on pests and their life cycles and their predators and their life cycles. The learning process is never-ending. That surprised me because I’m the kind of person who’d rather lie on the couch and read a novel than study science.

Tell us more about IPM. What is it, and why is it important?

Greenhouses are ideal habitat for pests: you don’t change location from year to year, you’re providing the ideal climate and growing all these succulent little plants. All of Red Wagon’s greenhouses are certified organic, which means that we don’t spray chemicals to keep pests in check. There are OMRI-approved sprays [meaning they are acceptable for certified organic production], but not using sprays is better for plants and everybody, even the organic sprays. 

Instead, every week I scout the greenhouses for pests, mainly aphids and thrips. These pests suck the plants’ sap, so I’m looking out for plants with puckered or shriveled leaves, or that look yellowed and droopy – really, any plants that just don’t look happy. It’s kind of a second sight.

I want to make sure that things aren’t getting out of a control. My goal is to strike a balance, so I’ll order beneficial insects like parasites that lay eggs inside of an aphid or predators that will eat an aphid entirely.

Is IPM applicable to home gardens or more relevant to commercial growers?

I’m not out to eradicate pests; I think you need balance. When you garden outside, there is just more natural balance. A greenhouse is an environment that creates potential imbalances. Outdoors, aphids kind of take care of themselves. In my own garden, I know that there are certain plants every year that are going to get aphids – I just notice it, I don’t necessarily manage it. My yarrow, my heliopsis inevitably get covered with aphids. I wipe them off and move on. 

What are your favorite Red Wagon plants?

I love our herbs! I love how aromatic they are. And I love the vegetables – for example, brassicas are hearty, perky, and they always look good, especially this time of year when the more sensitive plants aren’t quite as happy. The brassicas are strong, almost utilitarian. I like them for their strength.

What's your home garden like?

I like growing herbs. Things like sage, thyme and oregano smell and look good. I really like lavender and rosemary, which I bring inside in the winter. I also like growing herbs that attract bees. I have motherwort in my yard, which a lot of people might not like because it spreads, but the bees like it. I also grow medicinal herbs: elecampane, calendula, angelica. I have a lot of fruit trees, thanks to my partner. I’m not that meticulous. I’m not a Martha Stewart gardener by any means!

 Interview has been edited and condensed.  

Cold Season Gardening

As soon as the ground thaws, and dries out, I will be ready to plant. After chomping at the bit through this long, never ending winter, I long to get my hands in cool dirt and ceremoniously plant the first seedlings. A cold frame helps to rush the job along, and I can't wait to open ours up, fluff up the tired soil, add some compost and amendments, and dig in. My cold season garden is pretty predictable each year. I crave certain things, stick to those, eat only that the entire period of time it is ready, and then usually it is out of mind the rest of the year. Asparagus for example. It is pretty much a part of every meal during asparagus season, and then I never think about it the other 47 weeks of the year.  And it is ready before many other things, so why not give it the star treatment it deserves?  It takes up a good chunk of my garden for a reason....homegrown asparagus absolutely cannot compare to what you buy in the store.  There are so many delicate flavors in asparagus that are lost after any period of refrigeration, and I greedily await that first harvest each year.

And then there is bok choi. For some reason, I don't think about this vegetable too much 11 months out of the year,  but it is so cold hardy and so quick to grow, that earliest spring is the only logical time to insert it into the garden and into our kitchen. We grow 4 kinds of boc choi to give our gardens a real array of size, color, and harvest time. Violetta is quick to grow to baby size, and has shiny, dark purple leaves with pale purple and white stems. It is gorgeous and delicate and ready in just 3 weeks from the time I stick it in the ground.  Shanghai Baby Bok Choi is another quick and tiny one, but the palest green, with the most tender flesh. Red Choi is a medium sized boc choi with a more mustard like flavor, and the regular boc choi we grow, Joi Choi, grows up to be huge, heavy, and gorgeous (see below). These are all delicious chopped up and stir fried with ginger, hot pepper flakes, and garlic;  or thinly slivered and eaten raw as a salad or slaw or dropped into a warm bowl of broth.

Scallions are another cold hardy, quick to grow vegetable that makes it into all my early gardens. They can be planted in little clumps in tight spaces and harvested over a long period of time. I harvest them three or four at a time and leave the rest to grow for a later picking or two.

Next up are the salad greens, bitter greens and mustards. All of these can take multiple frosts and are happy to go into the garden long before the others.

In this picture from last year, we have Tokyo Bekana mustard in the bottom left corner. It is a light green, tender mustard delicious steamed or eaten raw. I especially like it in soups and broths with soba noodles and tofu. In the center is my favorite bitter green, Frisée ('Tres Fine Maraîchère") which I love to eat with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette. Behind that is some arugula which really should be planted multiple times throughout the season (just rip out the old plants and sow new seeds or seedlings). In the top right corner is a little bit of bulb fennel Zefa Fino poking into the frame. This is another great option for for those of us needing cold hardy and interesting garden plants. In the kitchen, I simply slice up the bulbs into long, thick wedges and roast in a 400F oven with olive oil, herbs and seas salt. And the bottom right corner is the soldier of the spring garden: Natacha escarole. This chicory relative is huge, easy to grow, and equally perfect cooked in a braise or sautéed or eaten raw in a salad, again with that garlicky Dijon vinaigrette. Escarole withstands multiple hard frosts, grows quickly to a 3 pound head, and is frankly one of the better values in the garden. A small to medium escarole in the grocery store can cost close to $4. And from one 4 pack, you can easily have twelve times the yield for about the same amount of money.

