gardening without guilt

Hardening Off Those Plants

Curious about what "hardening off" means and why it's important? Here's a blog from our archives to help you prep your cold-season transplants for the great outdoors. 

Plants need to be hardened off before being transplanted. What does this mean? It is the process you take them through to get used to direct sunlight, wind, cold, heat, dryness, and any other weather conditions they will be asked to live through during their lives. When plants are started in the greenhouse, in trays or pots, their world is sheltered and comfortable; food is readily available in the compost-fortified soil, and the temperatures are carefully regulated. Once it is time to go out into the harsh world of the garden, the goods and services become a little more scarce for those baby plants and they go through a bit of withdrawal known as "transplant shock."  Hardening them off gives them a gradual adjustment to this new world.  It is best to start out by putting the plants outside for a few hours, and then bringing them back in; this gives them a small taste of direct sunlight. In any greenhouse, the plastic film filters out 10 to 25% of the sun's rays and the tender plants are literally sun-burned when they first encounter that unmediated light.  Here is how I do it at my house. When you buy plants that were grown by Red Wagon Plants, they have already been hardened off and you can put them right in the ground. The following method is important to follow if you are working with plants that you know are not hardened off yet.

Once they have gotten used to a few hours of sunlight at a time, they can stay outside overnight, but under a protective row cover.

The cover comes off in the daytime and the plants are acclimated to being where they will be planted for a few days.

If the temperatures drop down below freezing, cover them again. Cold hardy plants such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, hardy lettuces, hardy herbs, escarole, scallions, onions can take a frost without a problem, but they will do it with more grace and strength if they have been gradually introduced to those temperatures.

Once the plants have had a few cold nights, under cover, they can have a couple more nights without cover, and then are properly hardened off and ready to go in the ground.

It's also a good idea to give cold-weather transplants a little extra compost or a fish/seaweed emulsion watering at transplant time. It is hard for plant roots to uptake nutrients in cool weather and this will aid their transition as well.

Planting the Fussy Onion

Onions are some of the first things to go in the ground each spring. You may not know this, but onions are finely tuned creatures with a rigid hormonal profile. They are completely and utterly dependent on the sun's cycle to grow into the lovely round orbs we think of as onions. Those plump layers only grow in relationship to the lengthening days of spring. If onions are planted too late, they will never bulb out and become big and round. An onion that has been planted too late, let's say after the middle of May, will never quite size up, but will create a thick stem, and a barely bulbous orb. The engorged stem will not create rounded layers at all but rather look more like a slightly ovate leek. These are still fine to eat, but won't really be onions you can store through the winter.

We recommend that people plant onions in mid-April. When it is muddy, and cold, and you think there is no way a plant wants to go into the garden, well guess what? The onions really want to go into that cold earth. The way we grow onion plants for sale is that we seed about 80 plants into a 4 pack, and your job as the gardener is simple:

  • Prepare a bed in the garden - deep, well worked, rich soil is best. I prepare my onion beds in the fall, that way they are ready for onion plants first thing in the spring.
  • Gently pull the clumps of soil and roots and plants out of the 4 pack.
  • Separate each plant and shake off the excess soil. The individual plants are like tiny blades of grass, but each one will grow into a big onion plant.
  • Make a trench about 4 inches deep the length of your planting area. Onion rows can be about 8 inches apart, so depending on the size of your bed, you can plant up to 4 rows of onions in one bed and still reach across the bed to weed comfortably.
  • Plant the individual plants in the trench, about 4 to 6 inches deep. Only a few inches of the thin green stems will be above ground. You should have about 2-3 inches between plants.
  • Tamp the earth tightly around each plant.

The onions plants won't grow much at first, but they are just hanging out in the cold soil, programming themselves to grow once the soil warms up. It is these cold, long days that help make onions nice. I know, it is hard to believe that they prefer this, but they do. Southern growers, who have shorter summer days than northern growers, have entirely different onion varieties than we do. That illustrates just how much onions are day-length sensitive. A few degrees difference in latitude necessitates a whole different set of genetics.

The other things to keep in mind with onions:

  • Keep them well watered. Water and day length is what makes onions big. Some straw mulch applied in late June is a good idea for keeping the moisture even and consistent.
  • Keep them well weeded. Onions plants are slender and upright. They do not create any shade, therefore weeds like to grow near them, in the sunny under-story of the onion patch and because onions really don't want to compete for food, water and sunlight. They are not good at sharing.
  • Keep them well fed. An application of Compost Plus in May is a good idea. It will help them get big and strong.
  • Growing onions in black plastic mulch is a good option if you want to eliminate weed pressure and heat up the soil. Once onions are big, they like it hot.
  • Harvest onions once the tops start to flop over. You can eat them fresh, as "green onions" or you can cure them by laying them out in a dry, airy place, away from direct sunlight. This usually happens in late July or early August. It depends on the varieties you grow and on the kind of weather we are having.

