Subscribe to Local Gardening Newsletter for a Chance to Win CowPots

Enter your e-mail here to subscribe to Pegplant’s Post, an e-newsletter about gardening in the Washington DC metropolitan area. This free monthly communication lists 50 to 100 local gardening events, recently published gardening books, and articles and tips specific to this immediate area. Each issue also features the opportunity to win a free plant or gardening product. For the upcoming March 2020 Pegplant’s Post, one lucky subscriber will win a package of CowPots. This is a combination of one #3 square 12-pack, one #4 square 12-pack, and one #3 six cell 3-pack.

CowPots are made on a third-generation family dairy farm in Connecticut. CowPots are biodegradable, plantable pots made from cow manure but they are odor and peat free. They are an alternative to plastic pots; however, eventually they degrade into the garden soil. Using CowPots provides better root penetration, air pruning, and reduces transplant shock. After you insert your transplant into the CowPot and water, the CowPot will remain intact for about 12-16 weeks, depending on the size. When you plant the transplant in the garden, plant the entire CowPot so the CowPot is buried in the soil. The CowPot will break down in one growing season. I have seen these for sale at the Ace stores in the Washington DC metro area but you also can order them online at Johnny’s Selected Seed, Gardener’s Supply Company, Gardener’s Edge, Territorial Seed, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. There are many sizes and styles.

Celebrate National Chocolate Mint Day!

Today is National Chocolate Mint Day and for gardeners that translates into the chocolate mint herb (Mentha x piperita forma citrata ‘Chocolate’). Mints are herbaceous perennials. They are extremely hardy but must be grown in containers. All mints will take over your garden if you plant them in the ground.

Chocolate mint has textured leaves and dark brown to purple stems. The leaves are green but the new growth is darker, with veins that are brown to purple. The leaves really do taste like chocolate mint, which kids love. In my family, we make a syrup out of the leaves and pour it on fresh strawberries (see recipe below). We also put minced leaves in a store-bought brownie mix, chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookie dough to add the mint flavor. The leaves are great for garnishing fruit salads, desserts, cakes, and cupcakes. They can be used fresh or dried for making tea, or adding to coffee or hot chocolate.

This is a great plant to have in order to make gifts. The stems root very easily in water so you can either pot up the rooted stems or just give cuttings to friends. We have given away pots of chocolate mint with a recipe card attached. Because the cost is minimal, pots of chocolate mint make a great gift for your children’s teachers.

Mints can tolerate shade and prefer moist soil. They can be grown in dappled shade or morning sun and afternoon shade. If there is a dry period in the summer, make sure the container is receiving enough water. They grow to a few feet tall and flower in the summer. The small flowers are edible and can be used as a garnish. They also attract beneficial insects, bees, and butterflies. Deer leave the plant alone. Chocolate mint also can be used as the “spiller” in a container with summer flowers.

Syrup

Put one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer. When the sugar dissolves, turn off the heat, and add a large handful of chocolate mint leaves. Bruise with a wooden spoon by smashing leaves against the side of the pot. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. When cool, strain leaves out and pour syrup in glass jar. Store in fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Some Like It Hot and Some Like It Cold

warm season tomato plants for sale in March will not like the cool evenings if planted in the ground

One of my first lessons in growing vegetables and herbs is learning the plant’s preference for temperature. To keep it simple, there are cool season and warm season crops. Getting to know what the plant prefers determines when to buy/plant, what to buy/plant, where to buy/plant, and when to harvest/eat!

In the mid-Atlantic area, typical cool season plants are anything in the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, collard, Brussels sprout), lettuce, pea, kale, chervil, dill, cilantro, leek, scallions, radish, spinach, arugula, beet, pak choi or bok choy, carrot, mustard, parsnip, turnip, and Swiss chard.

cool season lettuce for sale in March will like the cool temperatures if planted in the ground

Some can continue to grow well during the summer such as spring onions and Swiss chard. Other cool season lovers “bolt” when it warms up in May/June. For example, cilantro will bolt, that is, flower and set seed, in May. This is good if you want the seed, also known as coriander, but bad if you want to continue to harvest the leaves. When the plant bolts, the leaves become bitter and eventually the plant will die because it is an annual.

