Category Archives: Edibles

American Heritage: Native Paw Paw Trees

Paw paw flowers in the spring

It’s paw paw season! Paw paws (Asimina triloba) are native trees that bear fruit in August, September, and October. Fruit of cultivated trees look very similar to mangos—green, kidney-shaped, and about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide. They have a variety of common names such as Indiana banana, poor man’s banana, and bandango. When cut in half, the interior reveals a yellow, custard-like pulp with two rows of large seeds. Paw paws can weigh from ½ to 1 pound. Technically a berry, they are the largest North American edible fruit. Paw paws taste like a cross between a banana and a mango with a splash of pineapple. They can be eaten raw or used in ice cream, pudding, smoothies, butter (such as apple butter), baked goods like cookies and pies, and even beer, brandy, and wine!

From Florida to Texas, north to New York, and west to Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, paw paws are native to 26 states and grow as understory trees in hardwood forests near streams and rivers. In the wild, the trees grow to 15 to 30 feet and sucker, creating colonies. Reminiscent of cucumber magnolias, they have foot-long, dark green leaves. Unlike other fruit trees, paw paw trees are not subject to a high level of pests and diseases.

Paw Paws in American History and Folklore

Paw paw trees are part of American history and folklore. Jamestown colonists wrote about them in the 1600s. John Lawson, an Englishman, described them in his travels in the Carolinas in the 1700s. Danielle Boone enjoyed eating them. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate paw paws for pleasure as well as sustenance. George Washington grew paw paw trees at Mount Vernon and ate the fruit as dessert. Thomas Jefferson grew them and sent seeds to his colleagues in Europe.  William Bartram, a naturalist, described the trees in Bartram’s Travels. His father, John Bartram, a botanist, sent seeds to Europe. During the Civil War, soldiers as well as African American slaves collected the fruit in the wild to supplement their meager diets. There is even a popular folk song called “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch” about collecting ripe paws paws from the ground and putting them in a basket.

Paw paw fruit develop in clusters

Finding Paw Paw Trees and Fruit

Currently, Washington DC residents can see paw paw trees in the wild along the C&O Canal and Potomac River and as native plant representatives in public gardens. There are paw paw trees at the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History, and at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s newly renovated Bartholdi Park and their National Garden’s Regional Garden of Mid-Atlantic Native Plants. 

Although paw paws are part of American heritage, you may not find them in grocery stores. When the fruit is ripe enough to eat, it drops to the ground and is highly perishable. The thin skin bruises easily, discoloring to black. Paw paws are best eaten immediately or preserved by removing and freezing the pulp. You may find them at local farmers markets in peak season and you will definitely find them at paw paw events across the country in the fall.

Growing Paw Paws in the Home Landscape

Paw paw fruits can be eaten raw

“There is a paw paw renaissance now,” said Michael Judd, owner of Ecologia, an edible and ecological landscaping service in Frederick, MD. Author of Edible Landscape with a Permaculture Twist, Michael currently is writing a book about paw paws and hosts an annual paw paw festival that will be on September 22 this year at LongCreek Homestead. “I call the paw paw an edible landscape all-stars because the tree is very attractive, low maintenance, and very fruitful.”

As native, hardy trees, paw paws can be grown in typical suburban plots. “Paw paws grow easily here,” said Michael. “This is paw paw country.” Although they are not self-fertile, that is, there must be two trees to cross pollinate to produce fruit, one can trim the trees to fit in residential properties. Michael recommends growing the trees in full sun, 10 to 12 feet apart, and cutting the central leader back to keep the trees at 8 feet. This shorten stature also makes them easier to harvest the fruit. Therefore, homeowners could have two 8-f00t trees in the yard producing 50 pounds of fruit each year. If full sun is not possible, they can grow in part shade but will produce less fruit.

Paw paw trees have a pyramidal shape

Michael recommends purchasing either a grafted tree, a select seedling, or a specific cultivar. Starting from seed takes years to produce fruit. Also starting from a wild paw paw seed will result in less than desirable fruit. The taste of wild paw paws varies plus the fruit is small with a poor pulp to seed ratio.  Breeders spend years selecting desirable characteristics such as large fruit, a high pulp to seed ratio (more pulp, less seed), and good flavor.