Here we have Lily sampling a bit of Lacinato kale. also known as dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, or cavolo negro. We love it for its nutty flavor and the fact that a few plants stuck in the ground in April will produce until December. Again, a pretty good value! In front of the kale is more boc choi, Red Choi. And in front of that is ruby red chard. Chard is the least cold tolerant of all these greens, but it can take a few light frosts. The others can survive a few dips even into the 20's and come out fine.

From seed, I like to start radishes and spinach and peas, because really, who can resist this sight:

Get ready, set, go. Spring is coming, and we want to help you get ready. And soon, we will be looking at this:

Herb Thoughts

Herb garden planning is not a lot of work, but here are some thoughts I have put together on the topic. Herbs are easy to grow for the most part, but they are a big category of plants (we grow 100 varieties of herbs) and it helps to break them down and organize them into categories. This will help any gardener plant the right plant in the right place and give it the preferred amount of water, sunlight, food, and water.

Why grow herbs? For flavor, fragrance, and beauty - it is the easiest way to improve the flavor of what you cook. It is also one of the easiest ways to have a container garden on your porch or deck.  Herb gardening is intimate - you get close to the plants, smell them, taste them, see them respond to regular clippings. They are a perfect way to better understand plant physiology and the best short cut to great food made with little effort.

Propagation: Plants vs. Seeds

All herbs can be planted from plants, and some can be planted directly into the ground as seeds. The herbs that you can seed directly in the ground and expect great results are: cilantro, dill,  and chamomile. Everything else will do much better if you start the seeds in containers in a sheltered environment. You can start your own herb transplants easily if you have grow lights and a heat mat. Many herbs take a long time to germinate and many herbs are propagated only from cuttings. Making your own rooted cuttings is possible too, but that takes a little more of a sophisticated set up with misters, rooting hormone of some sort, and humidity domes. For those herbs, it is generally easier to purchase the plants.

Herbs from Seed:

  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Chamomile
  • Savory (winter and summer)
  • Marjoram
  • Basil (all kinds)
  • Common Mint
  • Sage
  • Catnip
  • Chervil
  • Oregano (basic varieties)
  • Thyme (basic varieties)
  • Shiso
  • Sorrel
  • Lovage
  • Lemon Balm
  • Fennel
  • Salad Burnet

Herbs from Cuttings:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Mints that are true to type (spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint, etc)
  • Tarragon
  • Specialty Thymes (lemon, variegated, silver, etc)
  • Specialty Oregano (golden, ‘Hot and Spicy’, variegated, etc)
  • Specialty Sage (purple, tricolor, golden, etc)

Containers vs. in the Ground

Some plants love to be planted in the ground and others would prefer to be in pots.  Generally speaking, the herbs that like it dry and warm will prefer to be in a clay pot that breathes like Italian terra cotta. Plants that like it wet and cool might prefer to be in the ground, but they can also be grown in pots if the right conditions are given (more watering, a glazed or plastic pot, heavier potting soil, a little shade).

Herbs that like to grow easily in the ground in Vermont:

Cilantro, Dill, Parsley, Rosemary, Savory, and Chervil

Herbs that prefer to be in containers in Vermont: EVERYTHING ELSE!

This does not mean that you cannot grow herbs in the ground, it just means that in containers, it can be a little easier.

Some herbs do really well as tiny shoots for micro-greens: chervil, dill, cilantro, basil, fennel are our favorites.  And they are easy to grow indoors year round – just pat down some moist potting soil in a shallow container (only need 2” or so of soil) with holes in the bottom, press in the seeds, cover very lightly with a thin layer of soil, and keep moist. When the first set of true leaves begin to emerge, they are ready to eat. You can also grow pea shoots and sunflower sprouts this way. A south facing, sunny window is sufficient.

You can bring in potted herbs in the fall and keep them in a sunny window for use during the winter. The herbs that do best with this treatment: sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, and savory. Basil can be brought in as well, but it won’t be terribly happy unless you have grow lights for it.  If you had some of these herbs planted in the ground, you can dig them up and slowly acclimate them to being in a pot and being indoors.

Herbs can be dried or frozen or infused in vinegar or simple syrup for year round use. Pesto or herb pastes made with oil or water can be frozen in small containers.  Drying is very simple or very elaborate – you choose! A dehydrator can be used, and the leaves can be stripped off of the stems once dried and stored in jars in a dark place. Or you can go the simple route and just harvest whole branches of the woody herbs such as thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, and winter savory. Place the branches in woven baskets and keep in a dark, well-ventilated space. They will dry just fine on their own, and you can keep them covered with paper bags or kitchen linens and use as needed.

Related Upcoming Events

Cooking with Herbs with Molly Stevens and Julie Rubaud – a class and dinner.

South End Kitchen, Burlington, Vermont

March 19th.,  6pm

Red Wagon Plants pre-season Open House

April 4th 10 am to 3 pm. Tour the greenhouses and see behind the scenes.

Herbal Cocktail Party with Caledonia Spirits

April 17th, Red Wagon Plants 6 pm to 9 pm

Help us kick off our season with a bang!

Heat of Summer Garden Watering Tips

2014 has been a fabulous garden season, don't you think? Once we got over that initial cold period - a.k.a. November through April - it seems like we have had abundant sunshine and weekly rains. Moving towards August, we are seeing some drier weather in the Champlain Valley and needing to take a few precautions to make sure that plants stay healthy.  Whenever customers ask me a question about watering, I always have to stop myself from giving them a 45 minute lecture! Watering is something I do for hours a day, every day. I think about watering probably more than any other single task in our greenhouse business. It is a meditative and lovely way to spend part of each morning, and it is the best way I know to commune with plants, to get to know them, to check on them and see what else they might need in order to thrive. I will spare you the 45 minute lecture, and instead give you a few tips that will make your plants healthy and will save you time every time you water.

