Giving Thanks for Lessons Learned During 2014 Gardening Season

As Thanksgiving approaches and the 2014 gardening season ends, I am thankful that I have been able to 1) garden this year; and 2) harvest and cook new veggies that my family enjoyed. I don’t take gardening for granted. I am lucky I have the physical health, the space, and the time to be able to garden. I also believe that gardening is a process; the garden as well as the gardener continues to evolve.  Growing, harvesting, and cooking edibles is an even more complex process because the critters want the harvest just as much as you do. When you spend months growing veggies for your family, warding off deer and aphids, you have made a positive impact on everyone’s health. Plus, when your son helps you set up a compost pile or your daughter enjoys making kale chips, you know you have instilled valuable memories and a better understanding of nature. Despite a successful gardening year, I have a few “lessons learned” from my Northern Virginia garden that may help others in my neighborhood.

Alpine strawberry: Learned that if you grow from seed, in addition to buying plants, you will greatly expand your palette of edibles that grow successfully in your garden. Alpine strawberries are great plants, easy to grow from seed, but you won’t find the strawberries in stores or the plants for sale in nurseries (the fruit is too small and delicate to ship). I started my seed in the spring and by mid-November, I was still harvesting the small, delicate fruit.

Beans: Learned that beans germinate so quickly and the plants are so easy to grow, they are great kid plants. Beans keep on producing beans all summer long. Even if something eats the leaves, the plants come back. Although I prefer pole beans for extended harvest and vertical lines, I could also grow a bush bean plant in a large container surrounded by other colorful edibles for a “patio garden.”tomatofaceJuly2014 023

Eggplant: Learned that if you grow it, they will come. I have never seen flea beetles until I grew eggplants.  Learned to plant the transplants later, when more mature, and to use Surround next time, which will coat the plants with kaolin (a fine clay based product). Also learned that eggplants seem to be more drought resistant than other veggies, they do not need to be watered as often.

Goji plants:  Learned that once you have one goji plant, you will always have a goji plant. Goji plants root from roots. If you dig up one plant to place elsewhere and you accidentally leave roots behind, you may find new goji plants. Not that this is a bad thing, I like to eat the small red fruits which are a great source of antioxidants.

Kale: Learned the importance of organic methods. Kale is easy to grow but attracts several different kind of bugs in our area so if you can imagine a farmer growing kale and having to battle these pests on a large scale, you would want he or she to use organic practices instead of chemical sprays.  Learned that kids love kale chips and I love to add this healthy green in soups and stews.

Lemon cucumbers: Learned that lemon cucumbers are tasty, easy to grow, and prolific. For once, I did not have a problem with bitterness. Learned that kids like novelty, in fact, was able to give away to friends who also thought they were great! Learned that they are so prolific, they need a heavy trellis to lean on or will drape over my tomatoes and peppers.SmithsonianAugust2014 089

Lemon grass: Learned that I could get edibles from Asian markets for a fraction of the cost. My lemon grass plant came from stalks bought at the Asian market, which I rooted in soil. I also learned that once the plants are established, I can pull off a stalk, root it in water/soil, and start a new plant (great gifts for friends). I learned, through YouTube, how to harvest the stalks for cooking and how to dry them to make herbal tea.

Lettuce:  Learned that I need to buy different varieties, those that can take cool weather and those that can adapted to heat so can grow continuously from spring through fall. Also learned that our family prefers the cut and come again sweet lettuce. Lettuce is one of the easiest edibles to grow, in a shallow container or in a bed, but it is important to keep sowing to have new, young leaves that are not bitter or that will not bolt.

Pak choi: Learned that pak choi is another fast germinator and easy to direct seed if have cool weather. Like lettuce, need to have enough seed to sow several times, because I use it a lot in cooking. Although it can be grown in a container I use too much so I grow it in the front garden bed and so far, no pests or disease.