Most people associate the warm season edibles with summer itself. These include tomato, basil, fennel, eggplant, pepper, corn, summer/winter squash, zucchini, melon, watermelon, cucumber, okra, and pumpkins. These will not tolerate the frosts we may get in the spring evenings so it is best to start them outdoors after the last average frost date in mid-May.

Frequently you will see both types of plants for sale as early as March. These photos were take at a local hardware store in March last year. Basil, a summer lover, is especially sensitive to cold. If one were to purchase these basil plants and put them in the garden unprotected they may die because there is still the likelihood of frost in early spring.

basil plants for sale in March may even die from a late spring freeze

In my zone 7 garden, the cool season plants/seeds should be started outside in mid-March to the beginning of April. The warm season plants/seeds should be started in early May to the end of May. If you do not know what your vegetable or herb prefers, there are several ways to figure this out:

Read the seed packet or label
Read seed catalogs
Research on the internet
Read local gardening books
Visit garden nurseries and ask knowledgeable staff.

The books I found most useful books for this area are listed below and are easy to get from the library or bookstore. Knowing the plant’s preference will help you figure out when to start your seed and/or when to purchase plants.

The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski & Jennifer Kujawski (Storey Publishing, 2010)
The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast by Ira Wallace (of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) (Timber Press, 2013)
The Year Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing, 2011)
Gardening in the Mid-Atlantic, Month-by Month by Andre and Mark Viette with Jacqueline Heriteau (Cool Springs Press, 2008)

broccoli for sale in March will thrive in the cool season

Seed Companies: Online and Print Catalogs

I have updated my list of seed companies on my tab “Seed Companies,” which I have copied and posted below. The first list is of companies that publish and mail print catalogs; the second list is of online companies. For a source of bulbs, see the “Bulb Companies” tab on pegplant.com.

Seed Catalogs

Adaptive Seeds http://www.adaptiveseeds.com

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds http://www.anniesheirloomseeds.com

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed http://www.rareseeds.com

Botanical Interests http://www.botanicalinterests.com

Burpee http://www.burpee.com

Fedco Seeds http://www.fedcoseeds.com

Gurneys Seed and Nursery Company  http://www.gurneys.com

Harris Seeds http://www.harrisseeds.com

High Mowing Seeds http://www.highmowingseeds.com

Hudson Valley Seed Library http://www.seedlibrary.org

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com

Johnny’s Selected Seeds http://www.johnnyseeds.com

J.W. Jung Seed http://www.jungseed.com

Kitazawa Seed Company http://www.kitazawaseed.com

Nichols Garden Nursery http://www.nicholsgardennursery.com

Park Seed http://www.parkseed.com

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply http://www.groworganic.com

Pinetree Garden Seeds & Accessories http://www.superseeds.com

Renaissance Farms http://www.renaissancefarms.org

R.H. Shumway http://www.rhshumway.com

Seeds of Change http://www.seedsofchange.com

Seed Savers Exchange http://www.seedsavers.org

Seeds from Italy http://www.growitalian.com

Select Seeds/Antique Flowers http://www.selectseeds.com

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange http://www.southernexposure.com

Sow True Seeds http://www.sowtrueseeds.com

Stokes Seeds http://www.stokesseeds.com

Territorial Seed Company http://www.territorialseed.com

Tomato Growers Supply Company http://www.tomatogrowers.com

Totally Tomatoes http://www.totallytomato.com

Urban Farmer http://www.ufseeds.com

Vermont Bean Seed Company http://www.vermontbean.com

Victory Seeds  http://www.victoryseeds.com

Online Seed Companies

American Meadows  http://www.americanmeadows.com

Eden Brothers http://www.edenbrothers.com

Harvesting History http://www.harvesting-history.com

Henry Field’s Seed and Nursery Company http://www.henryfields.com

High Country Gardens  http://www.highcountrygardens.com

Mary’s Heirloom Seeds http://www.marysheirloomseeds.com

Native Seeds http://www.nativeseeds.org

Renee’s Garden  http://www.reneesgarden.com

Sample Seeds http://www.sampleseeds.com

Sustainable Seed Company  http://www.sustainableseedco.com

Terroir Seeds http://www.underwoodgardens.com

A New “Orange” Lemon Balm: Mandarina

Lemon Balm ‘Mandarina’

