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Plants I can recommend: Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’

chrysanth1 For years (shoot, for DECADES), your Aunty Toby has been trying to find a chrysanthemum which not only claimed to be hardy but also really WAS hardy and did not go ‘toes up’ after a tough winter.

A couple of years ago, I went to a local Cooperative Extension plant sale and frankly, because the price on the pot was ridiculously cheap, I picked up this thing that claimed it was a ‘hardy pink chrysanthemum.

Dang, if that was not the complete truth. Any chrysanthemum which can deal with a) my rather negligent style of gardening and b) our unbelieveably crazy winters (some winters it is very dry; some winters we get 100″ of snow; some winters it’s relatively warm – that is, no temperatures lower than about 5 degrees F – and then some winters where we get -20 degrees F a LOT), and still come back year after year and blossom gets the ‘Aunt Toby Siberian Seal of Approval’ for sure.

chrysanth3This is it. No question. It does seem to take a bit to get going in the spring and everything above the ground will be dead when the snow disappears. Just cut it back to about 1″ above the ground and it will take off. The flower buds start appearing mid- to late September (here at Chez Siberia, which is Zone 3), open up in early October and keep right on going until we get a massive killer frost. We have had several weeks of tremendous frosts down to 27 degrees F, but no big killer yet. The plants do spread a big but are not too crazy invasive. In full blossom, the plant will be about 18″-24″ high.

chrysanth2Another reason to recommend this plant is this: Because it blossoms so late – and can hold onto its blossoms through frosts, at this point, it’s the only thing in blossom here. All the wild plants in the fields surrounding us have been blasted by the frosts, so the bees have nothing to eat. Check out the photo at the top again – that plant is covered in bees. I counted at least three different sorts of bees on it today plus other winged insects. At this point in the year, if the weather has not closed down for the winter, the insects have nothing to eat, so this plant is a real boom to them.

I did a quick and dirty search on the internet on this and all sorts of nurseries carry this plant – this coming spring, please think seriously about adding it to your garden.

OK, so you’ve got a garden – what are you going to do with it?

tomatopasta1OK, so here we are, at what, for us here at Chez Siberia, is well on the way to the prime production time out there in the garden. And frankly, even though we’ve been doing this for (ahem) 35 years, we, too get the shakes when we look out there (and our garden is not that big, truly, folks) and see all that stuff that has somehow been produced through seeds, sun, and water.

It’s humbling, truly. (more…)

Helping out pollinator friends

If you read news accounts on various pesticides and their effects on pollinators and birds, you might feel we are doomed. Not so.
If you are interested in Monarch butterflies, you might also feel we are doomed.
Again. Not so.

There are a lot of plants out there which can provide nectar (food for adult insects) and leaves (food for the larval forms) for pollinators and the more we can make sure there are a lot of them around and that they are blooming at the appropriate times (that is, that there is stuff in bloom basically all spring, summer and early fall), then we are basically doing our job. (more…)

Cue the scary music

I am sure a lot of readers here have seen a photo that is out there on the ‘net’ showing a huge boulder with a tree growing right up through the center of it as an illustration of ‘paper beats rock’ or something like that.

But in the garden (or at least the gardens that most of us have), we are not dealing with a tree growing up through a rock. We are dealing with vegetables that, pound for pound are probably stronger than we are. I point out the photo at the top. That, my friends, is a tendril from a vine of (deh-duh) a spaghetti squash. I love spaghetti squash; I truly do. But the vines all by themselves are aggressive and voracious, running all over the place in a garden, climbing out, hitting the streets. so far, the only way we’ve been able to keep them under control is with a lawn mower.

Truly.

This year, because we put out electro-net fencing to keep out the bunnies (and we’ll see how well this works; I’m thinking the openings are too big for bunnies. They might work with a rather rotund woodchuck, but I’m thinking a bunny is going to have no issues with it, frankly), the spaghetti squash vines have made a break for it by attaching themselves to the electro-netting. And wrapping themselves around it with those tendrils. Look closely; those thing don’t just snag on the netting; they are wrapped around in corkscrew fashion. A few more of those and I anticipate seeing that fencing laying flat on the ground and waving a white flag. (more…)

Garden update: early harvests

Well, here we are in the early stages of our garden here at Chez Siberia. We’re now long past the early ‘spindly’ stages of things; now the garden is really shaping up. We’ve got a couple of odd empty spots where certain seeds did not come up or the rabbits have chewed things down. We have fencing up now so that should not be so much of an issue (though part of it is that the plants themselves are old enough now that they don’t taste so yummy to the rabbits and they’ve moved on to other, younger things outside the fencing).
(more…)

When do I transplant seedlings?