You can’t go wrong planting paw paws. They are native, deer resistant trees that provide fruit and pretty yellow fall color. “Paw paw trees are very ornamental, they have a beautiful pyramidal shape,” explained Michael. “The leaves turn to a beautiful yellow golden color in the fall and when the leaves drop they reveal a tree with nice architecture in the winter.”

All photos taken by Michael Judd.

Pegplant’s Post Giveaway: Botanical Interests Seed Sprouter and Seed Sampler

I am so excited about the giveaway for the September issue of Pegplant’s Post. Botanical Interests, a Colorado-based seed company with a fantastic catalog, has graciously offered to send to one winner two products: their signature Seed Sprouter with instruction booklet (valued at $24.95) and the Sprouts Sampler (valued at $28.50). The Seed Sprouter is an easy way to grow sprouts indoors for salads, sandwiches, and stir fry. The Sprouts Sampler is a collection of 6 seed packets: alfalfa, broccoli, fenugreek, mung bean, radish, and sandwich seeds. These are organic seeds especially selected for their delicious sprouts, in a drawstring bag.

This giveaway opportunity is for subscribers of Pegplant’s Post, an online, free newsletter for people interested in gardening in the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC area. Each issue provides:

  • Monthly events. Plan your social life with gardening events in the NoVA, MD, DC area. Depending on the season, there can be over 100 events, many of which are free.
  • New books. Stay abreast of gardening trends and practices with newly published books. Use this list for ideas of gifts to buy for birthdays and holidays.
  • Tips and advice. Learn timely tips and advice relevant to the current gardening season in our area.
  • Giveaways. Enter the monthly giveaway contest to win items such as seed packets, books, tools, and plants.
  • Articles from pegplant.com. Catch up with articles from my website, pegplant.com, about plants, gardens, and resources.

To subscribe, click here or visit pegplant.com and enter your e-mail address in the box above “subscribe!” on the right column. Pegplant’s Post will be issued on the last weekend of the month.

 

Mid-Summer Review of Edibles in my Virginia Garden

August has a way of revealing what is truly successful in my Virginia garden. If the plant can make it through this hot, humid summer, it is a winner in my book. Here are my winners for edibles this summer (click here for my previous article on successful flowers).

Prettiest Vegetable in the Garden

Burpee’s Confetti pepper has green and white foliage

This year, the Burpee Confetti pepper wins the award for prettiest vegetable in my garden. The white and green foliage make this sweet pepper stand out as an ornamental. My plants are about 2 feet high and do not need staking. Although my plants are in the ground, I would recommend Confetti as a container plant because the foliage is so ornamental and the peppers are small enough but colorful. The 2-inch peppers change from green to cream to red. Combined with other edibles and annuals, Confetti could serve as the “thriller” in a container on the deck. Confetti is a snacking pepper, I can eat the entire pepper or slice it for the skillet. Try Confetti next year, you will be surprised at how well it grows and how good it looks and taste.

Most Prolific Vegetable in the Garden

Burpee’s Shimmer tomato plant keeps on producing

I always grow a variety of tomatoes and this year Burpee’s Shimmer wins the award for most prolific tomato plant. Shimmer is an almond-shaped tomato with streaks of green, only about 1 1/2 inches long and 1-inch wide. Shimmer is a plum tomato, a type of paste tomato that is “meaty.” This particular cultivar is sweet too. In my family, we eat them as snacks–you can pop the entire tomato in your mouth–or cut up in green salads. My plants are about 4 feet tall and staked. They produce so much fruit I have to give them away to friends and colleagues. According to the Burpee website, one plant produces 300 to 350 fruit in a season and I believe it! The fruit are in clusters like grapes so it is easier to cut the cluster off, eat the ripe ones and let the unripe ones mature indoors.

Best New Introduction in the Garden

Another prolific plant this year has been the new Proven Winners Amazel basil. Amazel has two features: it is resistant to downy mildew and it is seed sterile. Downy mildew is a fungal disease that destroys the sweet basil plants, making them inedible. There is no cure and once infected the plant has to be removed and destroyed. My plant is quite large, about 2 feet tall and a foot wide. My other sweet basils are small but I have already cut them back for pesto. I have used some leaves in the kitchen but I have not cut the Amazel back yet because I wanted to see how it would perform during these hot, humid days. This is mid-August and I have not detected any disease.