1. Mulch - whenever you can, lay down some old hay, straw, burlap bags, wet cardboard, newspapers or bark mulch around your plants. This will not only help keep weeds down, but it will also help keep moisture near the root zone.

2. When you water, aim the stream of water under the plant's foliage. Getting leaves wet is not the goal of watering...getting the roots drenched is what you are going for. I know this seems obvious, but so many people just water the top part of the plants and don't actually get the soil wet. It takes a lot of water right at the base of the plants to actually soak the soil. If you waste all the water on the leafy part of the plant, it sheds off, with the leaves acting like an umbrella and keeping the root zone dry. Not exactly efficient. Get the hose nozzle or tip of the watering can under all that foliage and you will be giving the plants what they want and where they want it.

3. Use a good nozzle on the end of your hose. We recommend this style:

They are made by Dramm and can be found locally at garden centers and on-line here. These nozzles are great for pots, window boxes, raised beds and small gardens. They are gentle enough so that soil doesn't wash away, but allow enough volume of water to flow out so that you don't have to wait too long for the ground to be saturated.  If you have a larger garden, consider investing in soaker hoses or even an over head sprinkler to save time. Overhead sprinklers do get the leaves wet, but they are cheap, can be moved easily, and can water a large area in a relatively small amount of time. If you have long rows and a garden that is organized in straight lines, you can invest in drip irrigation, like what professional growers use. You will need a pressure regulator and a filter with it, but most supplier are happy to help you put together a simple system. We recommend Drip Works - they do a great job at explaining drip irrigation systems and are committed to helping gardeners save water and time.

4. Ideally, keep the foliage dry and water in the mornings. This will allow the foliage to dry out before evening falls. Wet foliage on warm nights is an invitation to fungal diseases. Powdery mildew and other assorted pathogens love those conditions. It is an old wives tale that watering mid-day will burn the plants. In 20 years of farming and owning a greenhouse business, I have never seen a plant burned by water. I am not sure what that would even look like! I have seen all kinds of diseases sprout up literally over night from damp leaves in warm, dark, humid conditions.

5. If you water with a watering can, take that rosette off! The stream of water, uninterrupted by all those little holes, will make watering the base of the plant much easier. The only time you need that rosette is when you are germinating seeds and don't want a stream of water to wash away all those seeds.

6. If you have plants in containers, water them every single day in hot, dry weather. If they dry out too much, it is very hard to re-hydrate them. Also, keep them deadheaded and fertilized and they will cope much more easily with the heat. If you are going away for a few days, place each container in a pan or dish and add an inch or two of water so that they do not dry out (but only for a couple of days - they will drown if watered like that every day).  And please don't be stingy with the water - the averaage 10" to 12" hanging basket needs about 1/2 to 1 gallon of water per day during these hot dry days. That is a lot of water!

Overall, I love this time in the gardening season. The hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and corn are ready but we still have some nice spring crops like peas, scallions, and lettuces.  Watering can be relaxing, and it can provide you with some nice bonding time with your plants. Let us know if you have any questions.

A Note on the Art of Making Signs

I have made hundreds of signs. Signs for plants, called benchcards, that tell you how to care for the plants and the myriad special characteristics they have. Attributes signs, directional signs, open and closed signs, A-frame signs, hand-painted and computer generated. Together they make up a jumble of information, but individually they are meaningful, making each species or cultivar stand out from its neighbors. Each benchcard is like a glimpse into the world of that variety...you walk up, peer in, and for a moment your imagination builds a picture of how that plant will look or smell or taste in your own world. The signs turn a greenhouse full of plants into a sort of museum, where each variety is given its own little spotlight in which to shine. Whenever I make signs I think of my Grandfather. He was a skilled painter, mainly watercolors; an interpreter of landscapes and streetscapes from vibrant African villages to the curve of a beach in the Bahamas. He could convey the essence of a place with such minimalism, a tiny brush mark here, a bit of white left showing somewhere else. When he died we held an art show in lieu of a memorial, which entailed going through all of his work and deciding what to display. To our amazement, we found that many pieces had a painting on both sides of the paper! So little was his regard for his own work that he could not be bothered with finding a fresh sheet. And, not surprisingly, he never sold many of his paintings. On the other hand, he was commissioned for many pieces - illustrations for children's books, advertisements, and - you guessed it - signs. It is easy to take commercial artwork for granted, but I don't think his ever was, such was the level of cleverness, creativity, and precision apparent in each of his pieces. While his signs had the clear mark of a trained and talented artist, mine have only a shadow of that mark. But they are made with love, with his memory cherished in my mind, and I hope they bring you closer to the plants in the same way they keep me close to him.

~ Sophia



Coming Home

Earlier this week, I went away for a total of 48 hours. This is astounding for a couple of reasons. Not only because it is May, and who do I think I am going away for a whole two days while trying to manage a greenhouse business. No, it's astounding because of the way that I came home.  I landed. I arrived. No stress, no jumping into a chaos of activity, no guilt at being gone, no extra work piled up. I came home to a busy crew doing everything well and calmly. I came home to happy customers loading up on plants while wearing big smiles. I came home to a feeling that all is right in my little world.  Two days off in May is hard to pull off in this line of work, but what helped me so much was that everyone who works here knew what to do, they made smart decisions and I am sure they handled problems with grace.  So, thank you, crew.