If you are just starting out growing plants from seeds on your own, you might have some questions about how quickly or soon to transplant to the next size pot.

The secret here, to be blunt, is to concentrate on what’s going on AT THE BOTTOM; not what is happening at the top. As long as the roots are kept properly hydrated, they will keep the top growing. On the other hand, if the plant is stuck in water all the time, there will not be the proper exchange of oxygen in the soil and the roots will rot and the plants will die.

Roots are everything, truly.

So. The trick is to frankly pick up the pot or six-pack or whatever you are growing in and as soon as you see little white roots starting to stick out of the drainage holes in the bottom (you do have drainage holes in the bottoms of your pots, right?), it is time to transplant to a size up. If you have a lot of time between when you transplant and when you will be transplanting the plant out into the garden or out into its final growing place such as a large planter, a ‘grow-bag’ or whatever, you might even consider moving the plant into a container a couple of sizes larger than what it is in right now.

For example: The tomato plant in the photo at the top was in a four-pack (I’m not really a fan of ‘six packs’ – I feel I get more time and a better root system with a larger original growing container). Four-packs have a seedling space that is a cube of 2.25″x2.25″x2.25″. I have taken all of my seedlings that are four-packs (or single seedling pots of the same dimensions) and moved them into 4″ pots. This will give them enough space that if the rest of the spring continues for us here at Chez Siberia in the same way it has so far this spring (read that: cold and rainy), I will be giving myself some extra space and time so that the plants will not end up with roots all tangle around one another at the bottom of the pots, or running around the outside edge, which is not good for the plants in terms of when you plant them in the ground.

If you have seedlings or plants that have been in the pots too long and have become ‘root-bound’ like that, the thing to do (and I know it’s a little bit scary but it’s necessary) is to take a knife (or your hands) and either slice the rootball at the bottom in several places, spreading it out in the hole and then covering it with dirt, or tearing it apart with your hands and doing the same thing. To be quite blunt, yes, you ARE damaging the root system. The plant will respond by growing my roots from the ‘hurt’ spots and the plant will end up stronger and healthier as a result. If you just take the root-bound plant out of the pot and chucking it in the hole, the tangled and intertwined roots will never untangle themselves and the plant will not be able to achieve it’s growth destiny as a result.

So, if you pick up your seedlings and start to see roots, transplant them into something slightly (or more than just slightly) larger, give it a good drink and keep it going. Don’t just leave it in the pot to become root-bound. If you feel you will not have enough pots, then use household items such as milk cartons, yoghurt or cottage cheese containers (with holes punched in them) and so on. They will hold up nicely in the meantime and get your plants the space that they need until the weather is more conducive to putting them into the ground.

Best bang for your buck at the garden center

Not everyone has the time, space, inclination or ambition to grow the flowering plants for their garden from seed on their windowsill. This leaves people buying their plants and sometimes these can get pretty pricy. I haven’t had the time or space to start my flower box plants this year, so the DH and I went to a local greenhouse to pick up a few things.

I always find that getting plants in six-packs is a bit of a disappointment. The plants are so small that it takes a very long time for them to get big enough to fill in the space and make a show (which, of course, is the whole point, right?). So, to get enough plants to fill in, I end up buying probably 4 times the plants that I really have budgeted for – very expensive. Since I won’t be putting my plants into the boxes for another month then, it really pays me better to get a larger plant and split it. This is something anyone can do as long as you have some pots, potting mix, a sharp knife and some rooting hormone. You don’t need a greenhouse to do this; once you’ve potted up the cuttings, you can just stash the pots someplace in a bright room, out of direct sun. Keep the potting mix moist and you are all set. (more…)

Weekend thoughts on the garden

Since it is literally in the low 40s outside, and raining, and generally miserable (we don’t call this place Che Siberia for nuthin’ folks), your Aunt Toby is forced to working inside today to get whatever can get done, done, so that when the weather improves, which it will eventually, we are ready to go.