Peppers: Learned that pepper seeds are difficult to germinate or conversely, I don’t have patience.  But I also learned that once I can get them to germinate and transplanted in the garden, I can harvest peppers up until frost. They seem to perk up in the fall and produce even more peppers.

Pineapple sage: Learned that even though this is a tropical plant that does not overwinter here in Virginia, it does not necessarily mean it likes the hot, afternoon sun. My pineapple sage wilted often in August’s heat but thrived in the cooler autumn temperatures. I think it would have thrived in morning sun, afternoon shade, which is where I will put it next year.  Pineapple sage is one of my favorite herbs for teas so I periodically cut stems and harvest the leaves. I learned that if I strip almost all leaves except two or three, I could put the stems in water and they will root.  I end up with even more plants to put into the garden or to give to friends.tomatofaceJuly2014 089

Shiso: Learned that shiso can be invasive in Virginia. I obtained a seed packet from a California based company and after I had transplanted the seedlings to my garden, I saw many plants in the neighbor’s garden, in the sidewalk cracks, alongside the road, etc. I then researched shiso further and discovered that it is considered invasive here, but maybe not California. The source of seed can make a difference plus the seed packet may not tell you everything you need to know.

Sugar snap peas: Learned that these are very easy to germinate, just soak seeds in water overnight, put in wet paper towels or paper coffee filters, and seal in a plastic bag. They germinate so fast this way you best be ready to plant them. I also learned that seedlings tolerate the cold, wet soil better than seeds so is best to germinate indoors and then plant outdoors.

Summer squash: Learned that it is worth it to grow the yellow summer squash so I will find a way to prevent the dreaded squash vine borer. My family enjoyed eating squash in a casserole dish and I am sure they will enjoy it next year when I add it to grilled shish kebab.cucumbersbeans 052

Tomato: Learned that seed germinates so fast, you can use cardboard egg cartons (any longer and the cardboard will get moldy). Also learned the value of growing in a medium with the prescribed amount of fertilizer. I have always grown my tomatoes in Earthboxes on the deck and they have never had diseases. I really believe it is because they are grow from seed, in a container on the deck (away from the garden soil and other plants), and with the prescribed amounts of lime and fertilizer.June29tomato 007

Zinger hibiscus or Roselle: Learned that the variety makes a difference. I obtained a packet of seed from a California-based company. Although I started the seeds indoors in early spring, transplanted outdoors in very rich soil in large containers (practically coddled them), this particular Hibiscus sabdariffa finally started flowering in late September but our frosts occur at the end of October. Again, the seed packet did not offer the crucial fact that flower initiation is caused by short days/long nights. Next year, I will grow another variety called Thai Red Roselle, which starts flowering mid-summer, allowing a more ample harvest.

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Lantana

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Lantana trifolia at Green Spring Gardens in summer

We have had a few light frosts here in Northern Virginia, the temperatures have dipped down into the thirties and the leaves are falling off the trees. At our local Alexandria library, the lantana plants in the containers are still blooming. Lantana is a tender perennial that reminds me of my childhood in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There it grew wild, all year long, in the tropical climate. Here in zone 7, it is grown as an annual and the commonly used species Lantana camara is used as a full sun, drought resistant, butterfly magnet. This is the species the library has and although these particular flowers are dark red, the Lantana camara flower colors range from yellow to orange to red.  A few years ago, Adrian Higgins wrote about another Lantana species he saw at Green Spring Gardens in his weekly Washington Post column. I had not heard of it before so naturally I drove to Green Spring Gardens to check it out. Lantana trifolia aka popcorn lantana has purple flowers that produce a string of small purple fruits, resembling a small ear of corn. The purple fruit is much more noticeable than Lantana camara, which tends to be small green balls. It too is a tender perennial but not commonly grown in this area. Seeing the library’s lantana plant still blooming on November 15 (Garden Bloggers Bloom Day) reminds me to put both Lantana camara and Lantana trifolia on my 2015 Garden Wish List.