Onions are best stored in a dark, cool, airy place. A damp basement is not a good storage spot. A cold, dry, dark attic is better. Or an unheated closet, or a garage that does not get too cold. Ideal onion storing temperature is about 35F. That is pretty cold - colder than most basements.

Some onion relatives can be planted later in the season. This includes scallions, mini-purplette onions, pearl onions, and shallots. Leeks are also tolerant of a later planting, and can be planted multiple times throughout the gardening season if you would like to harvest baby leeks. 

The onion varieties we grow each year:

Cipollini Gold Coin - a flat, disc like onion that stores very well in the winter. It is a strong flavored onion which mellows when cooked and is delicious caramelized, glazed, or roasted. One of our favorites for flavor.

Yellow Storage Cortland - a huge, good keeper which means that it stores well all winter. Dry the onion once harvested in a cool, airy spot, and you will be eating it until March or April of next year. 

Red Storage Onion Mars - also quite big, and also a good winter keeper. Slightly milder in flavor than Cortland and can be eaten raw when sliced thinly. Red Onions develop their red interior only once they have been cured. Once harvested, coll in an airy dark spot until the tops are completely dried and can be pulled off by hand. That is the curing process for all storage onions.

Sweet Onion Walla Walla and Ailsa Craig - both are gigantic sweet onions. They do very well with lots of water and mulch. Sweet onions do not keep over the winter. They do not need to be cured, but rather get refrigerated once harvested. They are delicious roasted, grilled, or eaten raw in sandwiches. 

Scallions - These can be planted in clumps of 10 or so plants. They can be planted every few weeks for a continuous harvest. If you do not want to buy scallion plants or seeds, you can eat young onion plants as scallions.

Shallots - These store very well after being cured like onions. They add a sweet and complex flavor to winter dishes, marinades, and dressings. 

Mini-purplette - these are lovely purple pearl onions that are delicious in a spring braise with salad turnips and peas. They can be planted in clumps of 4 to 6 plants and can be planted multiple times throughout the season for more than one harvest. They also make great pickles. About 1" to 2" across.

Garlic Ritual

Planting garlic in Vermont is a great way to extend the gardening season and gives you a crop that is perfect in so many dishes, stores well all winter long and even generates its own seed. It is a perfect way to tune into the cycles of the gardening season and feel like you are growing an important part of your diet. Garlic is expensive to purchase so there are savings to be had with your own garlic crop. Please follow this guide for easy, step-by-step instructions that will give you a garlic patch for life. I have been growing out my own garlic for 18 years and usually do not need to ever buy seed stock or garlic in the grocery store. The pleasures of garlic growing are abundant and I encourage you to get familiar with this wonderful and simple crop.

When to start the cycle?

Planting dates in Vermont are anytime between mid October and late October. It is best to wait until then, because if you plant too early, the bulbs will break out of dormancy too soon and this weakens the plant going into our harsh winters. If you plant the cloves during those last two weeks of October, it gives them just the right amount of time to take root and hunker down until spring, but not send out any top growth.

To plant garlic, you need to follow a few easy steps.

1. Bed preparation.

This is the act of making your garden soil ready for garlic planting. You want a nice patch of garden, that is worked deeply so that the soil is loose about a foot down in depth. If your garden is very compacted and hard, the garlic will not be able to grow well and you will be sure to end up with small heads of garlic that are tedious to peel and not all that satisfying. You can prepare the bed with a 3 prong fork by digging in straight down, tilting the handle of the fork back and forth, and loosening the hard pan. This is a good work out! Don’t hesitate to get dirty here by kneeling in the earth and breaking up the clods of soil with your hands so they are not chunky at all. Add a bit of well rotted manure or compost at this time. Not too much. For a 5 by 10 bed, maybe a 5 gallon bucket’s worth. You don’t want to over feed the garlic roots in the fall, but a little compost will add organic matter and that will help the structure of the soil, keeping it loose, able to retain some moisture without staying too wet.

Take your time and your garden will reward you. I always look at garlic planting as a soulful moment in the gardening cycle. It is saying goodbye to summer and embracing the dormancy of winter, when seeds deep below the surface slowly get ready for their spring emergence. Living in a climate with such long winters, I need these small, but important, rituals to remind me that spring will come and the cold barren winter is a necessary part of it all. The seed garlic is planted in the fall because it needs to send roots far into the earth in order to feed itself the following year. I take this as a metaphor for my own winter activities that feed me all year long - catching up on sleep, feeding my mind with more reading time, eating great, nourishing foods, and spending more time with friends and family.  I digress here, but these are the thoughts I have as I plant garlic, and after many years of doing it, I find that it is a necessary part of my mental preparation for winter.