This week has not exactly been a barn-burner in terms of good weather either, so even with plastic on the garden bed, it has not gotten above 49 degrees F. That means I can’t put in my seeds for the early spring crops like kale, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, chard and beets. Boo, hiss. Super annoying. If we could just catch a break and get a couple of warm, sunny days, that garden bed would warm up. Just..one…more…degree..of…warmth…in the soil will do it. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

In the greenhouse, even though it is a bit chilly, things are moving along pretty well. I continue to be impressed by heritage pepper ‘King of the North’, given that these seedlings are in an unheated (and rather chilly this past week) greenhouse. They continue to grow and do not seem to be effected by the rather negative growing conditions. Tough guys for sure. The plum tomatoes soldier on as well. In the mail this week, I received the potatoes and onion plants that I ordered from Territorial Seeds. The potatoes are one we have grown in the past which have dealt with our rather iffy conditions and negligent care rather well — German Butterball and the onion plants are a mixed bunch chosen for northern areas (always important when dealing with day length and night time temperature issues).

And, from the ‘never say never’ school of thinking: I was out in the greenhouse with our 16 month old grand-progeny for a little gardening fun (that kid will water anything that appears to be in a pot), and put out a salad tub with potting soil in it so that we could plant a few basil seeds. I handed her an old packet, thinking a) there were not many in it and b) they were OLD so no matter how many she scattered in the tub, I figured that germination would not be all that bad and we’d end up with a few.

This is what happens when you have a 16 month old child whose idea of ‘planting a few seeds’ consists of flinging her arm out and dumping the entire packet (which turned out to have a LOT of seeds in it)in the tub. Anyone need basil seedlings? I think I might have enough for..everyone.

What do I grow?
For those folks who feel a bit overwhelmed by choices (and goodness knows there are a huge buffet of choices out there) in their gardens, let me suggest one guideline that might narrow things a bit: The Environmental Working Group’s list of ‘the dirty dozen.” This list of fruits and veggies consist of their results of testing standard fruits and vegetables bought in standard US grocery stores to find which ones have the highest levels of pesticide residues on them. Now, the issue is that standard US kitchen sink washing methods do not do a very good job of removing pesticide residues, so their suggestion is that if you have a limited food budget, that you make sure that these items are the ones you spend your ‘organic food dollars’ on. Here’s the list:
Apples
Celery
Cherry Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Grapes
Sweet and hot peppers
Imported Nectarines
Peaches
Potatoes
Spinach
Strawberries
Kale and collard greens
Summer Squashes
EWG Dirty Dozen Plus

Now, ok, if we are not going to go to the trouble of putting in trees and vines to grow apples, grapes, peaches and nectarines organically (growing strawberries at home is something that is worth getting into, along with asparagus and rhubarb), we can grow the other things and actually quite easily (and that includes celery, which is wonderful straight out of the garden). So, if you want to get a twofer out of your garden – make sure you grow the stuff on this list organically. A lot of these can be grown EASILY with organic methods – and if you are super lazy the way we are here, that includes ROW COVERS (which basically prevent bugs from getting to your veggies to eat them or lay their eggs). You can go full-on with hoops over the beds, but it’s just as effective to just lay the spun polyester (or old sheer curtains if you have them or can get them) over the plants and tuck them into the soil at the edge of the row. This is something you can find at any home and garden center or big-box store in their garden department.

Getting started with gardening

I hear more and more from people who want to get into gardening, feel overwhelmed, don’t know where to start and so on.

For the ‘I want to garden’ part, I say, “Hurray!! Another convert!”
For the ‘overwhelmed, don’t know where to start part,’ I say, “Ok, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea and let’s sit down and talk about this a little bit.”

I don’t really care about why you want to garden (I’m a ‘find a hole and fill it’ sort of gardener myself and earned my stripes entering weasley looking carrots and droopy lettuce in a junior garden club show run by the local Men’s garden club when I was in the sixth grade. Somewhere, someplace, that white ‘honorable mention’ ribbon is at the bottom of a box in memory). I don’t care if the only thing you ever grew is a houseplant on a windowsill..or if you never grew anything at all but want to now. I don’t care if your interest is a whole bed of sweet corn, a year’s worth of broccoli or a tomato plant in a pot.

What I do care about is that you ENJOY it. A very short story to illustrate: Once, many years ago, the DH got super ambitious and decided that we needed a MUCH larger garden. Like, huge. And he decided to rip up a spot on the hill next to the barn that was probably 1/4 acre.

With a pick and a shovel. Not even a lawn tractor with a tiller on it. By hand. And he spent his entire vacation with this, hour after hour…day after day. The amount of sweat he put into that was amazing. And by the end of it, we had row upon row of tomato plants and pepper plants and potatoes and carrots and onions, all nicely planted, with the seeds just waiting to come up. And he decided to do just one..more…bit…of..a..dig.