Proven Winners’ Amazel basil is resistant to downy mildew

Unlike other basils which have the sole purpose of flowering and setting seed to ensure survival of the species, Amazel is seed sterile so it does not put its energy into flowering and setting seed. This results in more leaves for a longer time. It actually can flower but will still keep on producing tasty leaves. I highly recommend this basil for both flavor and appearance. The plant is actually quite lush and could be effective as a “thriller” in a large container, surrounded by other herbs or edible flowers.

Most Unusual Edible in the Garden

A few years ago I tried growing roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa). The plant grew well in large containers but did not flower until very late in the season. Because it bloomed late, only a few of the red fat calyxes could be harvested and then, as a tender perennial, it died in the winter. The plant is about 3 to 4 feet tall and the yellow flowers are about 3-inches wide and look like okra flowers. After the flowers mature, they become enveloped by a large, red, fleshy calyxes. This is ornamental in itself but they are harvested for making tea (the prime ingredient in Red Zinger), jams, jellies, and candy.

Large red calyxes of Thai Red roselle are brewed to make herbal tea

This summer, I planted a variety called Thai Red from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. What a difference! These plants bloom much earlier, in the beginning of the summer, resulting in many calyxes.  Now, mid-August, I have so many I have to start harvesting and drying them. I use them to make an herbal tea. I have read that they serve as a cranberry substitute so this year I will try using them in scones. Using the Thai Red variety really makes a difference. The plant is not common but it is easy to grow from seed. Next spring, purchase a pack of seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and grow it like a hibiscus plant, full sun, rich soil, plenty of water. Roselle is a great ornamental herb that stands out in a large container or can be grown in the ground.

Basic Culinary Herb Recipes To Try This Summer

This summer, as you cut and harvest your culinary herbs, consider these simple recipes to try. Print this and tape on the inside of your kitchen cabinet (along with the list of herbs you are growing) for easy reference.

Herbal vinegar

tarragon is often used in herb vinegars

Wash one cup of herbs, allow to air dry. Pack leaves (can use stems too) in quart glass jar with wooden spoon. Fill with 3 to 3 ½ cups vinegar to one inch from top. The vinegar should be 5% acidity and best types of vinegar are white or red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Push down with spoon and bruise leaves. If a metal lid, first cover with plastic wrap, if plastic lid, just close. Store in dark place for 4 to 6 week, shaking every few days. Taste to see if too strong, add more vinegar, or too weak, add more herb. When done, strain leaves out and pour liquid into clean bottles and add a sprig of fresh herb for decoration. Label.

Butter

Wash herbs, let dry. Take a stick of unsalted butter out of the fridge, put in bowl, and let come to room temperature so is soft. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chopped herb, do this to taste. Depending on the leaf, may have to cut into small pieces. Can put in a container to keep in fridge for 2 weeks or roll into saran wrap like a log and freeze for up to 6 months.

Syrup

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

mint has a variety of uses in the kitchen including sweet syrups

Pesto

Pulverize in the blender 2 cups washed fresh basil, 4 cloves of garlic, (chopped), and ½ cup olive oil until pasty. Add 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, blend again. Can freeze in plastic ice cube trays or flat in plastic bags.

Marinade for meat

rosemary is great for marinades

Depending on the amount of meat can change the quantities but the ratio is 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar like a wine vinegar, ¼ cup water, a dash of salt (like soy sauce), a dash of sugar (honey or brown sugar) and about a cup of fresh herb leaves (tear leaves apart if large). Have meat sit in this mixture for at least 30 minutes. Drain and cook meat.

Herb paste

If don’t need pesto, make basil paste to preserve

Can use this as a frozen base for pesto and then add the fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese to the thawed paste or a frozen base for stew or soup. Clean herbs but make sure are completely dry as water and oil do not mix. Blend in the food processor 4 cups of herb leaves to ¼ to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to make a paste. Freeze in bags or plastic ice cube trays. There should be some texture to herb so is a paste and not pureed like liquid. Good with savory herbs such as basil, parsley, and cilantro. If using a “sweet” herb like mints, may want to try sunflower seed oil instead.

Herbs in the Garden Attract Beneficial Insects and Pollinators

small thyme flowers

The herbs in my garden live among the annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs. I have not designed a separate, formal herb garden and now every new herb plant gets tucked in any space I can find. If I remember and have time, I harvest the leaves for teas or for cooking. If I forget or get too busy, the herbs just thrive without me. By summer, they are blooming along with everything else but that’s okay, they still serve a purpose. Even if I didn’t get to harvest them, they are helping the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans by attracting beneficial insects.