2. Mark the rows with a hoe, or hand tool. I usually keep the rows about 12 inches apart and since my beds are about 4 feet wide, I keep 3 rows per bed and can easily reach the center. Just drag your tool - the sharp tip of a hoe or the narrow edge of a hard rake works well - through the soil to delineate the rows. You can use string and stakes if it is important to be straight, but I don’t bother with that at all.

3. Break up the garlic heads into individual cloves. Do not peel! And notice that one end is the root end and one end is the stem end. This will be important for planting right side up with the root end pointing straight down and the stem end pointing straight up.

4. Space out the cloves. Lay the cloves on the top of the soil, following the line you have just drawn in the soil.  Allow about 6 inches between all the cloves.

5. Planting, spacing, and yields

Now you can start to plant. I always kneel down and take my time to feel the earth under me at this point. It just feels good and is a way to say goodbye to the garden before winter! Then, take a bulb planting tool, or a sturdy,  sharp pointed stick, or your hand if your soil is soft and pliable, and poke a hole about 4 to 6 inches down. Shove the clove of garlic deep down, root end down, and cover up with the soil. Continue down the row and repeat until all is planted. Three  heads of garlic will turn into about 24 heads next spring - assuming your garlic has about 8 cloves per head. . And with 6” by 12” spacing, a 5’ x 10’ patch of garlic will yield about 60 heads of garlic. That is enough to enjoy one head of garlic per week, all year long, and still have some left over for planting. To plant a patch this big, you will need to plant the equivalent of 7 to 10 heads of garlic.

6. Compost and mulch. I usually add another 4” of compost or well rotted horse manure to the bed. I then leave it like that for about 6 weeks. Then in mid to late December, I cover the bed with a thick layer of straw. You can also use leaves here, but straw is the best insulator with hollow stems that trap air and keep everybody warm down below. Another advantage of straw is that it usually does not have weed seeds in it; mulch hay, straw’s poor cousin,  should be avoided since it is laden with all sorts of perennial grass and weed seeds. The straw moderates the winter soil temperature and prevents buckling and heaving which could push those garlic cloves up and out of the ground.

Let winter pass you by now, and next......

7. Spring time chores with garlic. Once the snow melts and the soil warms up a bit, your garlic will break dormancy and magically pop up out of the earth. It is important to pull back the straw to let the garlic see sunlight. If you wait a bit too long, and pull back the straw only to see a bunch of yellowing stems, don’t worry! The garlic shoots will green up in no time and will look fabulously sturdy after a week or so of direct sunlight. I usually pull the straw into the garden path, let it pile up there and then replace it around the growing garlic to block out weeds once the garlic plants are about 8 inches high. I often will add a little granular fertilizer at this time, before putting the mulch back in place. For a 5 by 10 garlic patch about 3 cups of Pro-Gro from North Country organics or one bag of Compost Plus from Vermont Compost Company is just about right. This will insure you get large, easy to peel cloves that taste great.

8. Garlic scapes will appear on stiff neck garlic around late May. These look like green curly cues with a pointy end that gracefully swoops down and around, waving in the breeze. This is the budding and flowering portion of the garlic plant. It should be removed to help the plant spend its energy on sizing up the goods below ground. If it is allowed to flower, the plants’ strength will go towards the flower and the garlic forming below ground will be the weaker for it. The good news here is that the “scapes” as they are called, are good to eat. I usually cut off the pointy tip - it is rubbery and inedible, and then slice up the round stem and use it in stir fries, stews, pasta dishes, or pickles. When cooked, it has the texture of a nice green bean and the flavor of mild garlic. It is absolutely delicious and a once a year treat that marks the beginning of summer - a harbinger of good things to come.

9. When to harvest? Garlic is ready to harvest when about 70% of its leaves have turned yellow. This is somewhat subjective, and should be taken as not a hard and fast rule, but rather a guide. You can dig up one head of garlic and look for signs of well formed skin, plump cloves, and individuation (cloves that are individually formed, and not one big mass). This is usually some time in late July. In very wet and rainy years, sometimes it makes more sense to take the garlic our of the ground a little early so that the skin does not rot in the damp earth.

10. How to harvest? Take out your three prong fork again and use it to loosen the soil around the outside edges of each garlic row. This will break up the soil enough to allow you to pull out each plant with a firm yank. (If the stems break off, it is likely you waited too long and the skin and stems are starting to rot. At that point, just dig up the cloves with a spade and they will be okay in taste; they just won’t store well. ) Lay the plants on the surface of the soil so that they start to dry off. Once all the garlic is pulled up, wipe it with a towel or rag, and get ready to tie it into bundles. I usually take about 8 plants, hold them together in one hand, and with the other hand, wrap twine around the whole bundle. Tie off the twine and then hang the bundle in a dark airy space. The rafters of a garage, shed or barn work well. If you don’t have that type of space, just find a place out of the rain, out of direct sunlight and with good air circulation - a covered porch? a dry basement with a fan running? a spare bedroom that can get a little dirty? (no shag rugs please!).