I also came home to a garden. I love my garden. The moments in the garden are rare and precious for me in May, but the first thing I did when I got out of the car, was go up to the large garden above the barn and finished planting a bed of strawberries. I harvested an armful of asparagus, collected the 4 eggs the hens had laid, picked a handful of chervil and flat full of mache, and I got to work making  dinner. I looked at my haul, as the sun was setting and felt embraced by the bounty.

We ate late. We ate well.

Egg Salad in Spring

Makes enough for dinner for 3 and leftovers for everyone's lunches. 

  • Hard boil 8 to 10 eggs.  (My method is to put cold eggs and cold water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, covered with a lid. Let it boil one minute. Turn off the heat, but leave the pan on the burner. Set the timer for 8 minutes. Drain and run under cold water for 5 minutes.)
  • Finely chop a handful of herbs - I used chervil and chives.
  • Finely chop a rib or two of celery - I would have used lovage had it been big enough.
  • Finely chop half a shallot or 3 scallions
  • Peel the eggs and place in a shallow bowl. Cut them up with a couple of knives or a pastry cutter.
  • Add all the other ingredients.
  • Add enough home made mayo to moisten the whole thing.
  • Stir gently.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Add to the blender:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • a dash of cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of Dijon mustard or 1/2 tsp dry English mustard
  • Blend for a few seconds and then very slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup of olive oil, grape seed oil, or a blend of the two.  Drizzle it in a very thin stream while the blender is whirring around though the top of the blender cover. Or you can use a food processor and drizzle it in through the feeder tube. Or you can do it by hand in a bowl, with a whisk. If you do that, try to anchor the bowl by wrapping a damp towel around the base. Or get someone to help you with another set of hands to hold the bowl, or beat the eggs, or do the drizzling. Beat or blend or process until it starts to thicken up.
  • Taste for salt and add a little pepper. If it is too thin, you can add more oil, still adding it in very slowly while blending.
  • You can add fresh herbs to the mayo, a little crushed raw garlic, a little chopped poached or roasted garlic (mellower flavor), anchovies, spices, roasted peppers etc. (for cleanest flavors add just one of these other ingredients, not a combination.)

We ate this lovely egg salad with toasted Pain de Mie (or Pullman Bread) from Scratch Baking Company in South Portland, ME and the asparagus was steamed and cooled, served on the side, splashed with some lemon juice.

Mache Salad

Mache is also know as corn lettuce. It is a cold hardy green that germinates only in cool temperatures. We grow it in flats in the greenhouse in the winter and gorge on it from late March to late May. It is a sturdy green with a nutty flavor, and it is eaten as a whole plant, washed well under running water, and dressed lightly with hazelnut or walnut oil and a good sea salt - fleur de sel, Maldon, or sel gris. The small plants have a really interesting texture and a rich flavor that is perfect this time of year when one craves green and fresh.

To the garden, the hens, and the amazing crew at Red Wagon Plants, thanks. You make life pretty, tasty, and lovely.



This Week in Photos: Open House 2013

We are so grateful to everyone who came out last weekend to enjoy the flowers, sunshine and fresh air inside our greenhouses. It was one of those glorious days that gave us confidence in the return of spring and reminded us how much everyone (not just us) is looking forward to it! In case you missed it, here are a few glimpses from our moment in the sun...

There's more to come! Opening day (April 19th) is right around the corner....

~ Sophia

January Dreaming Photo Contest

It's time to think spring and what better way than to share pictures of our gardens? We think all garden photos deserve to win, so this is not a contest in the traditional sense since we will select the winner randomly on Monday, January 31. The prize? A $20 gift certificate to be redeemed at our Hinesburg greenhouses. Send your pics to us via email (julieATredwagonplants.com) or post to our facebook page. We will publish all the photos on our website and create an album on Facebook. What could be more inspiring than thinking about what is under the snow, patiently waiting to push through. Keep warm and dream on!

Please try this at home.

Does your counter look like this during tomato season? Do you feel pressed for time, don't want to be indoors too much with the canning pot, yet hate to see a single precious tomato go unused? Well, I can relate. I love to eat tomatoes in winter, the ones from our garden at least, but I don't love spending all that time indoors, canning and fussing. I have been trying something new this year, and I want to share it with you just because I think you will really like it.

I have been roasting the tomatoes in a hot oven, peeling them, and then throwing them in ziploc bags for the freezer. This gives maximum taste for minimal work. I know you can just throw raw tomatoes in bags and throw those in the freezer, but then you are left with watery, ice shattered, flavorless blobs. I prefer to let the oven do a little work to concentrate the flavors and then have an item to pull out of the freezer that tastes special, an item that has some flavor layers already built in. I used to make this with olive oil and garlic and herbs, but realized that I can do a simpler version with naked tomatoes that is quick, easy, and lends itself well to the preserving process.

Roasting tomatoes is super easy.

You just lay out some paste tomatoes (it works with other tomatoes too, but the cooking time will be longer since they are more watery) in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Pre heat the oven to 400F.  Don't add anything - no oil, salt or anything else. We are just going for tomato flavor here. This will allow you to really customize your dish the way you want it when it is time to use the tomatoes in winter. Slide them into the hot oven. Wait 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, take them out of the oven and flip them over. Tongs are handy for this process. If they have released a lot of water, you can drain off some of it, carefully, in the sink at this point.

Then they go back in the oven for another 30 minutes. The beauty of this recipe is that you don't have to watch over them. There is alot of what is called "passive time" in cooking and this method is chock full of passive time- I love that I can be doing other things while this is going on.