Three weeks ago I posted an article on lemon balm to celebrate National Hot Tea Day. Lemon balm is an herbaceous perennial herb with a lemon flavor that makes a great hot tea. Out of all the herbal teas, it is the one that tastes the most like black tea, very much like Lipton. Since then, I have been reading the incoming seed catalogs to plan my 2020 Virginia garden. Much to my surprise, the Burpee catalog is offering a new lemon balm called Mandarina. This is a lemon balm with an orange flavor. Think Constant Comment. I can’t wait to try this. Although they are selling plants, I ordered the packet of 100 seeds so I can divide and share with my friends. The catalog description says it is hardy to zone 4 with an “alluring fragrance and attractive foliage. Perfect for large, mixed patio containers.” I suspect Mandarina is grown much like my lemon balm plant: morning sun and afternoon shade. My lemon balm is a perennial bush in the garden bed but these plants could be grown in a container as a filler or spiller. Both would make great caffeine-free teas but think of the possibilities in the kitchen! Mandarina would give an orange twist to stir fry chicken, fruit salad, pound cake, sugars, syrups, and more! Try Mandarina this year for an orange twist on an old lemon favorite.

Lemon Balm ‘Mandarina’

Photos courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee Company. This is not a paid advertisement and no products were received free with this article.

Early Spring Bloomers: Dwarf Irises

2014Marchgarden 017

Harmony

It is the end of January and already I can see the spiky green emerging from the mass of dead, brown leaves. Dwarf irises are one of my earliest bloomers in my zone 7 Virginia garden. These irises are only 4-5 inches tall and bloom solitary flowers. Mine have been in my garden for a long time, nothing bothers them. Usually they bloom in early March. This year we have had such a mild winter, I think I will see flowers in February.

J.S. Dijt

J.S. Dijt

Also known as netted iris, dwarf irises (Iris reticulata) are very small bulbs, covered with a fibrous netting. There are many cultivars; flower colors range from light to dark blue or light to dark purple. Preferring full sun and well-drained soil, they thrive in rock gardens, on steps and terraces, in containers, and can be forced to bloom indoors in pots. The flowers can be cut for small desk top vases, bringing early spring cheer to the office or home.

They are available to plant in the fall, along with other bulbs, at local garden centers or through bulb companies. Because they are so small though, buy at least a handful. Plant with roots pointing down, spike pointing up, three inches deep and three inches apart. Hardy to zone 5, they die back in the summer and come back in the spring every year. In my garden, ‘J.S. Dijt’ and ‘Harmony’ have thrived for years with no pests or diseases.

Seed Swaps: Fun Way to Get New Seeds!

It is that time of year again — seed swaps! National Seed Swap Day is Saturday, January 25, 2020, the last Saturday in January. Seed swaps are a great way to obtain new seeds, share your favorite seeds, and attend a fun event. A seed swap can be as simple as friends getting together to share seeds they saved from the previous gardening season to an all-day planned event with speakers, door prizes, and refreshments. Seed swaps can be a vehicle to teach others how to save seed, the importance of seed diversity, heirloom seeds, and other aspects of gardening. Some exchange more than seeds; tables may be set up to collect used gardening books, magazines, tools, pots, and nursery catalogs. Some may expand their definition of seeds and allow bulbs, rhizomes, and cuttings. Others include related activities such as learning to make handmade seed envelopes.

Each seed swap is different but usually organizers have established guidelines for the seed such as the type of container to use, the number of seed in each bag, and the information required on the label. Organizers should clarify if commercial seed packages or hybrid seeds are accepted. Although swaps do not want seeds from invasive plants, the organizers should clarify the definition of an invasive plant in their area.

If you are interested in attending a seed swap, ask your local county extension agent or Master Gardeners if they know of seed swaps in your area. Check out my monthly list of local gardening events at pegplant.com for seed swaps in the Washington DC metro area.

If you are interested in starting a seed swap, visit a few first to see the range of activities that could take place and the number of volunteers required. Read Seedswap: The Gardener’s Guide to Saving and Swapping Seeds by Josie Jeffery and download the Seed Savers Exchange’s 8-page handout on how to organize a seed swap. To learn how to save seeds, read my article entitled “How to Save Seeds from the Home Garden.” Happy #seedswapday!

Subscribe Now to Pegplant’s Post for a Chance to Win David Austin English Rose

One of David Austin’s English roses in the landscape. Photo courtesy of David Austin Roses.

