Monday, October 29, 2012

Plant Bulbs of Spring-Blooming Flowers Now

Each spring, I look forward to the arrival of the flowers that emerge from bulbs I have nearly forgotten while the earth covers them for more than six months out of the year.  After the flowers bloom, I leave the messy foliage to grow, because that is the way the bulb obtains nutrients for next year’s flowers, until the foliage melts into the soil and the exuberance of the summer garden covers the area.
I enjoy driving country roads in the spring and seeing the clumps of bulbs marking the sites of long-rotted houses.  I imagine a farm wife stepping out the door one fall day to plant them with apron pockets full of bulbs a friend or relative gave her, for the farm wife in my imagination would not have enough extra money to spend it on something as frivolous as flowers.

She kneels in the soil, digs a spot for the bulbs, and tucks them beneath the soil.  In spring, she awaits their green shoots as they push through the soil, and admonishes her many children to stay out of the flowerbed.  However far they may travel from home as adults, the scent and sight of those sorts of flowers forever remind her children of spring in their mother’s garden.
One of my babies is puzzled by this flower as we enjoy the spring bulbs

Over the years, the bulbs multiply. While the bulbs are dormant, in the summer and early fall, she digs the bulbs and passes along the bulbs to some other wife, or she sends her newly married daughters or daughters-in-law with bulbs to decorate their gardens.  Depending on the bulb, she might even decide that that she has more than she knows what to do with, so she digs bulbs and tosses them over the fence into the cow pasture, where they put out roots, grow, and bloom.

My grandmother tossed some bulbs over the fence into the cow pasture many years before I was born, because she needed them out of her garden and had no one else to give them to, and there they grew and bloomed.  We call them “Butter and Eggs” and the ruffled blooms are tinged with green.  I dug some bulbs out of the cow pasture and brought them home to my garden.
Bulbs decorate the winter garden.  The white plastic protected the winter vegetables, and it must be a warm day because the lid on the cold frame is open at the rear center of the photo.

My mother has beautiful white daffodils by the back door, and some more tiny yellow ones by the basement steps.  I have helped myself to those bulbs, and I wrestled a hole in the hard clay at my house to put in the bulbs.  Now my bulbs need thinning, and I will pass bulbs along to someone, or I’ll expand my plantings of

Daffodils turn towards the sun, and unfortunately for the situation of this flowerbed, that means they turn away from the   viewer of the flowerbed

I have planted daffodils throughout my woods, and in early spring, the woods are speckled with spots of yellow and white flowers.  If you want daffodils, obtain some from a friend or buy some at the garden center.  Daffodils are reliably perennial, or come back every year, here.  Deer do not usually eat them, and so they are the perfect bulb to plant nearly anywhere in full sun.

Another baby thinks daffodils might be tasty (don't worry, I didn't let her munch down)

Tulips are beautiful, but they do not reliably come back here because our winters are not cold enough to give them the winter chill they need to prosper.  I plant them anyway, and encourage them to bloom by either putting them in the refrigerator, inside a paper bag, away from ripening fruit for about six week before I plant them, or by planting them in a container outside where they get cold temperatures without the insulating effects of the earth.  Although the aforementioned farmwife would think me extravagantly wasteful, I usually treat them as annuals, and I pull them out and discard them when they have finished blooming.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Enrich Your Soil with Cover Crops

As I clear the summer garden of plants that are past their time, in the areas where I do not have mulch, I am planting cover crops.  As every gardener knows, something is going to grow on bare soil.  If the gardener plants nothing, weeds will take the job, and weeds are better than bare soil.  Weeds prevent soil erosion and enrich the soil when they decompose.  The only problem with weeds is that either they shed thousands of seeds that make more weed plants, or they have invasive roots that make life difficult for the plants you actually want to grow in the garden.

A cover crop is any crop you plant in an otherwise bare section of the garden to enrich the soil or to prevent weeds.  If the gardener tills in the cover crop, soil microbes and worms decompose the crop and enrich the soil.  If the cover crop remains on top of the soil and dies, worms and microbes will come up to consume the crop.  Turning a flock of chickens into the cover crop nourishes the chickens as they eat the crop, helps till in the cover crop, and enriches the soil.

In past years, I have planted canola (rape), and daikon radishes in the hard clay outside my garden so that their thick taproots could break up the soil.  Last winter, I planted rye grass in the orchard area and in the newly cleared land where we cut pine trees.  The color of the rye grass is an excellent indicator of soil fertility: among the apple trees, where the chickens had spent a lot of time and I had added compost to the soil, the grass was thick and dark green.  In the newly cleared area, the grass had trouble growing at all.  The chickens enjoyed eating the rye grass and seed when we turned them in the area.  
Healthy rye grass fertilized by chicken manure

Stunted rye grass in newly cleared area

Inside the garden, I planted wheat and oats in small sections of the garden last fall, and this fall I have planted large areas of the garden in these grains.  I allowed the grains to make seed last spring, which I fed to my chickens.  I cut the grain stalks to the ground, used the straw as mulch, and planted my sweet potatoes among the stubble.  The grain will not grow back during the summer’s heat.