In addition to attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, flowering herbs can attract beneficial insects that will destroy the “bad” bugs. These beneficial insects are either predators, i.e., they eat harmful bugs, or parasites–they lay their eggs in or on the “bad” bug which release larvae that consume the bug.

Many of these beneficial insects are small, thus preferring easily accessible nectar chambers in small herb flowers. In many cases the adult insects need the nectar and pollen of the herb flower while the “babies” or larval stage eat the insects we don’t want in the garden. For example, the larval stage of ladybugs, which look like mini alligators, consume aphids, many beetle larvae, and spider mites, among others. One can attract ladybugs into the garden by planting cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, thyme, and yarrow so the adult form, the ladybug, can enjoy the pollen.

pollinator on oregano

Lacewings are beautiful slender green insects with translucent wings. Their larvae, known as aphid lions, eat a large number of aphids –thus they have a lion’s appetite — and many beetle larvae to name a few. Lacewings are attracted to angelica, caraway, tansy, yarrow, dill, fennel, and cilantro.

Parasitic wasps are small, non-stinging wasps. There are many types but they all destroy pests by laying eggs inside or on the pest. The eggs hatch to release larvae that consume the prey, eventually killing it. Parasitic wasps will destroy tomato hornworms, bagworms, cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, and squash vine borers. The wasps are attracted to dill, fennel, lemon balm, thyme, yarrow, and cilantro.

Tachinid flies look like houseflies but as parasites, they destroy many kinds of caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and Japanese beetles in the same manner as parasitic wasps.  The flies prefer cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, feverfew, and chamomile.

Hover or syrphid flies look like small wasps because they have yellow bands but they don’t sting. The adults–the flies–will “hover” as they drink nectar from dill, fennel, feverfew, lavender, mint, yarrow, and cilantro flowers. The larvae will consume aphids, cabbage worms, other caterpillars, and mealy bugs.

hover fly in the cilantro

Herbs also help beneficial insects by providing pollen and nectar when other annuals or perennials are not blooming yet.  For example, cool season herbs such as cilantro and chervil bloom in the spring, providing an early source of pollen to beneficial insects.

Many aromatic, perennial herbs, such as oregano, thyme, and lemon balm, are not eaten by deer and small animals so they become permanent fixtures or “houses” for beneficial insects. Plus herbs are usually planted in bunches or become small shrubs, providing a large “neighborhood” for these insects.

a beneficial insect attracted to agastache

However, despite the number of plants in the garden, these insects will only stay if there is a need, i.e., food for them, and if the surroundings are hospitable. Beneficial insects seek large populations of bad bugs in order to feed their own population. Some beneficial insects wait to lay eggs until there is enough “food” so it may be that the appearance of many aphids is the trigger to have ladybugs increase their own population because they now know there is plenty of “food.” In other words, if there a lot of aphids on bearded irises, wait to see if many ladybugs will arrive on the scene to correct the problem before reaching for an insecticide. Spraying chemicals may kill or alter the balance of beneficial insects. It is now known that plants that are under attack by bad bugs release chemicals which are signals to the particular type of beneficial insect that would be needed to correct the problem. There may be a little or minimal plant damage in order for the beneficial insects to receive the signal to come to that plant.

Herbs can be useful for their flowers as well as their foliage. Planting several different types of herbs in the garden helps protect the rest of the plants against pests.

 

Basil: More Than Just Pesto

Pesto Perpetuo basil

I cannot imagine a summer without basil; it is the essence of summer. But I don’t limit myself to just one — there is a family of basils in my garden. I grow lemon, lime, sweet, Thai, holy, and cinnamon, just to name a few. It seems that most people only know sweet basil and only one use: pesto.  Granted sweet basil has become the poster child for this plant, but there are many different types to explore.  The genus Ocimum has more than 30 species. Within the Ocimum basilicum, there are more than 40 cultivars.  All of these can be used in a variety of ways both in the garden and home.

Basil is an annual, herbaceous plant that prefers warmth, full sun, and well-drained soil. If I think of basil as an annual plant that also flowers, I can imagine how to use the different varieties. Also, classifying basil into five basic categories makes it easier to select a particular type for a particular function.