And we ended up at the doctor’s with the DH, me pregnant with child number two, the 2 year old (who was grumpy at the time because we had interrupted her nap), and a completely useless arm. He’d ripped several tendons with all the digging you see. He spend the rest of the summer in a brace on his arm.

So, there we were with garden as far as the eye could see. I could only keep up with a rather small amount of all of that, so rather sooner than later, the garden disappeared under a jungle of weeds, squashes running rampant and goodness knows what else. We did not garden again for a very long time after that. When we did, we analyzed what had gone so horribly wrong.

First, location. The damn thing was so far away from the house that even just going up there was a chore. When we had first started gardening, at a different house, the garden was about 10 steps from the back door. We had a lovely time after dinner most nights just going out and taking a look at what was going on, pulling the odd weed, harvesting the odd bean or tomato. On weekends, we would put in a bit more work in terms of weeding, hacking back the spaghetti squashes with a lawn mower, that sort of thing. But the lesson here is this: Locate where you are going to grow stuff to eat close to where you are going to be, whether it’s on the deck in a planter box, next to the back door, next to the driveway where you are going to see it, a LOT. That makes it convenient and it also puts it where critters are not necessarily going to be able to get to it without being close to you (which they really don’t like).

Next, size. What the DH did was a case of ‘eyes bigger than stomach’ issue which put the garden into the range of requiring a team of people with gas-powered equipment to keep in shape. With him out of action and only one of me, we were defeated before we even started. Lesson from this: Keep the size of the thing, especially if you are just getting started, in the range of something you can get your arms around. This might be a couple of pots with tomatoes on the deck, or a flower box with collard greens and lettuce next to the back door, or some herbs. Or planting Rainbow Chard in the flower patch next to the back door (the stems are almost ‘glow in the dark’ so they are pretty splashy with the flowers). If you want to start with one bed, then make it something like 3 feet wide by 10 feet long. You can get a lot of production out of a space that big and as long as you keep an eye on it and pull the occasional weed, you can keep it under control and harvest things as you see them ripen. But, for the love of all things gardening, do NOT start with something 30 feet by 30 feet – after a month, you won’t be able to find a thing, trust me.

Other gardening thoughts for beginners:
What do you want to grow? What do you already like to eat and eat a LOT of? When you first start, it is completely easy to have things get out of hand. Like tomatoes? Then start with one, maybe two plants and make them two different things – like a cherry tomato and a plum tomato for sauce. You’ll get more cherry tomatoes than you can possibly dream of ever having, and you’ll have enough plum tomatoes to make fresh tomato sauce (which is heaven) and to freeze for winter sauce making and eating (take them out a little bit before you make a salad so that they are defrosting and you will have something that will beat any tomato you can find in the store, trust me). Like peppers? Buy a six-pack of sweet pepper plants and plant those. Take my advice and don’t buy a six-pack of hot pepper plants – you will end up with more hot peppers than you can ever use. Do you eat a lot of Italian (or Greek or Spanish) food? Then get plants for basil, oregano, cilantro and grow those (either in pots on the deck or in the garden). You can never have too much in the way of fresh herbs and eating a fresh tomato from your garden with fresh basil and olive oil is (well, I’m going to start there so I don’t start to swoon). What you don’t want to do it this: Grow a lot of stuff that you don’t already eat. Get your gardening legs under you so that you feel confident about growing the stuff you DO like to eat and then branch out from there. What you don’t want to do is finish the garden season with the thought that you threw out a lot of stuff that you couldn’t get your family to eat.

Something else: Don’t think that you are somehow some sort of weeny if you don’t grow things like tomatoes, peppers and so on from seed under lights inside your house. There is absolutely nothing wrong (or weak or silly or evil) about going to your local home and garden center and buying your plants there. Find someone truly local (not the big box national chains) to buy your plants – they will be growing things that they know will grow and grow well for you in your climate. You’ll be able to get a tomato plant in a big pot for the deck, for example – it might even already have flowers on it (woohoo!!). Much more enjoyable for someone just starting out.

Make hay while the sun shines

Getting good (i.e., not raining) weather in the early spring here at Chez Siberia is a rare enough occurrence that when we get it, and on a weekend to boot, it’s all hands out in the garden and get that work done.

Lots of work got done:
General cleanup in the vegetable garden. No, I did not get the plastic out on one of the beds; with any luck, I’ll get a chance for that this coming weekend.

Blueberry bushes got hauled out of their snug winter heeled-in spot and planted, along with compost, bone and a bit of blood meal, and wood chips. (more…)

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