When they are done roasting, I turn off the oven, walk away and ignore them for a while until they have cooled down or I am done whatever project I started or wait until even later that night, when it is dark and the late summer sunshine is no longer tempting me out of doors. Then it is time to peel them. Just cut the tops of with a small serrated knife, and the skins just slip off in one or two quick motions. It is super simple. The fleshy, juicy, thick tomatoes have been reduced to a lovely consistency and can just go into freezer bags at this point.  I usually get two quart bags out of one cookie sheet;s worth of tomatoes.

So then what do you do with all those frozen tomatoes? Sauces, soups, stews,vegetable sautees, pizza, lasagna, and more will all benefit from these. Anytime a recipe calls for whole canned tomatoes, you can substitute these. I will be posting recipes using these tomatoes throughout the winter, so if you find yourself with a good supply and a lack of ideas of how to use them, check bag for some tips. Enjoy!



Jo Ann Gardner comes for a visit

From Julie.... There are a few garden and farm writers out there that move me to no end. I have had a fascination with homesteading literature since I was a little girl and still to this day I love to pour over books, catalogs, websites and blogs that have to do with growing food, living off the land, making do with things that are around the house, etc. Within this genre, one of my absolute favorite writers is Jo Ann Gardner.

She has written eloquently about the plants she loves for decades and I have poured over some of these books countless times. She and her husband were once back to the landers in Nova Scotia, far off the beaten path, and were able to make a livelihood for themselves in a very short growing season and on very challenging soils. Her writing reads like a series of love letters to a set of handsome, rugged plants that got them through tough times. I am absolutely honored to have Jo Ann visit our greenhouses this Saturday and to share some of her plant knowledge with us. She now lives across the lake, in Essex, NY and is active in gardening efforts at home and at a local senior center. Her talk on Saturday will focus on how to use herbs in pots and containers around the home. I am sure she will bring along her wit, thrift, and cleverness and we will all be a little richer for it.

Brown Dog Books  in Hinesburg is carrying her books, and they will set up a table at our greenhouses on Saturday for those of you who may wish to purchase one or two. But be warned - Jo Ann's writing will fuel the fires of any gardening addiction. Also present on Saturday will be Jess Bongard, of Sweet Lime Cooking Studio. She will be bringing us some herb treats to sip and snack post-workshop. Coincidentally, Jess is teaching an herb class in her home kitchen on Sunday. You can read about it here. A group of us are going from Red Wagon, making it a party, I am sure.

I like June. The bulk of the spring planting is done. The porch is swept off, and it is just the right time to sip a lemon verbena iced tea, make a lovage and butter sandwich, and gaze lovingly at all the herb pots surrounding the patio. I hope to see some of you this Saturday. Psst...there are only a few slots left, so please call or email to register.

New North End Plant Sale

Come to the

3rd Annual New North End Plant Sale

at Bibens Ace Hardware

Ethan Allen Shopping Center, North Ave.



Saturday, May 19th, 2012

9 am to 2 pm

The proceeds from this sale help scholarship applicants of the Burlington Area Community Gardens secure a garden plot for the season. Come and help out your neighborhood gardeners!

For more information, please call Dan Cahill at Burlington Parks and Recreation, 802-863-0420

The sale is a partnership of Red Wagon Plants, Bibens Ace Hardware, and Burlington Parks and Recreation

Home orchard, here I come.

Last Saturday, we were lucky to have a visit from Charlie Nardozzi, garden educator, author, TV and radio personality, and garden coach. He provided us with two hours of entertaining and information packed advice on growing fruit at home - a project which can feel like a daunting commitment, but which he explained so clearly, that it felt like a task we must all embrace...right now. I have to admit, I have been living in the same house for 6 years and have yet to plant much in terms of fruit trees. I keep studying my property and imagining where the trees would go, but every year, another chance passes and my trepidation leaves me fruitless yet again. I have planted a few blueberry bushes and raspberries and currants far from the house, but no trees save for one orphaned plum tree a couple of years ago. Growing fruit trees always seemed like more work and maintenance than I have time for, but after learning some of Charlie's simple strategies, I feel armed and prepared. Here are a few of the general tips Charlie shared with us.....

  • Trees are grafted, unless you dig them up out of the woods. Which is not a good idea, since you would be getting something not bred for fruit production and possibly disease laden. Trees are grafted in order to provide strong root stock in combination with a "top" that is bred primarily for eating quality. In addition, apple trees are often grafted onto a "dwarfing" root stock which will keep the tree from towering above you, fruit out of reach.  When planting, look for what is called the "graft union" - it is a slight bulge at the base of the trunk where the root stock and the top meet. This union should be about 1" above the soil line once planted. If you plant it too deeply, you may trigger the root stock to take over the top growth and this would not provide you with the best eating fruit.
  • At planting time, use only the native soil in the planting hole. Dig the hole so that it is 2 to 3 times wider than the tree's container or root ball. Do not go deeper than the container or you risk planting the tree too deeply.  If you add compost to the planting hole, the roots will never have to reach out and search for food in the native soil and the tree's root system will never develop fully.
  • When purchasing a tree, look for even lateral branching (called "scaffolding").
  • The first two years of a fruit tree's life are the non-bearing years. It is important that the tree puts its energy into being strong and vigorous, not into making fruit. So, sadly enough, you must pick off the blossoms so that fruit does not form.  This difficult task will reward you with bigger and better fruit on a healthy tree in years to come. After Charlie's talk, I dutifully went home and stripped my plum tree of its recently formed flowers.
  • Spacing of trees is equal to their height. In other words, if a tree is going to be 15' tall, you need to plant it 15' from its closest neighbor.
  • Pitted fruits like plums, cherries, peaches, and apricots do not do as well on clay as apples and pears do.  If you are like me, and live in a clay pit, look for the best drained site and consider digging some trenches to direct the water away from the orchard.
  • Amend the soil by layering in compost and other nutrients on the soil surface (not right up against the trunk though) after planting. This should include compost, some additional nutrients based on soil test results, woodchips from hard woods (which promote beneficial fungal activity), and a little woodash (only about 1 cup per tree).  Vermont Compost Company's Perennial Blend is a perfect material for mulching around the base of the fruit trees. It includes compost, micro-nutrients, macro-nutrients (NPK), and an extra shot of bark, which is high in lignans and which promote the beneficial fungal activity trees love.
  • A north facing slope is the best spot for a home orchard - it heats up a little later in the spring and keeps the trees a dormant a little longer. This delays bud formation which lowers the risk of a frost zapping those early flowers.  A north facing slope also has good air circulation and frost tends to blow away before settling into a valley or dip.
  • Fruit trees are best planted in pairs, and their planting partner should be a different variety or cultivar. This diversity leads to better pollination which equals more fruit formation.  For example, a Liberty apple, should be planted near a Honeycrisp, or a  Parker pear should be planted with a Summercrisp pear.