  • sweet green foliage (the green plant we always associate with pesto such as Genovese or Italian large leaf)
  • small leaves and dwarf size (spicy globe basil, dwarf Greek basil, Minette, or Pluto)
  • colored foliage (purple leaved Purple Ruffles or Dark Opal or light green/cream variegated Pesto Perpetuo)
  • colorful flower heads (Thai Siam Queen has purple stems and fragrant purple flowers), African blue (many prominent purple flowers), or cardinal (purple stems, purple/red flower heads)
  • fragrant leaves (holy, lemon, or lime).

Some basils overlap into more than one group. For example, cinnamon basil has fragrant leaves, purple stems and veins, and deep pink flowers. This plant provides scent and flavor as well as color.

cinnamon basil

The following are suggestions for using basil. The exact species or cultivar depends on your personal preference and availability in your area.

Basil as a Container Plant

All types of basil can be used as container plants either for green, variegated, or purple foliage, or colorful flower heads. Basil comes in different sizes from 8 inches to 4 feet so make sure the maximum height is in proportion to the container. Companion plants must also like well-drained soil and the container should have drainage holes. I had a few extra holy basil plants that I stuck in the same container as my bush beans and both are thriving.

basil flowering in container with ornamental pepper

Basil as an Annual in the Garden

All types can be used as an annual in the garden bed, either for green, variegated, or purple foliage or for colorful flower heads or simply to fill in a gap. If you think of basil as a flowering annual like a marigold, you could plant them in the same type of location. My Thai, lemon, and lime basil have filled the gap left by my bleeding heart plant, which goes dormant in the beginning of the summer. In particular, the dwarf basils are best for creating a tight edging effect. They have small leaves, similar to boxwood, and are great for delineating a garden bed in the summer. Spicy globe basil is often used to outline a garden bed.

purple basil

Basil as a Cut Flower in a Vase

The basils that are grown for colorful flower heads or dark foliage are beautiful in flower arrangements. For example, Thai and African blue provide purple flowers and Purple Ruffles provide purple leaves.

African blue basil

Basil in Potpourri and Dried Flower Arrangements

Basil produces a tall, sturdy flower stalk that dries well and can be used in dried flower arrangements. The leaves or flowers can be used in potpourris, especially the more fragrant leaves such as cinnamon basil. When I cut Thai basil and fresh flowers such as dahlias for a vase, I can throw away the dahlias after they have past their prime and put the Thai basil flower spikes in another vase with purple gomphrena as a dried flower arrangement. A basil flower has a rigid calyx, like a socket, that holds the small delicate flower like a lightbulb. Once the flower is past its prime, it drops out and the rigid calyx remains.

Thai basil

Basil as a Pollinator Magnet

Basil’s small flowers are attractive to beneficial insects and bees. Birds, such as goldfinches, love the seed heads. I grow lemon basil in a container on the deck to attract the finches so I can see the birds up close through my kitchen window.

Basil in the Kitchen

Usually a sweet basil such as Genovese is used in pasta, eggs, pesto, soups, salad, and vegetables, but you can try any type of basil.  I use lemon basil with fish and Thai basil with stir fried chicken and vegetables. Thai basil is often used in Asian cuisine because it keeps its flavor at high temperatures.  Holy basil often is used in Indian cuisine and the sweet basil is often used in the Italian cuisine. There are so many cuisines that employ basil and so many recipes it is best to obtain an herbal cookbook.

sweet basil

The purple basils work well in vinegar or oil for color and scented basils such as cinnamon can be used for flavor in either a vinegar, oil, or marinade. I use the cinnamon which has a purple tinge in homemade vinegar and give it as a gift to my family.

Sweet basil is good for butter and the spicy types are good for honey and jellies. I let a stick of butter sit at room temperature for a few hours and then swirl small pieces of sweet basil into it for use on breads and rolls. (This also makes a good gift).

Lemonade, cocktails, tea, and fruit juice pair well with basil. Try adding the spicy, cinnamon, lemon or lime flavored basils to these drinks for flavor or just make a cup of tea with basil leaves.

