You can grow that- locally!


All politics is local, they say, and gardening is the same way. I have driven myself crazy for years reading books about organic gardening in Pennsylvania, or Upstate New York, or Maine, or Wales. I have tried to apply my learning to the ground here- dry, clay, and alkaline. I have finally learned to read Western-based garden books, or to temper my fantasies to something that is sustainable with the soil here, and the amount of rainfall here.

Every winter I am inundated with seed and plant catalogs. I read them, and place sticky notes, and highlight the varieties I want to buy. It is similar to the garden book thing- catalogs from Maine, or Oregon, or Pennsylvania won’t necessarily have what I need here- drought tolerant in Massachusetts is different from drought tolerant in Colorado.  Full sun in Michigan is different from full sun here.

This year, rather than placing an order to have seeds shipped to me, I will bike downtown, and go into our local greenhouse, where they order seeds in bulk, and will sell me little envelopes of whatever I want to plant. Well, not “whatever” …last year they didn’t have leeks in bulk, so I got a pre-packaged envelope off the rack, but they have many popular varieties that do well here. They have bareroot strawberries and asparagus and seed potatoes and onion sets. They also have people working there who, if they are not experts, they are informed, about where things are located in the store, and when to plant most things.

Your homework- find a greenhouse or garden center that is local to you. Locally owned businesses will only stay alive as long as we support them, and often the guys in the *cough orange aprons cough* don’t know much about the plants they are selling. You don’t have to bike (and in fact, I might not, but I should) but find a place that is local, and support it.

The lonely pile of seed catalogs this year- I am forsaking you for a local business.

The lonely pile of seed catalogs this year- I am forsaking you for a local business.

C.L. Fornari, amazing garden writer, has founded “You can grow that!” where on the fourth of every month, garden bloggers write posts encouraging anyone to grow anything.  Check her out at http://www.youcangrowthat.com/

Beet Greens- you can grow that!


When C.L. Fornari, the genius garden blogger behind “You Can Grow That” suggested that for the month of February, we pick a plant related to the theme of love, I had to think about it.  I considered the plants I love, or the plants that symbolize romance, and I was kind of stumped.  February is a tough month for planting, around here anyway.  So, I decided to be contrarian, and write about beets.

We heart beet greens! Well, I do. Well, maybe I don't heart them, but I like them.

We heart beet greens! Well, I do. Well, maybe I don’t heart them, but I like them.

I have to confess that we don’t love beets at our house.  When we had a CSA membership, I tried to like them. I roasted them, which is my favorite with most veggies, and I threw them in stir-fry (which made everything weirdly pink) and I marinated them…not popular. I did learn that I liked beet greens, though. A friend insists that beet greens taste just like beets, but I disagree. Or maybe it’s the texture. Anyway, when I saw directions for forcing root crops in a pot, I thought to myself, that’s a good way to get greens without having to actually eat beets.

The directions come from Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, which is a funky combination of a book- part how-to garden tome, part we-went-to-the-south-of-France-and-drove-around-looking-at-gardens-in-winter travelogue. My kind of book, in other words.

Coleman describes  taking beets, or turnips, or celeriac, putting the roots in damp sand in a sunny window, and eating the greens that sprout.

I decided to start the experiment with beets. I bought a cute bunch, and cut off the leaves that they came with to sautee, then eat in garlic soup (really tasty- follow this link!)

I then filled a 6 inch pot 1/3 of the way with potting soil, then put in the roots, then covered with soil and watered.

BIrd's eye view of 3 beets in a pot, before another layer of soil is added.

Bird’s eye view of 3 beets in a pot, before another layer of soil is added.

The roots won’t get any bigger- storage crops are biennial. During the first summer, they put energy into the root. When they send up leaves again, they use the energy store in the root to prepare for blooming. This means you don’t have to worry about leaving room in the pot for root growth.IMG_0056

We haven’t gotten enough for a big salad, but there should be leaves to add to stir-fry or soup or whatever.  I’m adding some to Quinoa salad tonight.  I hope it doesn’t turn weirdly pink.

 

Citrus- you can grow that


The leaves are falling, must be time to cover the tomatoes and bring in the houseplants.

