Category Archives: vegetables

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

 

Time to Start Sowing Cool Season Flowers and Brassicas

mustard

This week on Facebook, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a Virginia-based seed company, reminded us to start cabbage, celery, celeriac, cauliflower, and bulb onions indoors (from seed, under lights). However, if you are worried about the dreaded cabbage worm and other pests, Margaret Roach in New York just interviewed Don Tipping from Siskiyou Seeds on her website, awaytogarden.com, for tips on growing brassicas and preventing the cabbage worm. Brassicas are members of the cabbage or mustard family (Brassicaceae) that include cauliflower, collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, and the mustards, among others. Popular vegetables to grow here but they are susceptible to cabbage worm and flea beetle.

love in a mist seed pod

Claire Jones, Maryland garden/floral designer, tells us on her blog, The Garden Diaries, that now is the time to sow cool season flowers. She has sown seeds of calendula, love in a mist, poppies, and bells of Ireland outside, directly into the soil, when it was workable.

If you are new to the concept of cool season flowers, check out Lisa Ziegler’s website, The Gardener’s Workshop. She wrote the book (quite literally) because she has a cut flower farm in Newport News, Virginia. Her website has two virtual workshops (a series of short videos): one to learn how to start seeds indoors and one on growing cool season flowers. Last year, I was inspired and grew snapdragons, calendula, and love in a mist.

love in a mist flowers

snapdragons

Cutting Celery: A Cold-Tolerant, Neglected Herb

In November, when I was pulling out the blackened tomatoes and peppers, I noticed a spot of green to the right of the veggie bed. One of my favorite herbs was still going strong despite the frost.  My three cutting celery plants were green with beautiful, feathery leaves.

I use cutting celery in the kitchen quite frequently – unlike celery you buy in a store, cutting celery can add a spicy, pepper-like flavor to meals. Cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum) looks more like parsley than the stalk celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce) that one purchases in a grocery store. This small, bushy plant has short, hollow stems and plenty of parsley-like leaves. Cutting celery is a very old herb, more popular in European and Asian countries (sometimes it is called Chinese celery). It is not difficult to grow but probably difficult to find as a plant here in the Washington DC area. I start mine from seed under lights, several weeks before the last frost in the spring. I then plant them outside in May, in a very moist area. This particular area is a depression in the veggie bed where rain water collects making the soil moist enough to keep the celery plants happy but too wet for my other vegetables and herbs. Celery needs a constant supply of moisture and a few shots of nitrogen in the summer.

I cut the stems as needed, leaving the plant in the ground. After washing and chopping, I add leaves and stems together to stir fry dishes, soups, stews, and egg and potato dishes toward the end of the cooking period.  Cutting celery has a very strong flavor, more pungent and spicy than stalk celery, much like black pepper. Sometimes I add about a spoonful to a green salad to add that peppery flavor in small amounts. I also sauté chopped celery with diced green pepper and tomato to add to fish or chicken. The leaves can be used as a garnish, either in a drink like a straw or under the entrée, like a roast, on a platter.

A member of the carrot family, cutting celery is a biennial but in my zone 7 garden, I treat it as an annual. Although it is hardy, it sits in a very wet area that will freeze soon, which could kill the roots.  It is better for me to treat my plants as annuals and plan to start a few more from seed each year. If we had an unusually mild winter and my plants did survive, they would flower and set seed, which I could save to grow the following year.

 

Drought-Tolerant Okra Offers Colorful Pods in the Garden

Yellow okra flower, similar to hibiscus

When I was at Rooting DC last February, I received six seeds of “African red okra” from a person who was talking about preserving seed diversity. Intrigued, I planted them later in the season just to see how they would grow. Four of the six seeds germinated resulting in two plants in the front garden in full sun and dry conditions and two in the back garden. The two in the back lived with the tomatoes in morning shade and afternoon sun and did not lack for water since the diva tomatoes get all the water they need.

All summer long I have been watching the okra grow in my Virginia garden. When people think of okra plants, they think “vegetable.” True, the immature pods are harvested for many types of dishes and are highly nutritious. Other parts are edible: the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (like spinach) or used as a thickener in a stew. The seeds, if roasted and ground, can be used as a coffee substitute and if they are pressed, they can yield oil for cooking.

mature pod splits open to reveal seeds

I never intended to eat the pods, I just wanted to see how the plant would fare as a garden plant, a summer annual. Now in September, I think they have reached their full glory. These plants are about 4 feet tall with sparse foliage but plenty of pods and flowers. Because okra is a member of the hibiscus family, the small, yellow flowers look like hibiscus flowers but are not as flat. The thick pods are red and green, with five broad sides that taper into a point. The pod points upwards, much like a hat. Some pods have already matured enough to split open, revealing many dark black seeds (which mature to a soft gray later on). These I cut and put in a paper bag to prevent okra babies in my garden next year. The mature pods can be dried and used in floral arrangements such as wreaths. The young pods, if sliced in half, can be used to make flower designs by pressing the cut half into an ink pad and pressing down on paper.