11. Curing the garlic Curing is the process of letting the garlic dry which makes the papery skin that allows the garlic to keep all winter. The stems will turn brown and brittle and the exterior of the bulbs will become dry and paper-like, just like garlic in the store. At this point, it is okay to cut off those dry stems, wipe off any remaining dirt, cut off the roots, and place your garlic in a crate to store it. This can be done anytime from 3 to 6 weeks after you initially hang up the garlic to dry.

12. Storing the garlic Once the garlic is cured, cleaned and trimmed, you are ready to store it for eating all winter long. Garlic is best stored in the dark. In an airy, dry, cool place. I use milk crates, covered with a piece of burlap, and keep the crate in a very cool part of the basement. Ideal garlic storing temperatures are between 35 and 45 degrees, but a refrigerator is too humid, so please don’t be tempted to use that as a storage method. Other good places to store garlic (and onions for that matter) are unheated attics, attached garages that don’t freeze, but are not heated, or 3 season porches that do not freeze. Root cellars are great, but most of us don’t have one. If well stored, garlic will last until April or May - almost right in time for the garlic scape harvest!

13. Finding seed stock.

Until you build up your own supplies, you will have to purchase seed garlic. There are many great resources for garlic and for finding garlic seed, I recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or locally, Last Resort Farm in Monkton, Hudak Farm in Saint Albans, or any farmer at your local farmers market who has nice looking seed stock. Seed stock is basically sorted out of the garlic harvest and selected for the following the following traits:

      • good size
      • evenly formed cloves
      • strong stem
      • well formed skin
      • great flavor
      • ability to store for a long time

If you have been growing out your garlic in your garden, you can pick out the best cloves at cleaning and storing time. Set these aside in a safe place where they will not be eaten and come October, experience the joy of planting your own seed garlic.

14. Plant garlic. Repeat Step 1. above and the cycle starts all over again!

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!

Garden Things to do in December

  • Mulch your garlic. Need a good source of organic straw? Call up Aurora Farms in Charlotte, VT. They grow grains for the Nitty Gritty Grains Company, and their bales of straw are just beautiful - no weed seeds, nice long strands with hollow stems to insulate from the cold, and best of all it is organic. You don't want to risk introducing persistent herbicide residues into the garden.
  • Plant bulbs before the ground totally freezes (quick!)
  • Plant some paperwhite bulbs for forcing. You can find out how right here. 
  • Give your houseplants a trim, a feed, a little love. Check them for pests, wipe them off with a little neem oil if you see anything crawling around. This is a great time of year to give houseplants a little shower. The heat source in your house is likely quite dry, and most of your green friends like the feeling of rain. Recreate it for them. You can sing to them, too, while you are at it.
  • Make a few holiday gifts from the garden - herb salts, lavender sachets, cranberry apple chutney, herbal vinegars, calendula skin oil, or rosemary short bread. If you don't have any of the necessary garden ingredients, you can always purchase them and see it as inspiration for growing your own next year. Pinterest and the internet are brimming over with ideas and directions for making all kinds of beautiful  holiday treats from the garden. The links above will get you started.
  • Make a garland, wreath or swag with stems, twigs, branches, seed pods, dried flowers, and other goodies from fields, woods and gardens. I love growing a hedge of Ilex verticulata and a small row of red osier dogwood for their berries and twigs make striking additions to winter greenery like balsam or pine or cedar.
  • Poke at the compost pile. Try to introduce some air into its nether parts so that it really heats up before the cold sets in. Add some fallen leaves, and a little manure from a horse farm or friends with chickens. You get the idea.
  • Look at seed catalogs! They are coming out now and the best therapy for  December Darkness is those spring dreams of budding life and sowing seeds.

Pollinator Habitat Restoration for the Home Gardener, Part 2: Butterflies and Hummingbirds

By Hope Johnson (Part 2 of a series. See Part 1 to learn about promoting bee habitat)

Of 339 species of hummingbirds, only two inhabit the area East of the Mississippi-the very rare Rufous and common Ruby-throated hummingbirds. There are many butterfly species in our state  (see Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ Vermont Butterfly Survey and The Butterfly Site’s List of Butterflies of Vermont).

Both Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to nectar-rich flowers.  Butterflies prefer purple and yellow flowers and hummingbirds are attracted more to red and blue. Site your nectar plants in an open area of the yard, and be sure to include host plants which provide forage for caterpillars. Remember, some butterflies don’t live on nectar from flowers but instead feed on soft and over-ripe fruit. (See The Nature Conservancy’s Gardening with Vermont Native Plants.)