Freeze predicted tonight-the radio people keep saying “temperatures in the 30’s” which seems unfairly vague. It is  time to move my pots of citrus inside for the zone 5 fall and winter. and much of spring, if we are honest.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, now 12, I bought a lemon, a lime and an “orange” tree for about 10 bucks, for all 3 from a catalog- don’t remember which one. I thought I was getting a huge bargain- when they arrived, they were twigs.
The biggest was the lemon, which had a trunk as big around as a pencil, and about 4 leaves. The other two were like q-tips. So I planted them and waited.
I didn’t just wait- I had a baby, and watched the baby grow, and taught middle school, and then had another baby and watched that baby grow, and when that baby was walking, the orange tree bloomed.
Heavenly smell, tiny bb sized fruit, that grew to marble sized, then…what’s smaller than a ping pong ball? A big marble? Yeah, big marble-sized. They ripened to orange, but remained small and sour.
Since then, the lemon has produced actual real sized lemons, but not very many, and the lime has produced actual real sized limes, but, again, not very many.
Why bother, then?
They are pretty plants. I have other house plants that don’t do much of anything other than purify the air. When these bloom, they smell amazing, even on the patio. In the Boy’s room, which has the best light, they fill the air with fragrance when they bloom in the winter. The novelty is another reason- one year I brought them to school for the winter, when I had a classroom with windows, and students would bring their friends in and dare them to eat the oranges.
Order them, or if you have a good local nursery with citrus, buy there. Once they are big, they take a big pot- mine are about 12 years old now, and are in 14 inch pots. I use a dolly to move them outside in the spring and back inside in October.
When they come in, spray with the hose attachment of the kitchen sink, under the leaves especially to get rid of any hitchhikers. Looking at this, I realize it might make more sense to spray them outside, instead of in the kitchen, especially if by “hitchhikers” I mean “tiny bugs.”  Which I do.
Citrus like bright indirect light, and humidity. Much like myself. Not too much humidity, though. Dry air can make them drop leaves. It hasn’t been cold enough for the heat to come on very much yet, so there isn’t too much difference in humidity bringing them inside. The Boy’s room has a fish tank which evaporates enough that the plants do okay.
You don’t have to buy a plant, if you are in it to experiment. A neighbor of my mom’s planted a grapefruit seed, or her toddler did, probably close to 50 years ago. It grew big enough that they couldn’t fit it in their house, so they donated it to the public library, where it brushed the ceiling in the children’s section when I was a kid. Don’t know if it is still there.

Organic Apples- you can grow that


I have a list of the “dirty dozen” on a post-it note over my desk- the fruits and vegetables that you should eat organically grown versions of, if you can get them, because of pesticide residues. Number 1 on the list, and in our hearts, is apples.
Celery, spinach, and bell peppers are on the list, but nobody around here eats enough of those to make a difference. Apples, though…we eat a lot of.
We have a giant old tree that produces sour apples, not our favorites, and about 7 years ago I planted a Golden Delicious tree. After falling down, but not being entirely uprooted, in an early fall storm last fall, it has produced prolifically this year. Prolifically enough that I thinned once in June, then again in July, taking off unripe fruit that I was worried would break off the branches.
Backyard Orchard (link) has helped figure out what to take off and what to leave, how to prune, and when.
Now the organic part… I didn’t do anything. Last year I stapled paper lunch bags to fruit I could reach, and that was effective, but this year, I was talking to a colleague, who said that since she had put up bird feeders, her apples were much cleaner. A few got wormy, but the birds came for appetizers, and stayed for dinner.
I didn’t put up feeders- the squirrels tend to get to those anyway, but I have a lot of plants that feed birds, like coneflowers, We have been building up the garden for about 12 years, making habitat for pollinators, and birds and snakes and us. Several years of building soil and habitat has made it so this summer, we didn’t have to do much- the apples kind of took care of themselves. After a summer of doing nothing, my apples look great. They are small, which tells me I need to thin more aggressively next year, and probably water more. However, they are bug-free, and pesticide free.
I am a few days late in posting this for the “You can grow that” meme, created by C.L. Fornari, a garden writer who wanted to get other writers involved in writing encouraging posts, letting people know that it isn’t that hard. It strikes me funny that Miracle Gro has a marketing plan called “you can gro that” that kind of tramples over the top of C.L. Fornari’s meme, which I have been participating in since March. I am not sure what the future holds for the meme http://wholelifegardening.com/blog/. But you should know, you can grow (yes, with a w) apples.

Resilience- you can grow that!


Purple Coneflower and Yarrow, extremely drought tolerant herbs. They’re loving the heat.

It has been hot here. Crazy hot. Typically, in June we get nice moisture, soaking rains, heavy thunderstorms, nice misty days when it’s just cool and gloomy. Not this year. I realize it is hot pretty much everywhere right now.
We went LA on vacation last week, and it was cool and pleasant- too cool for the ocean almost. Then we ended the vacation in Las Vegas, and it was ridiculously hot. You expect that for Las Vegas, but we kept watching the weather for home, here on the front Range of Colorado, and it was ridiculously hot in Colorado, too.
The guy who mows our lawn was checking in on the cat, and a friend popped over to water the container plants and the tomatoes, but otherwise, we didn’t provide for sprinkling. I expected the worst when we got home, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The grass in the front looks awful, of course, but it almost always looks awful. It’s on the list for future projects.

The beds in back, though, look pretty good. They have plenty of mulch, to hold onto what moisture they get. They have plants that are drought tolerant, or native, or both. I designed them that way so they wouldn’t take much water, and would attract bees and birds and butterflies.

The golden currant is dripping with fruit, the lavender is blooming like crazy, the yarrow and coneflower and chamomile are standing tall.  They look better than I do, dripping and drooping, and praying for rain.

Plan for resilience- xeric doesn’t have to mean rocks and cow skulls, it can be dragonflies and birds and fruits and berries. It takes less water and other resources, and it bounces back from hard times. Resilience is a trait we all can use.

This is pretty much the same shot, from the same angle, as I took 3 weeks ago. It’s been watered once with a soaker hose.