Last year's cover crop of wheat.  The chickens enjoyed the grain!
I tilled some of my rye grass into the soil, and some I mowed.  Heat kills rye grass, and it is an annual, so it will not become a weed.  Rye is one of the easiest cover crops because the inexpensive seed is available in many stores and it germinates quickly. Heat also kills crimson clover, and clover fixes nitrogen in the soil.  One cover crop I do not use is vetch.  Many gardening books recommend using it as a cover crop, and the writers of those books must not have the problems we do with vetch invading the garden as a weed. 

If you plow the garden every spring, using cover crops is easy because you can plow them in and allow them to decompose for a few weeks before you plant.  I do not usually till the soil, so I must plan carefully to avoid having a thick patch of something difficult to remove growing in the place I want to plant my spring vegetables.  However, with some planning, I can mow the cover crop, smother it with mulch, or plant my summer plants along with the cover crop and wait for summer’s heat to kill it. 

Buy seeds for cover crops at local feed stores and garden centers.  Feed stores carry varieties that are successful locally.  Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, at and Johnny’s Selected Seeds at also carry many cover crop seeds.  Read the seed descriptions carefully so you do not end up with vetch or some other weedy crop; buy locally to help you buy crops that do not become weeds.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Frost is Coming Soon

As I write this, I am sitting in front of an open window, enjoying the pleasant coolness of the very early morning thanks to a 5 AM wake up call by my 3 year old.  She’s gone back to sleep, thank God, but I remained awake and thought I’d get something more useful than lying in bed trying in vain to go to back to sleep.  As my mother reminds me, just as soon as she starts sleeping to a reasonable hour in the morning, she’ll become difficult to wake up in the morning.   

This column is about gardening, not children, though.  The first frost will arrive within the next month, and it’s time to think about preparing for it.  Open windows at 5 AM will no longer be pleasant, and fresh from the garden tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers will be gone for another season.  I’ll have to fill my girls with as many cucumbers as possible before they are gone.  If you grow cucumbers, you know that they grow from tender, edible vegetables into tough behemoths overnight, and the chickens have certainly enjoyed eating the overgrown ones. 

If the first frost finds you fortunate enough to have green tomatoes on the vine, pick them before frost touches them, wrap them in newspaper, and store them in an unheated, but above freezing, area.  It’s easy to preserve bell peppers by chopping them and sautéing them briefly, then freezing them.  Try to lay the bag flat in the freezer, and to move the peppers around a bit so they don’t freeze into one huge ball.  When your recipe calls for chopped cooked peppers, use some of yours from the summer. 

Although I have enjoyed the abundance of lima beans this summer, they do take a very long time to shell.   My daughters and I shelled about 1 ½ quarts of lima beans last week, and with their help, which was actual help, not hindrance, it took us about 30 minutes.  Do not complain to farmers at the market about the cost of shelled lima beans.  I will be glad for a break from shelling lima beans; I can’t stop picking them until frost comes because I do love to eat them.

My sweet potatoes have taken over the garden.  At the beginning of the summer, a rabbit nibbled the new vines.  I believe he even dug a home for himself near a hole created by a rotting tree stump near some asparagus.  He didn’t do any serious damage to my garden, and now he’s too fat to get through the wire into the garden.  We enjoy seeing a real “Peter Rabbit” in the yard, and his cuteness, and lack of serious damage to any plants, saved him.  Before the first frost, I’ll dig my sweet potatoes.  Temperatures much below 50°F damage the tubers, so I’ll get them out of the ground within the next couple of weeks, let them air dry for a week or so in the garage as long as temperatures stay warm, and then I’ll store them inside the house in a dark closet.

I’ll also take cuttings of coleus, geraniums, and other tender annuals that I will root in water and then transfer to soil and save over the winter.  My husband does enjoy having an empty tub in our bathroom in the summer, when all the houseplants go outside for a vacation, but I’ll soon fill it, which is positioned in front of a south-facing glass block window, with houseplants and other tender plants I hope to protect throughout the winter. 