Wondering what to plant? Here's a list of Top Ten flowers for Hummingbirds and Butterflies:

1.  Yellow cosmos

2. Phlox: Meadow phlox, P. maculata and Garden phlox P. paniculata.

3. Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis

4. Goldenrods, Solidago spp.,  attract monarchs.

5. Butterfly weed, Asclepius tuberosa.

6. Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

7. Columbines, Aquilegia spp.

8. Scarlet sage, Salvia splendens.

9. Red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, small tree.

10. Spiderflower, Cleome.

What else do butterflies and hummingbirds need? Water! Hummingbirds naturally use the smooth leaves of deciduous trees such as dogwoods, eastern redbud and sugar maple as birdbaths, but also appreciate misting sprinklers. For drinking, butterflies require a thin film of water such as around puddle edges or in slight depressions on rock surfaces.

What else can we do to provide habitat? Butterflies roost in trees and some hibernate in the winter. Leave sites for overwintering such as sheltered spots where caterpillars or pupae can survive the cold weather. Leaf and plant debris shelter chrysalises and pupae and provide a hibernation box in areas devoid of natural debris. Native shade trees provide protection from hot sun, heavy winds and driving rain. Consider a hedgerow for protection from prevailing winds. Perennials with wide leaves such as hosta provide cover for butterflies. In the East, nest sites for hummingbirds include common native trees such as oaks, hickories junipers, hemlocks and pines. Open branching shrubs such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin), hawthorns (Crataegus spp) and willow (Salix spp) are preferred for perching sites. You can provide a source of nesting materials by putting out a suet feeder filled with natural fibers such as cotton fluff and small feathers.

Lastly, avoid use entirely of insecticides in gardens intended for butterflies. These include malathion, Sevin and diazinon. Bacillus thuringiensis is lethal to caterpillars. Most butterfly caterpillars do not cause the leaf damage like that made by tent caterpillars and gypsy moths. Let those butterfly caterpillars do their thing and watch as these pollinators enjoy your garden!

References

Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, The Xerces Society Guide, Storey Publishing, 2011.

Attracting Butterflies and Hummingbirds to Your Backyard, Roth, Sally.   Rodale, Inc., 2001.

Website: How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden, National Wildlife Federation, nwf.org.

 

Pollinator Habitat Restoration for the Home Gardener, Part 1: Bees

By Hope Johnson

(Part 1 of 2. See Part 2 for information about promoting butterfly and hummingbird habitat).

Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation are serious threats to the survival of pollinators.  There are three basic pollinator habitat requirements:

1.  Flower-rich foraging areas and water source.

2.  Suitable host plants or nests where they can lay eggs and/or raise brood.

3. Environment free of pesticides.

This blog series will focus on the habitat needs of bees (social and native solitary), and the butterflies and hummingbirds which are the pollinators we most often encounter and recognize in our home gardens.

Bees

Of the 20,000 species of bees worldwide, 4,000 are native to the U.S. and 90% of these are solitary. These include bumble, mason, and ground-nesting bees. The domesticated honeybee is a European import.

Bees prefer purple, yellow and white flowers and see ultraviolet color patterns, such as shape and color ‘nectar guide” patterns that provide clues to the location of nectar in the flower.  Not surprisingly, sequential bloom  is important for forage all season long. So, what to plant?

Here's a list of Top Ten Perennials for bees and other pollinators from Annie White at University of Vermont:

1. Monarda fistulosa, Bee Balm.  More resistant to powdery mildew than M. didyma (red).

2. Aster Nova-angliae. late season nectar source (for Monarchs, too).

3. Eupatorium purpureum, Joe Pye weed.

4. Penstemon digitalis, foxglove beardtongue, native.

5. Veronicastrum virginicum, Culver’s root. Blooms late summer.

6. Helenium autumnale, Sneezeweed.  Deer and rabbit repellant.

7. Lupinis premis, Sundial lupine.  Host plant for butterflies and native to Vermont.

8. Lonicera sempervirens, Trumpet honeysuckle. Native and blooms June to September.

9. Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower.  native to NY and CT, composite flower.

10. Agastache foeniculum, anise hyssop.  Native to NY and NH.

Other ways to promote habitat? Seventy percent of bees live in the ground and these include the squash bees that nest in the ground near the squash and cucumbers they pollinate.  Preserve areas of bare or sparsely vegetated well-drained soil and avoid compaction of same. Also preserve dead or dying trees and hold the fall clean-up since tunnel nesting bees rest in the debris. Create your own wooden net blocks or bundles of hollow stems.

Avoid using insecticides containing systemic neurotoxin neonicotinoids especially Imidacloprid and Clothianidin that linger in the soil and can remain active for a year or more. Neonics are absorbed by the plant and dispersed in plant tissues including pollen and nectar and they are toxic to bees and beneficial insects. Although there is conflicting evidence that neonicotinoids cause colony collapse disorder for honeybees, there is increasing evidence that topical or ingested exposure in bees retards colony growth, impairs navigation and foraging behavior and may increase their susceptibility to other pathogens such as mites, bacteria and fungal infections. See Friends of the Earth Bee Safe Gardening Tips for a full list of neonics to avoid.