Lantana camara at library on November 15

Lantana camara at library on November 15

Hyacinths: Easy, Indoor Winter Blooms

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Box of hyacinth bulb/vase, Merrifield Garden Center

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Assortment of single bulbs at Merrifield Garden Center

Forcing hyacinths to bloom indoors is easy. Although hyacinths need a chilling period, keeping them in a paper bag in the fridge for 8 to 10 weeks will achieve this effect.  Make sure you label the bag so your family does not mistake them for onions. When the chilling period is over, put the bulbs in glass forcing vases or wide-mouth jars with pebbles so the roots are in water and the bulbs are not. Place in indirect light. As they grow, give more light, but avoid direct sun. After flowering, plant the bulbs in the garden in late spring/early summer for flowers in the garden next spring.  Hyacinths are deer resistant and will come back in the garden year after year in our area. Compared to other bulbs, hyacinth bulbs are cheap, less than two dollars for high quality, individual bulbs or six or seven dollars for a package of three. Traditionally, hyacinth vases or forcing vases are used to hold the bulbs.  These are pinched vases that allow the bulbs to sit above the water. I have had mine for so many years I don’t know where they came from but you can buy them at large independent garden centers, through online garden supply stores, or sometimes as a boxed combo of bulb and vase. It is not necessary to use these; you can place the bulb on a layer of pebbles or marbles in a wide-mouthed jar, like a jam or Mason jar.

my forcing vases

my forcing vases

Mine will go into the fridge tonight and 10 weeks later, on January 22, (mark it on the calendar) I will take place them in the forcing vases. I look forward to enjoying the beauty and fragrance for weeks, way before my garden hyacinths bloom outside!

Amaryllis: Perfect Holiday Gift and Decor

Growing an amaryllis for holiday blooms is so easy, just plant and water. Unlike the spring blooming bulbs, an amaryllis bulb does not need a chilling period. Once planted, these large bulbs can grow and bloom in 7-10 weeks. The flowers last for a long time and the plant can be coaxed to re bloom again the following year. You can buy amaryllis bulbs now as hostess gifts for Thanksgiving, give the bulbs to friends for Christmas so they can enjoy the blooms during winter, start the bulbs now to give the blooming plants to friends for Christmas, or start the bulbs now to decorate your own home for the holidays.November2014hyacinthamaryllis 123

This past week, I took a quick look at a Virginia independent garden center and the local Home Depot to see what types of amaryllis bulbs and packages they offered. I discovered that amaryllis can be bought as a single, large bulb, for you to pot up; as a gift box of a “pre-planted” bulb (in a plastic container); already planted in a ceramic container as a gift; and as a gift box of a glass container with a bulb and pebbles (without soil). If you buy only the bulb, you can plant it in soil or place it in a glass vase of water with pebbles. If you plant it in soil, make sure the container has drainage holes or put in plastic pots with drainage holes into decorative containers/lined baskets. Pick a pot 2 inches wider than the diameter of the bulb. Use a well drained potting soil, not the soil from your garden. The upper half of the bulb should remain above the soil surface. Water and put in a warm place, around 70 to 75 degrees. When growth appears, place in a sunny window and watch the flower stalks. If they lean, give more light or rotate pot to balance or stake so does not topple over.  Once flower buds appear, move the plant out of direct sun and into a slightly cooler location.

If you want to grow the plant in a vase of water, place about 3-4 inches of pebbles, marbles, or glass rocks in the glass and place the bulb on top so that the top third is exposed. Water enough so the water line is below the base of the bulb. You don’t want the bulb to sit in water but the roots need to be in water. Follow the same directions as above concerning light and temperature.

I have seen only one coamaryllisandsnapdragonOctober2014 002mpany that has capitalized on growing amaryllis in water. Home Depot is selling Bloomaker’s amaryllis in glass jars, complete with pebbles, in a very attractive gift box. If you scan the code on the box, you can see a video of how the plant will grow and bloom in the glass vase. I am already asking Santa for one.