Basil flavors cookies, pound cakes, and breads (rolls, muffins, flatbreads). I use the sweet basil for flatbreads and dinner rolls and the lemon, lime, or cinnamon for pound cakes. For a real conversation piece, sometimes I decorate a cake with basil flowers, which are edible. The actual flower is small and within the calyx so I have to pull the flower out from the calyx with tweezers. This takes time but is good for a special occasion when you want to “wow” folks.

Basil can be used in sugar syrups for fruit salads, desserts, and drinks. This is especially good with cinnamon, lemon, or lime basil. Make a sugar syrup by bringing to boil one cup of water and one cup of sugar with one cup of leaves and then simmer for 15 minutes. Drain through a colander to remove the leaves and let the syrup cool before using. Keep the syrup in a jar in the refrigerator to have on hand (throw out after a week or two).

glass jar of basil sugar syrup

Another way to “wow” family and friends is to sprinkle strips or ribbons of lemon, lime, or cinnamon basil leaves on fruit salads and/or add the small flowers to the fruit salads (again pull the actual flower out with tweezers).  As mentioned before, coat fruit salads with the sugar syrups or intersperse a leaf with chunks of fruit on a kebab.

Try growing several basils in your garden this summer. They are easy to find at the local nurseries or visit two local herb nurseries: Debaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery and Willow Oak Flower & Herb Farm.

Potato Update: Lush Foliage, Emerging Flower Buds

Despite all this rain, there are good things in the garden. My potato plants are beautiful, the foliage is lush, healthy, and green. If you recall, I started the tubers in fabric containers in March. In April and early May, I added soil several times as the plants grew and unrolled the sides of the containers. Now, mid-May, the containers are full of soil and flowers are starting to appear. In June, when the plants are flowering and the rains have stopped, it will be time to harvest spuds!

 

General’s Choice of Trees and Shrubs is a Wise Choice for the Mid-Atlantic Gardener

 

Spring is the season for plant sales in the Washington DC area. Every weekend there are plant and garden sales, garden parties, workshops, tours, and lectures. I look forward to these annual events just as much as I look forward to seeing the cherry blossoms. One of the more interesting plant sales is Mount Vernon’s Historic Plant and Garden Sale in Virginia. This year, the month-long sale runs from Saturday April 21 to May 20, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (members can attend the preview night on April 20). The plants are located outdoors, just outside the Mt. Vernon main gift shop, and admission tickets are not necessary. Gardening accoutrements such as tools, books, mugs, note cards, and gift items also are available. Staff horticulturists, easy to spot by their bright green shirts, are available to answer gardening questions on Wednesdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 2:00 pm.

“At length my dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree.”

What sets this plant sale apart from other local sales is provenance. The Mt. Vernon horticulturists propagated most of the plants that are for sale from the plants that are grown on the George Washington’s estate. There is a wide assortment of vegetables, flowers, herbs, trees, and shrubs. Of note is the General’s Choice Collection. Staff grew ten trees and shrubs representative of those that were grown by George Washington: three types of boxwood (American, English, and tree), two edibles (pawpaw and fig), tulip poplar, southern magnolia, redbud, dogwood, and red maple. The General’s Choice Collection has distinctive tags and can be grown easily by gardeners and homeowners in the mid-Atlantic area.

In addition, the Mt. Vernon horticulturists collected, cleaned, and packaged heirloom seed from plants grown on the estate. The beautifully designed seed packets make great souvenir gifts, easy to mail. The proceeds from the plant sale support the historical museum and gardens. Every time someone purchases a plant or a seed packet, George Washington’s legacy as a gentleman farmer lives on.

“Planted all my Cedars, all my Pawpaw, and two Honey locust Trees in my Shrubberies and two of the latter in my groves – one at each ‘side’ of the House and a large Holly tree on the Point going to the Sein landing.”

Photos courtesy of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon

Growing Potatoes the Easy Way: Containers on the Deck

dandelionThis year I was given two types of seed potatoes: Harvest Blend and White Superior. I have grown potatoes before in my Virginia garden and they were very tasty. This year, I am going to grow these potatoes in fabric containers called Smart Pots. Any fabric container or even a plastic container with holes for drainage will do, I just happen to have a few large Smart Pots.

Potatoes are in the same family as tomatoes and eggplants but gardeners start growing them in the spring, as opposed to their warm-season cousins.  Although you hear that potatoes are started on St. Patrick’s Day, that might only be true for the Irish. It does not always work for gardeners in the Washington DC area. We just had snow so I waited until this past weekend when I was closer to my last average frost date. I have read that the time to plant potatoes is when dandelions are blooming; sure enough, my dandelions were blooming this past weekend.