Bee in squash blossom

Local Resources

“The Buzz on Designing Pollinator Friendly Landscapes”

Annie White, UVM Graduate Research Assistant.  Presented at 2013 Flower and Garden Show, Burlington, VT.  At PollinatorGardens.org, see “Top ten perennial plant choices for pollinators” and  “Designing pollinator-friendly  landscapes”.

“Enhancing Pollinator Populations for Farms and Gardens”, presentation by John and Nancy Hayden of The Farm Between at NOFA Winter Conference 2014.   At thefarmbetween.com, see full powerpoint presentation and info on June 30th, 2014 Pollinator Workshop.

“Attracting and Conserving Native Pollinators”, presented by Anne Dannenberg, Pollinator Habitat Consultant, a One Night University class at Access CVU, 3/10/14. Contact:  acd@gmavt.net

Echinacea purpurea

What to Plant in Late June

Has your garden been producing lots of vegetables yet? We have been harvesting for a while thanks to some season extension and some early plantings.  Boc choi, lettuce, escarole, radishes, asparagus, chard and kale have all been making regular appearances in our meals and keeping us out of the produce aisle at the grocery store. So now, there is a little room in the garden where some of these plants have been harvested. What to plant next? There are so many options, and we like to take these "gaps" as a time to experiment, or add some diversity to the garden, or take advantage of short season crops that can be ready before planting a fall crop, or put in another generation of a warm weather crops to ensure a healthy harvest for as long as possible. Here are a few ideas......

Experiment

An empty spot or two is the perfect place for planting something new. Preferably something that does not take up too much room, and something that grows vertically so that it does not crowd its neighbors. Celery, fennel, scallions, boc choi and chard are all great candidates. Or a new variety of lettuce, or some arugula or mustard green you've been wanting to try. These are all crops that are fairly quick to harvest and will help maximize your harvest  in that precious garden real estate.

Add some diversity

Small spots are just perfect for adding flowers to the garden that will attract pollinators, provide habitat for beneficial insects, and will give you blooms to enjoy in the garden or in a bouquet. There are many great annual flowers that grow well in tight places and they break up the wide expanse of vegetable plants. By punctuating the garden with blossoms, you make it harder for predator insects to find your vegetables and you create a more diverse ecosystem, in miniature. Going for the most diversity possible in a small space is a great move in your over all pest control strategy. Some flowers we recommend for tight spaces:

Cosmos

Verbena Bonariensis

Zinnias

Sneak in a short season crop

Arugula, baby boc choi, spinach, lettuce, radishes, dill, cilantro and scallions all grow quickly and can take a bit of shade from their neighbors. This means you can plant them in close proximity to taller plants, and they won't mind one bit. They even enjoy the shade in the heat of summer. These can all be started from seed or transplants this time of year, and are a great way to add something to your table that you may not have planned on. Keep salads fresh with new lettuces, don't keep eating those bitter old ones! Same with arugula that has bolted or is too holy from flea beetle damage.....start with some fresh ones for those July salads.

Add a second generation of a warm weather crop

This is a great time to plant another round of cucumbers, cantaloupe, a short season tomato, hot pepper, summer squash or zucchini. You can try out a new variety to mix it up, and even grow a vining crop on a trellis to save space. The plants were planted a month ago are going to be producing pretty soon, and when they get tired out or have a pest or disease issue, your new plants will be just maturing and ready to provide you with a new round of goodies. You can maximize the bounty this way, and you won't be tempted to keep an old and diseased plant in the garden if there is a new one ready to report for duty.   This will also help with your disease and pest prevention over all.

Remember that the more you keep up with the garden, the tastier your meals, and the healthier your plants. There are so many reasons to garden, and keeping the plot looking and tasting good will keep you motivated to maintain your garden and to eat really well!

Mini Raised Bed Greenhouses for Sale

Look at these great greenhouses Eric Denice has built. We are offering four of them for sale this spring.  And can deliver them to you, too. We have used the same materials that go into our production greenhouses...6 mil plastic, hoops bent at just the right angle to shed water and snow, polycarbonate end walls, wiggle wire and extruded metal track for securing the plastic closed, and pipes that act as a "brake" for keeping the sides just where you want them. We are happy to give you a demo....or come and peek at ours that is all planted and growing along nicely.

You can roll up the sides, you can close it securely and easily, or even take the plastic all the way off once the weather warms up. The frame can act as part of a trellis system for tomatoes giving them a warm and dry environment as they size up, and then you can take the plastic all the way off and let them grow through the top of the frame. Just add a few horizontal lines of twine and, voila, instant tomato trellis!