Enter your e-mail here to subscribe to Pegplant’s Post, an e-newsletter about gardening in the Washington DC metropolitan area. This free monthly communication lists 50 to 100 local gardening events, recently published gardening books, and articles and tips specific to this immediate area. Each issue also features the opportunity to win a free plant or gardening product. For the upcoming February 2020 Pegplant’s Post, one lucky subscriber will win a bare root English rose, courtesy of David Austin Roses.

A David Austin English rose needs no introduction. David Austin is one of the greatest rosarians and rose breeders in the world and the first to create a horticultural brand. In the early 1950s, David Austin began to create a more beautiful rose by combining the fragrance of old roses with the color range and repeat flowering habits of the modern roses. In 1961, he released his first commercial English rose, ‘Constance Spry’. Since then he has released more than 200 English roses. English roses are fragrant with many petals, creating a lush, full flower. The plants are disease resistant and bloom all season long.  The David Austin representative will work with the winner to determine the correct time for shipping and planting and to answer any questions about roses.

It All Started With Seeds

Saving various types of lima beans and their names and stories

I read a phrase that is so true: “It all starts with the seed. The seeds take care of us.” We rely on seeds, thus plants, to feed, clothe, and shelter us. But these seeds in turn rely on us. Our cultivated plants (not wild grown but grown in gardens and farms) depend on human care. If we do not preserve a species it will become extinct. If no one grows a plant and saves the seed, the plant and its genetic material will not exist anymore.

The Importance of Seeds

Because seeds are fundamentally important to our survival, saving seeds, especially open pollinated, heirloom seeds, is vital. Plants make up 80 percent of our diet. On an agricultural level, saving seeds preserves genetic diversity. Breeders can tap into a large genetic pool for improved crops and pest/disease resistant crops. Saving seeds of various plants ensures crop diversity so that one pest/disease does not wipe out one crop. Saving seeds of plants that have adapted to a local area helps to become resilient to climate change.

Sharing saved seeds at a seed swap

On a home gardener level, saving seeds saves money. One can exchange seeds at seed swaps or pass down seeds to future generations. Over time, saving seed from plants that have done well in the garden saves plants that have adapted well to the region. This may help with climatic change. Saving seed also increases the diversity of plants grown. There is more of a choice, more of a variety to choose from for better flavor, time of harvest, or plant type. Saving seeds also saves the memories and stories from previous generations and the lineage of heirlooms.

However, each year, as seed are not saved, plants become extinct. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 75 percent of global food diversity has become extinct in the past 100 years. Of just 20 plants used for global food production in 2014, only 9 accounted for more than 66 percent of all crop production. Only five cereal grains make up 60 percent of our calories. In the past century we have lost more than 90 percent of our seed diversity. Thousands of plant species are no longer available, and we continue to lose them every day. Yet biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture and provides us and plants with resilience.

Seed Saving Initiatives

Grandpa Ott’s morning glory

Fortunately, there are seed saving initiatives across the world to save seeds for future generations. One American organization, Seed Savers Exchange, has several programs that are extremely useful and helpful to home gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) began in 1975 by Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy. Diane’s grandfather gave them seeds of Grandpa Ott’s morning glory and German Pink tomato which were brought by Grandpa Ott’s parents from Bavaria when they immigrated to Iowa in the 1870’s. Diane knew that with her grandfather’s passing, unless the seed were grown and saved, they would be lost. She reached out to like-minded people interested in saving and sharing heirloom seeds and gradually formed a network.

Seed Savers Exchange

German Pink tomato

Today, SSE is a non-profit organization in Decorah, Iowa, with more than 13,000 members. Its mission is to “conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.”

The SSE maintains a seed bank with 18,000 to 20,000 varieties at their headquarters in Iowa. They also send seed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seed vault at Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

“At SSE, we store seeds at zero degrees Fahrenheit and 20 percent humidity. Under these conditions, certain seed can last up to 100 years,” said Philip Kauth, Ph.D., Director of Preservation.

To give an idea of the number of varieties that can exist within one plant, Philip said that currently the SSE collection has 6,000 tomatoes. There are 3,000 types on the market that are commercially available. “We have 1,100 varieties of corn but the USDA has 20,000 varieties of corn. We also have 6,000 varieties of beans.” What makes SSE unique is that they also maintain the seed’s history. “We put a lot of emphasis on stories. We preserve the varieties and their histories as well as evaluation data on their performance as a plant.”