I think I will try a few cherry trees and  pears  this year. I have a spot picked out, on the north facing slope outside our kitchen window. And maybe once those are in, I will start to imagine some blueberries and raspberries nearby....closer to the house than the ones I planted when we first moved here.  One thing I am glad about....my years of procrastination with the back yard means that I have a blank slate and the home orchard can be very close to the house; it will be landscape and larder, all in one.


The Kitchen Garden: Abundant Harvest in Small Spaces

The following is a hand out that accompanied a workshop I presented at the NOFA conference Feb 12, 2012. -Julie


An abundant harvest in a small space can seem like a challenge, but by understanding a few concepts, you can make the most of your small garden so that it meets your needs and brings you joy. Observing plants is the best way to develop garden awareness; making good choices is the best way to avoid “garden guilt.” Abundant harvests have to do with efficiency:

  • The efficiency of the plant taking up nutrients
  • The efficiency of the amount of time it takes for the plant to mature.
  • The efficiency of minimized waste.
  • The efficiency of using your space to its maximum potential.

These are not hard and fast rules, but can be applied at your discretion in any area of the garden you would like to improve. These ideas can work for the spontaneous or lazy gardener (like me) or for the hyper-planner who maps it all out on graph paper ahead of time (like my neighbor). Think of it as cooking without a recipe - once you know a few techniques and concepts, you can explore and have decent results most of the time. And there is no such thing as garden failure - it is just a lesson waiting to be learned. The big factors:

  • Soil - texture, nutrients, compost, fertilizer
  • Shape - raised bed, containers, or “in ground”, bed prep
  • Water - drip, overhead, by hand, on timers, etc
  • Cultivation - weeds, mulching,  pests and diseases, season extension, spacing and timing, succession planting, shape of plants
  • Harvest - understanding life cycle of plants, post-harvest handling, when to try for multiple harvest or when to cut your losses, cleaning up plant debris.

Soil should be loose and rich and deep.  In a container it should be a pre-mixed potting soil, not garden soil. If the container is large (1 gallon or more) it should have some drainage material in the bottom. Many things work well for this - styrofoam packing peanuts, crushed up plastic pots, gravel, etc. If a pot is very lare (3 gallons or more) the drainage material can be a little deeper, up to the bottom third of the pot. It is a good idea to cover the drainage material with a piece of burlap, an old pillow case, or some other type of screen or fabric to keep the soil from washing down into the material that should remain porous.

In a raised bed, it can be a combination of materials including pre-made finished compost, leaf mold (rotted leaves - make a pile in the fall, it’s good to go in the bottom of the raised bed in the spring), peat moss, rotted manure/bedding (a good source is horse farms), garden soil,  sand and pre-mixed top soil / compost combinations. The key is to have a mixture of ingredients to re-create the complexity of a living soil system.

In the garden, the soil should be worked deeply with a 4 or 5 pronged fork, and loosed by hand or with a hoe. Even if you use a rototiller in the garden, the plants will benefit from having the soil loosened more deeply than where the rototiller tines reach. It is a good idea to shovel out the paths of the garden and put the extra soil onto the beds. This essentially makes a raised bed and will allow the roots to grow quickly and deeply in their search for food. Nutrients can come from compost, granular fertilizer, “Compost Plus” and/or  mineral inputs. It is a good idea to get a soil test in your in-ground garden or raised bed. If you are using materials in the raised bed that you know are of good quality, you can skip this, but if your plants look deficient during the growing months, you may opt to do a test after all.  Applying granular fertilizer or “Compost Plus” is best done after the plants have had a chance to grow out - either a month or so after seeding or two weeks or so after transplanting. Water is best done through drip irrigation - either soaker hoses or drip tape. A good source of drip tape is Dripworks. Next best watering choice is by hand since you can aim the hose nozzle at the soil, and not get the foliage wet. Third best choice (and not a good one, sorry) is overhead sprinklers: they require less of your time and labor, but they get the foliage wet. Two reasons to avoid getting the foliage wet with overhead irrigation (sprinklers and incorrect hand watering):

  1. it rots the plants, and disease can set in. Dry plants tend to be healthier plants.
  2. the plants take up water with their roots, not their leaves. You waste a lot of water and the leaves act as a nice umbrella for the roots, making it wasteful. You have to water more than necessary for the roots to actually start drinking. Getting the plants wet and watering the garden are two different things, and it is best not to confuse them.