Plants are nicely tucked in and cozy warm, no matter what the weather! You can easily get a 2 to 3 week jump on the season with this kind of season extension. The raised bed means that the soil is dry and warm long before garden beds, and the tight, plastic cover gives you warmth on cold nights. You can keep the sides rolled down on chilly, cloudy days, but it is best to roll them up a bit in the morning. It can get quite warm in there when the sun pops out. This type of greenhouse will allow you to harvest greens almost year round. It can also be used as a spot to start seeds, harden off plants, and gives you an extra zone of warmth if you would like to grow a perennial that is not usually hardy here.

We can deliver, bring you soil, plants, and have your instant garden ready in just an hour or so! Just add water.

Dimensions: 4' by 10' 

Base boards are made of 2" by 10" hemlock

Price $425

Cabin Fever Gardening

It's the dead of winter and the weather has been...well, let's not even talk about it. The seed catalogs have poured in, they are lying all around the house, tempting us with dreams of future sunshine, dirt under the nails, baskets of produce, and all those things we are deprived of in these short, dark days.  Here are a few things I like to do to get through winter. I would love to hear other people's coping strategies, so please share your thoughts on cabin fever gardening. For one thing, meditate. Not necessarily in a formal way, but just sit still. Imagine seeds, roots, and bulbs that are buried deep in the frozen earth.  This period of short days is necessary in the life of a plant. It is a time of dormancy and rejuvenation, for plants as well as for humans. Rather than fight the dark days, embrace this as a time of year when you get to slow down, evaluate, and regenerate. I love that, because of my work, my life can follow seasonal rhythms to a certain extent. Winter is when I plan, plot, analyze, and restore.

 

Next, look for signs of green. As the days slowly lengthen, find a special shrub or tree to study on a regular basis. We have a row of willows along the edge of our property, and I love to check out the progress of the softening that happens very slowly, and then after mid-February, it speeds up a bit. The buds begin to swell, the color of the stems changes ever so slowly and slightly. Because plants are our best teachers, we can be the best students of plants with simple observation.

Focus on your houseplants. At our house, we neglect these poor plants all summer, but try to baby them a bit in the winter. Careful watering, cleaning, fertilizing as needed, potting into bigger pots, moving them around...these are all tasks we never have time for the rest of the year. You can also try your hand at propagating your own house plants. It is a great way to learn about plant physiology, and it gives you new plants as a bonus. Think holiday gifts for next year!  There is a great series of 15 short tutorials on You Tube that will teach you everything you need to know to multiply your houseplants. Ask friends for cuttings from their plants, diversify your own collection and learn about the various ways that all types of plants root.  Again, observation is key here, and the lesson learned in plant physiology will transfer to and inform your practical gardening knowledge outdoors.

Grow some sprouts.  There are great resources locally and on line. Here are some suggestions.

 

 

 

Grow some greens and shoots. You'll need a grow light, otherwise, things will be leggy and less nutritious, even in a south facing window. You will also need some trays with drain holes, about 2 inches high, some good potting soil, and some good quality seeds. You can sprinkle seeds onto the surface of the soil, press down, and cover with a very thin layer of soil. Press down again, and water very gently and evenly. Try these crops for a quick 3 weeks to harvest: arugula, tatsoi, mustard greens, boc choi. If you are willing to wait a little longer, in 5 weeks, you can harvest baby lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, cilantro, or dill.  The trick here is to stick to varieties that grow quickly. You can only cut them once, the light will just not be strong enough for them to grow again.  Here are some instructions for growing pea shoots.

 

You can do this so easily in any kitchen and it is a great way to add some fresh, living foods to your winter diet.

Hope this helps, and don't hesitate to get with us on facebook, twitter @redwagonplants, or leave comments here. We really want to hear your winter gardening habits, tricks, trials, and successes.

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.

-Julie

 

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!

 

 

Lori and Doug's Garden: Construction

Meet Lori and Doug, two of our longtime customers and friends. Last year, they visited the greenhouses repeatedly, making large purchases of vegetable plants, it seemed every day. I finally asked them if they were starting a small farm, and they admitted that they were having some problems. Apparently, everything kept turning black and dying. This does not usually happen to our plants, so I offered to visit their garden, which happens to be on the way home, and they happen to have very nice wine to offer, so it seemed like a win-win. Lo and behold, their beautiful garden site was also the low lying spot where their entire property drains. The plants were sitting in standing water (remember all the rain last year?) and were drowning. I advised them to just start over, sad as that is, because there was just no way to grow in that site.

They asked us to help them build a big beautiful raised bed garden, so we set our expert carpenter and all around handyman, Eric Denice, to the task. Here's what they created together.

In the fall, Lori and Doug planted garlic, which is now growing beautifully, and each week, they come in to let us know what they are up to and we help them pick out plants that are appropriate for the weather. It has been such a fun project and we are grateful to Lori and Doug for including us!

Please keep checking back for updates as we chronicle the progress of this great garden and its people.

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.

 

FAQ #9: What is sheet mulching and how do I do it?