The Seed Exchange

Anyone, including home gardeners, may access some of these varieties through the Seed Exchange. The Seed Exchange is a free online database of seeds, basically a seed swap. Anyone can offer or obtain open pollinated seeds to grow in their garden. It does not cost money to view this database; however, in order to list or request seed a free account must be established. If reading hard copy is preferable, there is an annual catalog called the Yearbook that can be ordered for a fee. The Seed Exchange has more than 11,000 varieties of homegrown, open pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed. Once people obtain and grow these, they can save and re-sow the seed (hence have them for a long time) or even save and share the seed with friends and family. The Seed Exchange also includes potato tubers, garlic bulbs, apple tree cuttings, and other non-seed material.

Field crew harvesting beans

Today, a quick look at the Seed Exchange reveals 9,563 varieties of tomatoes. Some entries have short descriptions, some long, and some have photos. For example, the description for the Silvery Fir Tree tomato is a “compact (18 – 24 inches high) with unusual, delicate, lacy leaves. In Russian, it is called ‘Serebristaya El’ .. it is an old Russian variety that was introduced to American seed savers in the early 1990s by Marina Danilenko, pioneering private seed seller from Moscow during the Perestroika-era.”

There are 38 entries for spinach including a broad leaved prickly seed spinach “described by Albertus Magnus, a Catholic saint from Germany, in 1260, has been commercially available in the US since at least 1806, and was planted by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1809 and 1812.”

SSE also sells seed, people can order online and from a free catalog. SSE makes about 600 varieties available commercially to the public when inventory of seed is high enough to meed the demand. The revenue from the seed sales, as well as donations and memberships, maintain the organization’s seed collection and promote and encourage the tradition of saving and sharing seed.

Trial beds at Heritage Farm

Seed Savers Exchange Projects

Other interesting SSE projects are Seed Rematriation (identifying and growing plants grown by indigenous communities in order to obtain and save the seeds); SeedLinked, a seed data platform connecting people with information on varieties from other gardeners/farmers; and the Community Seed Network, which engages hundreds of people across the United States and Canada to connect, share, and learn about seeds. The SSE also provides free seed to schools, community groups, and people in need via the Herman’s Garden and Disaster Relief Seed Donation programs.

Heritage Farm

The SSE is a destination point — hundreds of gardeners, horticulturists, and seed savers visit the headquarters, known as Heritage Farm, each year. The public is encouraged to visit the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center and Gift and Garden store, walk through display gardens, including an apple orchard with 900 varieties of apple trees, and attend events such as a seed swap, an heirloom plant sale, a seed school, a tomato tasting, and a harvest festival. And if that isn’t enough, there is always the Robert Becker Memorial Library with 6,000 volumes covering agriculture, horticulture, and biodiversity. And to think it all started with seeds of a morning glory and a tomato.

All photos courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

Celebrate National Hot Tea Day with Lemon Balm

lemon_balm (2)Out of all the herbal teas, lemon balm tea taste most like black tea, without the caffeine. I use the leaves for hot or iced tea either alone or as a base to which I add more pronounced fruity flavors from other plants. In the spring and summer, I pick the leaves as I need them or shear the entire plant down.  The plant revives quickly and a second shearing can be done before the fall. The leaves dry well so I can make lemon balm tea all year round.

One of the easiest herbs to grow, lemon balm is a perennial bush grown for its lemon scented leaves. Lemon balm thrives in morning sun and afternoon shade in my Virginia garden. Hardy to zone 4, lemon balm co-exists well with other plants in the garden, serving as a beautiful green “landscape edible” but also as a pollinator plant. Its botanical name, Melissa officinalis, refers to the bee attracting white flowers (“Melissa” is Greek for “bee”) and long-serving medicinal qualities (“officinalis” refers to historical medicinal value). Actually, lemon balm’s medicinal value has been known for more than 2,000 years but for my family I tend to focus on lemon balm’s culinary uses. Fresh leaves add lemon flavor in baked goods like pound cake, muffins, scones, and cookies. Lemon balm can also be added to fruit salad, sorbets, butter, cheese, fish, and chicken dishes.

Lemon balm is easy to grow from seed but also cheap to buy as a small plant in the spring. If a friend has it, get a stem cutting and root it in water. As a member of the mint family, lemon balm roots easily but this species is not invasive. Try growing lemon balm to brew a hot cup of tea to celebrate National Hot Tea Day!