Watering is best done in the morning - it gives the plants a chance to dry off before night time and supports their busy daytime growth. Watering at the end of the day is not recommended since disease spreads most during humid summer nights.  You can water the garden during the middle of the day, and the plants will still have time to dry off by sunset. Cultivation is simply the act of caring for plants. In larger scale farming, to “cultivate” means to scuff up the soil in such a way that you are removing weeds, usually involving a tractor and some sort of implement. Here we use the term “cultivate” in a broader sense meaning a general discussion of the cultural requirements of common garden plants. The “cultural requirements” of a plant are all the things that a plant needs from humans in order to thrive. For example, the site, the water, the tilth or texture of the soil, the space and  the nutrients are all a part of a plant’s cultural needs. To understand what a plant needs, you have to look at these factors:

  1. what is it’s shape? Shape of plants, physiological structure, and type of cells that make up the roots and the foliage all give you clues to what the plant needs. Thin fibrous roots dry out more than thick, tuberous roots (think of an onion plant vs. a tomato plant). Waxy, shiny leaves are more drought tolerant than matte, thin leaves (think of a succulent like aloe vs.a leafy plant like lettuce). Large plants with broad leaves have very different requirements than skinny tall plants (think brcocolli vs onion). The canopy a plant creates is also a clue - plants with a small canopy (onions, celery, leeks) do not cast much of a shadow. This makes them very vulnerable to weeds. Plants that create a large canopy (squashes, cabbages, broccoli, eggplant) cast a large shadow which slows down weed growth. Understanding the shape or growth habit of a plant also helps you maximize the potential of your small garden.
    1. A tall, vining plant can be trellised.
    2. A low growing, sprawling plant can be planted on the edge where it spills onto a lawn.
    3. A tall, skinny plant can be tucked into tight spots.
    4. A pretty, decorative plant can be planted in the flower bed.
  2. how hungry is it? Plants that need a lot of fertility are often referred to as “heavy feeders”. One common point amongst most heavy feeders is their life span. A baby lettuce plant that is in the ground for 20 days is going to be a light feeder. A giant, prize winning pumpkin in the ground for 130 days is going to be a heavy feeder. Plants that produce fruit such as tomatoes, zucchini, squash, peppers and eggplant are best fed when in a vegetative state (all green leaf growth, earlier in the first 45 days of transplanting); once those plants are in their fruiting state, it is best to lay off the fertilizer or compost which support green growth, not fruit growth. The plant has only so much energy, and if it is putting it into leaf growth, it won’t also put it into fruit growth. It is a balancing act since the green growth needs to happen quickly and in a lush manner in the earlier part of the season in order to support healthy fruiting in the latter part of the season.
  3. how thirsty is it? As in the discussion of shape, a plant’s water needs have to do with its structure, but also with weather and soil type. A garden in sandy soil will always need more water than a garden in clay soils. You can look for cues of thirstiness in a plant and water just as needed. These clues include very slight curling of leaves, a blue-like hue that creeps in (this is very sublte), or a very subtle droop in the way flowers are angled. This type of “reading the garden” takes some observation to understand, but gardening is a lifetime project with countless places to learn. Fruiting vegetables tend to taste better with less water. Leafy vegetables tend to taste better with more water. It is entirely possible to water tomatoes only once every two weeks, even in a drought, and get very tasty fruit. If you did that with lettuce, it would be bitter at best, but more likely it would simply be dead.
  4. how well does it share? A plant that knows how to share light, water, and nutrients with its neighbors is a plant that does well in small spaces. Radishes are a good example. They can be sown alongside just about any other crop, and they do quite well because of their short life span, lower light requirements, and broader leaves that shade out weeds. Radishes can share. Other examples of plants that cooperate nicely: arugula, baby lettuce, scallions (they are skinny and can go in nooks), cilantro, curly parsley or smaller varieties of Italian parsley, strawberries and wild strawberries, and pansies. Notice....with the exception of scallions, all these plants are low growing, have broad leaves that create a canopy that shades out weeds, and can tolerate a bit of shade that might be thrown by a neighboring canopy.
  5. how well does it compete? Plants that compete well are plants that are not easily thwarted by dry conditions, weedy conditions, temperature extremes, or low nutrition. You can always increase your harvest and increase your efficiency by knowing which plants have these characteristics. It basically allows you to prioritize garden tasks -you can make the less competitive plants a priority, and save the more tolerant, tough plants for a day when you have a little more time.  Working smarter in the garden can increase the harvest, and save you some “garden guilt”, just by knowing when to say “it’s okay if that is weedy, it can wait until the weekend.”

Succession planting is another way to increase your yields. This is the act of planting multiple generations of plants so that you have a continuous harvest. The trick with succession planting is to know a few numbers

  1. the date of the average last frost in spring
  2. the date of the average  first frost in fall
  3. the amount of time it takes for a plant to be harvestable (a.k.a. “days to maturity)

and two cultural factors:

  1. is the crop frost tolerant or not?
  2. is it a “multiple harvest” crop or a one time harvest?