Sheet mulching is a technique for creating a garden bed that does not require tilling or hand weeding. It is intended to mimic the natural mulching process that occurs on the forest floor. It is also suitable for converting a section of lawn into a garden without breaking the sod. There are a lot of different methods but here is the simplest one:

  1. Trample or cut down any large woody weeds.
  2. Put down a layer of compost to jump-start the composting process.
  3. Create a thick weed-barrier of newspaper, cardboard, or other biodegradable materials over the area you want to convert, wetting with a hose as you go.
  4. Cover the weed-barrier with weed-free compost or composted manure at least 3 inches thick.
  5. The top layer mimics the materials that fall to forest floor - nut shells, twigs, fern fronds, coffee grounds, wood chips, etc. are all good materials. Create a layer 3-5 inches thick and water in.

Plants can be transplanted directly into this bed and should be closely spaced to minimize the germination of weeds. Note: this method is not recommended for areas that are prone to flooding or waterlogging. Graphic courtesy of agroforestry.net

FAQ #14: How can I keep my garden looking good without spending all my time weeding?

First of all, gardens need some maintenance, so if you want a nice looking garden, you will need to commit some time to caring for it.  Bark or straw mulch helps to keep down weeds and makes those that do grow easier to pull up.  One good way is to edge with a shovel then use a hand cultivator to pull away the grass that is “cut off”.  Edging makes weeding easier and makes the garden look really nice when you are done.  When pressed for time, I edge, then weed in about 12 to 18 inches.  If your garden is full, the weeds in the middle won’t even show and you give an impression of a well-maintained space. Planting ground covers such as mosses, alyssum, and vinca will reduce the space that weeds can take over. You can check out a video on edging with a shovel here.

FAQ #13: What plants are easiest to take care of?

Annuals:

Geraniums

Imaptiens

Pansies

Marigolds

Salvias

Sunflowers

New Guinea Impatiens

Perennials:

Bleeding Heart

Astilbe

Echinacea

Garden Phlox

Sedums

Rudbeckia

Bee Balm

Lady's Mantle

FAQ #3: I'm new to gardening - what's the best use of a 10x12' raised bed?

Decide what you'd like to grow and eat, considering the space requirements and growth habit for each.  Vine veggies like cucumbers and squash can be planted on the periphery to spill out onto a lawn and not crowd the other plants; or they can also be trellised.

Give tomatoes at least 3 square feet, eggplant and peppers 2 square feet.   Also, consider rate of maturity; plant lettuce in one area, then after harvesting, plant beets or herbs. Planting a few edible flowers, such as nasturtium or gem marigold gives the raised bed a flower planter look. For ease of maintenance, make sure space or a path is made to reach all of the plantings.

Plants in a raised bed tend to yield more than plants in the ground because their roots are in lighter soil that is easier to grow in. It is important to only use good quality top soil and compost in the raised bed. The bottom layer can be filled with some rotted horse manure and yard waste like leaves and grass clipping.

Choose varieties that do well in smaller spaces and keep re-using the space once you harvest something.  Small patches of green beans can be replanted multiple times, a small trellis with a few snap peas can be a nice addition that leaves room for summer lettuce or fall broccoli. Just keep in mind that a few plants that are well cared for will yield as much as many plants that are poorly cared for!

FAQ #6: How do I grow asparagus?

The ideal method for growing asparagus is to prepare the area at least one season in advance by tilling and planting a cover crop to suppress weeds. This will help reduce stress on the asparagus plants during their first few years, ensuring a healthier and more vigorous crop. A cover crop turned into the bed also increases the organic matter in the soil which is good for the plants. Since asparagus is a perennial that can last for many years, choose a well-drained site that can be dedicated to asparagus for the foreseeable future.

Asparagus is usually grown by tilling an area and then digging trenches 6-8” deep and 3-5’ apart. The crowns (roots) are placed in the trenches 8” apart for narrow spears and 14” apart for thick spears. Cover the crowns with 1-2” of soil and fertilize heavily with compost or other phosphate-rich fertilizer. Add soil to the trenches three times during the next few weeks until the soil is mounded somewhat to avoid water pooling around the plants. Keep the plants hand-weeded and fertilized until midsummer, then mulch heavily with straw or leaves to suppress weeds. The asparagus “ferns” should be allowed to grow, since they feed the plants, then cut back after they die in the fall. A moderate harvest is usually possible the first year after planting, followed by full harvests every spring thereafter.

Red and black asparagus beetles are nearly always present in summer and can be treated with organic pesticides but are better removed by hand to minimize harm to the plants. Just drop the beetles and larvae into a can of soapy water to kill them. Larvae can also be killed by gently brushing the ferns with a soft broom - they die quickly after falling to the ground.

Although asparagus is not quite as simple to grow as annual crops, it is well worth the effort! Fresh, juicy asparagus spears are unrivaled in texture and flavor.

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.

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