Two books that influenced me tremendously are “Herbs in the Garden” by Rob Proctor, and “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.  Both books helped me learn to think beyond “vegetable garden here, lawn everywhere else.”

Strawberries- you can grow that


One of my peak experiences in gardening was not in my own garden, and in fact, I didn’t do any of the cultivation. Friends of mine in college lived in a house with a strawberry bed, next to a flagstone path. One beautiful June, I would go to their house, sit in the sun on those red sandstone pavers, and eat perfect, ripe strawberries.

Of course, I had to have strawberries and a flagstone path at our house, when we finally bought one.

just a few more days…just a few more days…

I actually have planted strawberries in many locations- before I got married, and moved every year or so, after I got married, and …moved every year or so. It may seem ridiculous- planting a fruit that takes several years before it produces in house and apartments that I knew I would be moving out of. Maybe it is ridiculous, but it seemed like a good investment in karma.

Strawberries do produce sparingly the first year, but after that, they spread and produce more. They reproduce by sending out stolons, or runners, with baby plants on the end.  I let the “daughter plants” take root and grow, so I always have some plants that are 3 or 4 years old, and about to peter out, some 2 year old plants that produce well, and some baby plants that are getting established. Most gardening books recommend cutting off the stolons the first year so you get more fruit.

New vocabulary word for the day- stolon.

A few years ago, I was at my sister-in-law’s house, and she was transplanting strawberry plants out from under a huge pine tree. Apparently, the birds that stole her berries perched on the tree, and ummm…seeds grew…in perfect packets of fertilizer. Yeah, you know what I mean, bird poo. They didn’t get enough sun under the tree to produce very well, but it made a perfect nursery for baby plants.

Strawberries are heavy feeders, so I give them compost, and mulch them pretty heavily, except where they have grown into the gaps in the path, where I can’t get mulch to go.

I plan to transplant these guys out of the gaps in the path, and may try them in containers.

Here in zone 5, the front range of Colorado, they ripen in early to mid June, this is later than you can get them in the grocery store, but oh so much tastier. And organic. And with a very small carbon footprint. Here’s where I get preachy and link you to a story about strawberries from California.

If you order plants in winter, you can get a bundle of 25 for around 25 dollars. They go a foot apart, so that is a lot of space to devote to  strawberries, but you can tuck them around other things- for example, there is a giant rosebush in the same bed with my strawberries, as well as iris and a mock orange. They are also available this time of year in nurseries. In fact, at the grocery this weekend, they had hanging baskets of them in the doorway.

I have had slug issues in the past, but this year has been so dry, I don’t expect them. I’ll put out saucers of cheap beer just in case.

Bearded Iris- you can grow that


I just love bearded iris.

Thanks to C.L. Fornari’s meme  last month, by pure luck I had a ton of new visitors to my dusty little corner of the blogoverse. If you’ve come back, thank you, and welcome. I say it was by pure luck because the links are listed on J.L.’s site in alphabetical order by plant name, and my plant was chives. Now for this month…aconite, anyone? Asparagus? AAronroot? I just made up that last one, there’s no such thing as aaronroot. As far as I know.
I decided to go back to the true spirit of the meme, which is that newbie gardeners sometimes get scared off by complicated instructions, or recommendations from one side to be all organic, and the other side to use blue chemicals on a regular basis. What people need is a slam dunk- something so easy you have to give away extras. In my garden, bearded irises are a slam dunk. And toward the end of June, I will probably be giving away extras, if anyone local is interested.
I use Iris a lot as a kind of placeholder- when my Korean lilac was 6 inches tall, surrounding it with iris made it look like a real garden bed, instead of a twig surrounded by mulch. Now that the lilac is about 4 feet tall, and covered with flowers, the iris anchor it, and are ready to be divided and given away.
Making friends with a gardener who is dividing iris is maybe the best way to get them, unless he’s a stalker, which you won’t know until he keeps showing up at your door with bags of rhizomes…
Once you get your bag with plants, sort them out. The best roots are big and fat. There should be at least one fan of leaves per chunk. I trim the leaves to about 6 or 8 inches from the rhizome, and plant it with the dangly roots in the soil, but the knobby rhizome just on the surface. If it goes underground, it rots. In fact, iris is nice and drought tolerant, not really caring whether it gets much water. Cutting the leaves back allow it to establish itself without drying out, but there are still green leaves to feed it while it makes itself at home.
My wonderful MIL is the source of this information, and the source of all my iris as well. She has told me to transplant before July 4th. I don’t know if that is specific to zone 5, or the front range of Colorado, your mileage may vary in other parts of the world.
What if you can’t bring yourself to make friends with a gardener? They sell bearded iris- McClure and Zimmerman has some in their Spring catalog for $11.95 if you buy 3. That seems expensive…but as I’ve said, I’ve never bought Iris. They also claim that a coral-pink variety named “Beverly Sills” is among the most popular. Hmmmm…I don’t know.
Buying them would be the way to get unusual colors- most of mine are light purple, with a couple of plants that are dark purple, and one that is bronze-flowered, which blooms a week or so after the others.
Trust me, you can grow that.

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