Some of the independent garden centers will sell a few varieties of potatoes but you get a much wider selection if you contact mail order companies. In fact, there is tremendous diversification of the tuber itself:  there are white, blue, red, purple or gold colored tubers–round, gnarly, slender, large or small.  In terms of cooking, tubers can be mealy like a Russet (good for baking but disintegrates in a stew) versus waxy like a Yukon Gold (holds its shape). The tubers vary in maturation days, there are early, mid, and late season varieties, thus extending the harvest from June to August. Interestingly, the foliage, that is, the above ground part, does not vary. The plant grows to a few feet tall, flowers, and dies, signaling the time to dig up and harvest the mature tubers.

Planting

To grow potatoes, purchase “seed potatoes,” which are not true seeds but the “starter” tubers one plants in the soil. It is best to start with seed potatoes that are certified as disease-free, instead of planting a grocery store potato. The shoots arise from the “eyes” and additional tubers appear along these shoots as they grow. Seed potatoes should be the size of an egg with at least two eyes. If the seed potato is this size already then plant the whole thing, eyes up. If the tuber is large, can cut into sections, each with at least two eyes. I have read differing opinions about whether you should let the cut end callous (to prevent disease); it seems some people cut and plant while other cut, callous, and then plant.

I planted my potatoes in two Smart Pots, which are ventilated fabric containers (no need to poke holes in the bottom). This is a great way to grow potatoes if you do not have a lot of land, if your garden soil is too compacted, or if you want to encourage kids to get involved. For potatoes, use at least a 20-gallon size Smart Pot with at least a 15-inch height.  Estimate 4 plants in this size and more in larger sizes.  I spaced mine about 6 inches part so I planted four Harvest Blends in the medium container (foreground in photo) and 5 White Superiors in the larger pot (background in photo).

I used potting soil that already had a slow-release fertilizer.  Because potatoes are heavy feeders, I will supplement with a liquid fertilizer later in the season.

I poured 3-4 inches of the soil in each container, watered, placed the potatoes on top, eyes up, added 3 more inches of soil, watered again, and inserted a plant label. I rolled down the sides so they would not turn inward and prevent rain from reaching the plants.

Growing

One advantage to containers is that you can place them anywhere, a deck, a porch, a driveway, even on grass. Another advantage is that you don’t have to worry about crop rotation if you have been growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the garden. My containers are in full sun on the deck so I can easily keep an eye on them. Because potatoes are susceptible to Colorado potato beetles, I have to be able to easily check the underside of leaves for the yellow/orange eggs.

Potatoes require an inch of water a week so I need to be able to water easily and often, which I can do with a hose on the deck. However, the foliage is susceptible to fungal diseases so I will water by putting the hose nozzle into the bag, not spraying the foliage and not watering in the evening.

In a few weeks I will have to “hill” the plants. The new tubers grow up from the seed potato. As the shoots grow (now stems), and more tubers appear, these new tubers have to be covered with soil. Tubers exposed to light become green and bitter.  (This also is a tip for storing store-bought potatoes, keep them out of light in a cool place but not in the fridge).  When the stems have grown about 8 inches, I will add about 4 inches of soil and repeat the process again, unfolding the sides as I add more soil. This process of adding soil is called “hilling.”

Harvesting

In early summer, when the plants flower, I can harvest immature tubers by putting my hands in the soil and pulling egg-size tubers out (leaving smaller ones in). This immature stage is what we buy as “new potatoes” in the store. New potatoes have a very thin skin and do not keep. They have to be eaten soon and usually they are boiled and mixed with parsley, chives, and butter.

In mid-summer, probably June, the potatoes will have matured. When the leaves yellow and die, I will stop watering, wait two weeks, and then dump the container. I will dump the soil on a tarp. I can either use the soil to start a new garden bed or put back in the containers to plant bush beans.

Chitting

One term that comes up with potatoes is chitting, which is common in England but not so much so here. Chitting is the process of “pre-sprouting” the tuber before planting to give the plant a head start, much like starting tomatoes under lights in the house before May. Chitting affords an early harvest but takes space and time.