Once you know these numbers and the frost tolerance of a plant, you can make some simple calculations based on your season length to determine how many generations of a particular plant you can grow. For example, head lettuce has about a 40 day life cycle from transplant time to harvest time, and it can tolerate a light frost. This means you can start transplanting it in early May (in Burlington, average last frost is last week of May)  or so, and you can repeat the planting of it every week or so, until early September. (in Burlington, average first frost is first week of October). Head lettuce is something you harvest only once, so if you want a nice head of lettuce every two days or so, you would plant 4 heads of lettuce a week, every week from early May to early September. This will give you a continuous harvest from early June until mid-October. If you are the kind of gardener who “puts in the garden” on Memorial Day and then you never replant, it is likely that you have a big glut of produce at certain times, and then none that is fresh and good at other times. By planting multiple generations of plants, you insure high yields and great flavor. A patch of bush green beans only produces good quality beans for about 2 to 3 weeks. After a while, the beans are tough and sparse on the plant. If you replant a new patch every couple of weeks, you will always have high-yielding, tasty beans. Abundant harvest happen on healthy plants at their prime, and gardens in small spaces require a certain amount of decision making. You always have a choice to pull out tired plants and to replant with new seeds or plants - this is often the most efficient way to have better yields. Mulch is a great way to keep weeds at bay, and to keep moisture near the root zone. It can also build soils, heat the soil, or cool the soil - all depending on your goal and what the plant needs. You can mulch paths and/or growing beds. Raised beds that are constructed out of wood can also be mulched and the paths around the raised beds can be mulched to minimize lawn mowing if you would like. If you use materials that naturally break down such as paper, cardboard, burlap bags, straw or bark, the mulched paths can become mini compost piles. By layering in materials that block out weeds, you are creating a layer of organic matter that will decompose over the course of a year and can then be shovelled onto the growing beds the following spring. Some mulch materials carry weed seeds so beware. They can still be used effectively in the garden, but best as a layer that is covered up with another barrier such as cardboard or burlap. As it breaks down and heats up over time, the weed seeds lose their viability and will not be a problem the following year. Plastic mulches heat the soil and are great for the heat-loving, fruiting crops. Harvest and post-harvest handling are other factors that affect the yield in your garden. Being able to plan or predict when you harvest a crop depends on your knowing the life cycle or days to maturity of that crop. It is entirely possible, to plan a garden harvest around certain dates or to plan for having no harvest during vacation times. An abundant harvest is one that happens when you want it. An unwanted harvest is a hassle - you have to get your neighbors to help, or find volunteers for a school garden, etc. Sometimes that works, but it is possible to minimize unwanted work, and under-appreciated produce by timing the plantings and knowing how much to plant of each crop. There are many charts on the internet that can help you gauge the garden harvest and how much to plant of each crop and when. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has some wonderful on-line tools, as does our own Red Wagon Plants website. Post-harvest handling includes everything from time of day you harvest, how you pack it into your basket or boxes, and how you store it. Morning is generally the best time to harvest since the field heat has not had too much time to affect the leafy green plants. Fruiting plants can be harvest later in the day. Again, this is a place where you can make a choice by harvesting the right plant at the right time of day. If you only have a few minutes to harvest in the morning, do the leafy greens. The fruiting plants can usually wait until later in the day or even a couple of days. Once a plant is cut or picked, it is best to wash it and refrigerate it right away. Again, this is related to an abundant harvest because anything that improves quality reduces waste. Lettuce that is wilted and dirty in the bottom of the fridge drawer is just not as appealing as lettuce that is crisp, clean and ready to eat. A small garden is not a productive garden if what you harvest ends up under-utilized. A good trick is to harvest the lettuce, and when you get in the house, soak it in a basin or large bowl of cold water right away. This takes out the field heat, the leaves absorb some water making them more crisp, and the dirt drops down to the bottom. Lift the leaves out, re-soak once or twice depending on the amount of dirt, and then spin the leaves in a lettuce spinner or by layering between some clean towels. Lettuce treated this way is sure to get eaten, promise! Plants like broccoli, beans, and tomatoes produce more the more they are harvested. Broccoli will generally make one big head, and then produce what is called side shoots all summer long. These shoots are the perfect size for cooking or eating raw and the more you remember to cut them, the more the plant will produce. Often a broccoli plant that goes into the garden in late April will continue to produce side shoots into mid-December - talk about a high yield! Most fruiting plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and eggplant) will also produce more the more they are picked. These do not need immediate refrigeration, and tomatoes and basil should never go in the fridge. A basket full of cukes and zukes can stay on the counter until a time later in the day when you have had a chance to make room in the fridge or have time to make pickles,etc. Again, a high yield can be a burden or a blessing, depending on how it fits into your life. With a little planning, a very small garden such as a 4’ x 8’ raised bed can include 2 tomato plants, a cucumber plant and a season’s worth of greens. This is often plenty for a single person or a couple. Abundant harvesting is about making choices that lead to efficiency and no waste., beauty and no guilt.  If you use your minimal space for vegetables that you will not use, then the space is wasted, if instead that small space is regularly turned over with fresh plants, and old plants are removed, then you will have a high yield of well loved produce. It is always a better choice to remove the garden debris (think bolted lettuce, cabbage stumps, woody radishes) than to let it limp along, tempting disease and pests.

Some good sources of information

  • Our website has an extensive list of resources in the “Garden Journal”
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Territorial Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Botanical Interests are all reputable seed companies with lots of educational materials on their websites and in their catalogs. These are great sources of free information.
  • Cornell Extension has a website for home gardeners that is very helpful
  • Elliot Coleman’s books are geared towards vegetable farmers but have very clear explanations of succession planting, timing and spacing
  • Barbara Damrosch, The Garden Primer is my favorite all around basic gardening book
  • UVM Extension offers soil tests, a plant pathology lab, and a pest identification lab
  • Burlington Permaculture
  • Charlie Nardozzi offers a garden coaching program and gives weekly talks on VPR about gardening.
  • Friends of Burlington Gardens offers support to school gardens, community gardeners, and anyone interested in learning how to grow food. They offer a season long course at Ethan Allen Homestead that provides brand new gardeners all the support necessary to achieve success in their first year.