Although not deer resistant, these plants have proven to be pest-resistant. I have read that okra plants are the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and they certainly were drought-tolerant in my garden. They are known to grow in poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Technically okra is a perennial but in our zone 7 area, the plants will die from the cold this winter.

I like their strong vertical shape but because the foliage is sparse, they would work best if many were grown together yet with enough space to see the pods. There is actually quite a lot of diversity with okra with regards to the pods: they can be spiny, smooth, thin, thick, short, or long and have many more ridges than five. Pods can be green or green and red or burgundy red. However there is little diversity with the flowers, basically yellow or white. There are some varieties with gorgeous burgundy red pods that would be very interesting to try in the garden, especially in a mass up against a house, as a backdrop to other plants. Instead of growing okra for cooking, try growing okra as an ornamental garden plant and let the pods mature into unusual colors and shapes. The yellow flowers are a bonus!

young, immature pods are best for cooking

Harvesting Heirloom Yellow Potato Onions

harvest with one lone flower

I dug up my yellow potato onions and was surprised to find almost 40 bulbs. I first wrote about them in September 2016, when I received the shipment from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I planted the original 15 bulbs in the fall in very loose soil, high in organic matter. This spring, green stalks grew so that by summer there was green tubular foliage, similar to scallions. By the end of June, I could see bulbs clustered at soil level, as if emerging from the deep. The green stalks were bent and falling over so that when it was clear that the stalks were dying, I dug up the bulbs in the beginning of July.

Potato onions are a type of multiplier onion called Allium cepa var. aggregatum. They multiply at the base by making more bulbs. They are not as large or as pungent as onions we get at the grocery store. Within the same species are shallots, which also multiply at the base but are milder, can be eaten raw, and are round or bullet shape. The Egyptian walking onion is another type of multiplier onion, a different species called  Allium cepa var. proliferum. The difference between potato onions and Egyptian walking onions is that potato onions do not create bulbils at the top. The Egyptian walking onions create bulbs in the ground and bulbils at the top; therefore, are “proliferate.”

green stalks are down, signaling harvest time

In my Virginia garden,  potato onions are planted in the fall, dug up in the summer, cured until fall, and then some are re-planted and some are eaten. Thus they are “perennial” because they will exist in the garden every year. In the 1800’s, they were very popular because they were a constant source of onions, they stored for a long time, and they propagated easily. People just passed them along to neighbors and family. Now they are considered an heirloom. Very few seed catalogs sell them and you probably will not see them in your garden center.

Like other onions, potato onions have to be cured in order to extend their storage time. Bulbs should be in a shaded, warm, dry, well-ventilated area for a few months. I could slice up the large ones now and cook them or just let them cure if I want to use them in the winter.  In the fall, I will plant the smaller bulbs and harvest again next year in July. It’s a perennial cycle but I am looking forward to sliced yellow potato onions in butter and parsley over broiled trout, with green beans on the side.

Starting Cool Season Veggies in Northern Virginia

Here is a handy chart courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange. Seeds or transplants of cool season veggies can be planted when the temperatures are at least 40 degrees, which is March and April in Virginia.  There are two types of cool season veggies. Hardy types can withstand a heavy frost and  temperatures as  low as 40 degrees so they can be planted two to three weeks before the average last frost. In Northern Virginia, the average last frost date is between April 10 and 21 so I arbitrarily pick April 15 to be able to remember. That means that I can either directly sow seed into the ground the weekend of March 25 (because I work during the week) or (having started the seeds indoors) I can plant the small plants into the ground. Semi-hardy plants can withstand a light frost and prefer slightly warmer temperatures toward 50 degrees so they have to be planted later, two weeks before average last frost date which would be the weekend of April 1. If a severe temperature drop would to occur, I would protect the plants by covering them with empty 2-liter plastic soda bottles that had bottoms cut off.

cool-season-crops-infographic

Fall is a Great Time for Planting Shrubs, Trees, Bulbs, and Perennials!

Fall is Fantastic! from Prides Corner Farms

Fall is Fantastic!
from Prides Corner Farms

It’s October — time to plant shrubs, trees, bulbs, and hardy perennials. Fall is a great time to plant in our area. The cooler temperatures, increased moisture, and decreased sun/heat allow the plants to settle in the ground, send out roots, and get established. While the soil is still warm, roots continue to develop until the ground actually freezes so the plant’s energy goes into getting firmly settled in the soil, not on top growth. The plants you buy now can be planted with minimal stress to them as well as to your wallet. Many garden centers are concerned with moving their inventory, especially the container grown plants that are outside. As winter approaches, discounts increase thus increasing the possibility of finding bargains.

Visit your garden center this month to enhance your landscape, support a healthy environment, and boost your well-being! For a list of garden centers in the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC area, view the “nurseries” tab at the top of my website, http://www.pegplant.com.