For a variety of color selection, though, buy individual bulbs from the largest independent garden center in your area. I visited Merrifield Garden Center and they have an entire area dedicated to bulbs. You can pick your colors and show them off in pots or in glass vases. If you have time, it pays to look around and stock up on amaryllis for gifts as well as for your own home.November2014hyacinthamaryllis 160

 

 

 

From the Garden: Flower and Herb Arrangements

Goldfinch Shasta daisy, La Crema sage, purple flowering hyssop

Goldfinch Shasta daisy, La Crema sage, purple flowering hyssop

Every week, I cut flowers from my garden and bring them into the office to enjoy all week long. I like to include herbs as well; sometimes their flowers are just as pretty, sometimes the foliage accentuates the arrangement. These are simple “cut and stuff” vases of flowers based on whatever I have at the moment. I am not a florist but I like to look at the flowers, leaves, and herbs up close this way.

close up of yellow in sage with yellow in daisy contrasting purple hyssop flowers

close up of yellow in sage with yellow in daisy contrasting purple hyssop flowers

These two arrangements were cut a few months ago. The La Crema sage blends well with the yellow in the Goldfinch Shasta daisy and the purple flowers from the hyssop contrast with the yellow. Hyssop is a perennial herb that grows well in this area; its purple flowers attract beneficial insects.

In the other arrangement, the Persian Carpet zinnias blend well with the sweet marjoram. Sweet marjoram is known for its culinary use but it is also a small perennial that attracts beneficial insects. The flowers are small and white but the green bracts are much more visible, adding structure and interest to the arrangement.

Persian Carpet zinnias with sweet marjoram

Persian Carpet zinnias with sweet marjoram

Try cutting flowers and herbs for your office or home by keeping a few glass vases and shears within easy reach. It is a great way to get to know plants up close.

close up of sweet marjoram flowers and green bracts

close up of sweet marjoram flowers and green bracts

You Can Grow That: Little Henry Sweetspire

My Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’ has fantastic fall color, not the flaming red you read about but beach sunset glow, muskmelon peach/orange, and autumn persimmon. When I bought Little Henry it was only a foot high. In 9 years, it has matured to a small woody shrub, 3 feet high and wide. In early summer, it blooms small white flowers on thin, 4-inch long, racemes, similar in shape to a bottle brush. The flowers mature into small, tan seed pods that remain on the shrub well into winter, after the leaves drop. The branches can be cut and placed in a vase either for the summer flowers, the fall foliage, or the striking seed pods.September2014andfieldwildflowers 010

Little Henry is a cultivar of Itea virginica, a shrub native to the eastern United States. Although it can tolerate sunnier and dryer conditions once established it seems to thrive in the morning sun/ afternoon shade combination in my garden where it sits in a moist, heavily mulched area. I have seen other Virginia sweetspires in full sun and dryer conditions. I also have seen the species spread by suckering but mine has not does not move. Hardy to zone 5, Little Henry does not seem to have any pest or disease problems and provides year round interest. Read about other “You can grow that” articles written and posted by garden bloggers on the fourth of every month.September2014andfieldwildflowers 021September2014andfieldwildflowers 009

Youcangrowthat

Happy Halloween!

Yesterday I received the electronic newsletter from Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York with an image of several snapdragon seed pods as their “Happy Halloween” message. When dried, the seed pods resemble skulls, a perfect Halloween image. Naturally, I then cut my snapdragon stalks in my garden and brought them into the kitchen to see if I too had skulls. Sure enough, the dried seed pods look just like skulls with their hollowed out eyes and mouths.

snapdragon seed pods

How is this useful you ask? Halloween potpourri! Just imagine the orange of dried calendula petals, the black of large seeds or beans, and several dried skulls in a glass pumpkin. Or put the mixture in a small basket and glue more skulls to the basket’s handle with a hot glue gun.

closeup of snapdragon seed pods

Happy Halloween!!