Go ahead now and find a place for the houseplants indoors, and spray them with water to remove the insects that might have found a home in them for the summer.  Shake them to remove dead leaves, and repot any that need it.  Plan for the arrival of the first frost, and that way, the night before the frost will find you relaxed instead of dashing about in the twilight, filling your entryway with plants, and picking vegetables you are desperately trying to save.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Video of My Chickens Cleaning My Shoes of Beggar Lice

Most people have had the irritating experience of walking through a weedy area and emerging with beggar lice, the little velcro-like seeds of the Desmodium plant, stuck all over their shoes and pants.  I emerged from a weedy area covered in the seeds, and as I thought about how to rid myself of them, I stepped into the chicken pen to change out their water.  The chickens converged on my shoes and quickly picked them clean.      Of course, I had to go back to the weedy area, walk through it again to get more beggar lice stuck to my shoes, and film it.  Here it is.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Teachers, Enter Your Third Grade Class in This Gardening Contest

Photo Courtesy of Bonnie's Plants

Earlier this month, Bonnie’s Plants announced its annual Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program for third grade classrooms.  Although teachers need to sign up their students for the program now, Bonnie’s Plants will deliver the cabbage plants in the spring.  The free plants are OS Cross (Over-sized), which produce giant (as in up to 65 pound) cabbages.

In 2002, Bonnie Plants began the program to “inspire a love of vegetable gardening in young people,” according to their press release.  Each year, Bonnie Plants gives more than one million 2-inch cabbage plants to 3rd grade classrooms.  The company provides detailed growing instructions, and each child takes responsibility for nurturing his or her own plant.  At the end of the growing season, in May or June, each class selects a winner based the size, appearance, and maturity of the cabbage and Bonnie's Plants enters the class winners in a $1,000 state scholarship drawing. 

Children can plant the cabbages in containers or in the soil.  The directions include complete care instructions, information about possible pests and diseases, as well as guidelines about how to know when the cabbage is ready to harvest, so no gardening experience is necessary.  Teachers search for ways to make problem solving and research skills relevant to their students, and figuring out how to defeat pests and diseases to grow a giant cabbage is a fun way to use these skills. 
Teachers may register their classes at  As for what to do with a 40-pound cabbage, well that is another problem the children will need to solve.  Maybe they can make coleslaw for the entire school!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fall Flowers are Blooming

The cool weather this week has me looking forward to all the things about fall I love: changing leaf colors (which will be especially exciting this fall because my youngest daughter has decided her favorite color is orange, and we’ll be on a constant search for bright orange leaves) fall-blooming flowers, and open windows in the house.

In my garden, the palette of flower colors is slowly changing from pinks and blues to yellows, oranges, and purples.  Along the back perennial border, Mexican bush sage is beginning to bloom in purple spires, and the buds of goldenrod are about to break into yellow plumes of color.  Contrary to popular belief, goldenrod does not aggravate allergic people; ragweed, which blooms at about the same time, causes sniffles.  

Outside the vegetable garden, bright orange tithonia is taller than I am.  Along with the goldenrod, red dahlia, and red pineapple sage, the warm colors contrast well with the cool purple of the butterfly bush.  Russian sage, or Perovskia atriplicifolia, gives more purple color.  The orange berries from my Pyracantha shrub give a spot of bright orange that will last through the winter.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' with guineas in the background
Sedum, a nondescript succulent green perennial for most of the year, is blooming and attracting beneficial insects.  ‘Autumn Joy’ is in bloom with russet orange flowers, and a shorter sedum blooms in pink.  The dried blooms will give the garden structure and interest through the winter.  Anemones, like ‘Robutissima’ and ‘Honorine Johbert’ provide touches of pink, purple, and white, as do asters. 

Anemone 'Honore Jobert'

A few months back, I cut back my chrysanthemums to encourage them to bloom during the proper “mum blooming” time, fall.  I planted mine in the garden like any other perennial, and the poor things do not realize that humans have decided that mums should only bloom in the fall.  They prefer to bloom in the summer.  They form buds in late June, and to prevent the early blossoms, I give them all a haircut to within a couple of inches of the ground with some hedge trimmers.  They have time to grow back so they will bloom in the fall.

Pyracantha with orange berries contrasts well with the purple Mexican Sage

I have no idea why this iris is blooming now, but I do enjoy it

If you want to buy some fall-blooming perennials, garden centers should have them now, or your gardening friends will be happy to share theirs.  Plant them now and keep them well watered and you should have fall flowers in the garden before frost.  If you buy chrysanthemums, consider buying some in 4-inch or smaller pots instead of just the large, showy ones, and plant them in the perennial border.  They will bloom this fall, and if you give them a haircut when the buds form in the early summer, they will bloom again next fall.  Perennials can look ragged during the winter after the foliage has died, so, on a pleasant winter day, go through your beds and cut to the ground any brown sticks and foliage.