I did not chit my potatoes for two reasons. By the time I received them they had already started to sprout. The tubers were small and slightly shriveled. They must have been in a place that was too warm. But if I had purchased tubers, I probably would not chit because I do not have a need to have potatoes a few weeks earlier. Plus one has to consider the space this would take and available windows.

If you are interested in chitting, place your tubers eyes up in an egg carton. Put next to a window in a warm place (the usual heated house). The type of grow lights you use for starting seeds are not necessary. After they have sprouted (like your old potatoes in the vegetable bin), you can plant them outside. If the tubers are large, cut into pieces the size of an egg with at least two eyes.

I am looking forward to growing potatoes in Smart Pots this year — freshly grown potatoes taste better than store-bought potatoes.

Tips for Starting Seeds in Your Garden: Planting in the Spring

lettuce in container

Recently, I posted an article called Tips for Starting Seeds for Your Garden. The post was about starting seeds and the importance of distinguishing between warm versus cool season plants or seed. It further explained how and when to sow seeds for warm season plants. This is the second part of the post: a focus on cool season plants.

Starting Seeds in Ground or Containers

In my zone 7 Northern Virginia garden, there are many vegetable and herbs that I can start growing outside in early spring. This means I don’t have to start them indoors under lights. Not only do these particular plants prefer cool temperatures, a light frost should not harm them. I tend to start most of my cool season plants by seed in containers on my deck. Container soil is warmer than ground soil. Also, it is easier to check on them by walking on a wooden deck than to have to trample through wet, soggy soil in cold weather. By summer, most of these types of plants have bolted (i.e., flowered and gone to seed so leaves are bitter). After pulling and discarding into the compost pile, I re-stock my containers with warm season annuals such as different types of basils and bush beans.

When to Sow Seeds in Early Spring

Using davesgarden.com and my zip code, I calculated my average last frost date to be April 30. March and April are still cool and there is a possibility of a frost or even snow. From the list of cool season plants or seeds I want to grow, I calculate which I can start at what number of weeks before April 30 and which would benefit from containers on the deck or directly into the soil. If a seed packet does not provide this information, try asking your local extension agent, online seed catalogs, or read a printed seed catalog or a gardening book. A few online seed catalogs that provide quality descriptions for this are Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Botanical Interest, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Renee’s Garden.

chervil

chervil is a spring herb

Sowing Often for Continuous Harvest

For some cool season crops, sowing every couple of weeks ensures a continuous harvest until summer. For example, our family likes to eat lettuce and spinach so if I start sowing in early spring and again every other week, I will be able to continue to pick leaves for a family of four up until summer. By summer, the weather will be too hot to germinate spinach and lettuce easily.

spinach seedlings

direct sow spinach seedlings in container

Check if the seed package recommends growing in soil or if they can be grown in a container. If you only need a little arugula, grow in a shallow container. If you only need one borage plant, grow in a larger container (it is a larger plant). Chervil is so ephemeral it is best to grow in a medium container so you can access and harvest as much as possible. For plants that tend to flower and drop seed, I find it helpful to have a patch set aside. I have parsley, cilantro, and calendula patches in the backyard so I sow the seeds directly in those patches. Of the plants below, peas are the only ones that need vertical structure. They should be planted next to a trellis and “trained” to wrap around it. I grow sugar snap peas in the ground next to a wire trellis but there are some variety of peas that can be grown in containers with stakes. Here are common cool season plants that can be grown by seed:

  • Alyssum
  • Arugula
  • Asian greens
  • Beets
  • Borage
  • Calendula
  • Carrots
  • Chervil
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Endive
  • Greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce
  • Mache
  • Mustards
  • Nigella
  • Pak choi
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Sweet peas
  • Turnips

My Cool Season Seed Plan

Just before March 15

Burpee and Botanical Interests Sugar Snap Peas: Soak overnight in water and then plant seed in small plastic pots with soil. When 2 inches tall, transplant outside in ground against trellis. No need for indoor lights.

March 15

April 1

  • American Meadows Scarlet Nantes carrot, sow in large deep container on deck and in ground
  • Renee’s Garden Slo-Bolt Cilantro, sow directly into cilantro patch in ground

April 15

  • Repeat lettuce, seed, radishes, and kale
  • Start borage in large decorative container
  • Start arugula in medium container
pak choi

direct sow pak choi seeds in ground