Category Archives: vegetables

Cutting Celery: A Kitchen Staple Growing in the Garden

cutting celery foliage

Foliage of first year’s growth of cutting celery

Cutting celery is a great culinary herb to have in your garden. Unlike stalk celery from a grocery store, cutting celery is full of flavor, reminiscent of black pepper. Cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum) looks more like parsley than stalk celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce). This foot-tall, bushy plant has short, hollow stems and green, finely serrated leaves about one-inch wide. Continue reading

Twenty Tomato Tips for the Washington DC Metro Area

Here are twenty tips for growing tomatoes successfully in the Washington DC metro area. Continue reading

You Can Grow Sugar Snap Peas

March is the time to grow peas here in Northern Virginia. In our family we prefer the sugar snap peas where you eat pea and pod together but shelling peas and snow peas are also started during March’s cool weather.

St. Patrick’s Day is my cue to soak the seeds in water overnight, insert in cone shaped coffee filters (could have used paper towels too), and place in zipped plastic bags. I left them on a shelf, I did not put them under grow lights. Within two days, the seeds germinated. After a few days, when it was necessary for the shoots to receive sunlight, I planted them outside about 4 inches apart. Planting them when they have germinated as opposed to planting seeds makes them able to withstand the cold soil temperatures. Last year, we picked them almost every day when the peas had expanded enough to make the pods plump – hence – snap when you bit them or bent them. They were so sweet, we ate them raw as the vegetable portion of dinner.

Pea plants are light in weight and their small tendrils need to wrap around thin nylon, string, or wire. In the beginning, you may have to “train” them to wrap around the nylon or unwrap them if they find a nearby plant but eventually they learn to wrap up and create a pretty green screen.

 

Another great thing about peas is that the flowers are edible. They are great in green salads, they can be added as garnish to pea soup or tomato soup, and they can even be used to decorate cupcakes. Just remember, if you pick the flower, you won’t get the pea. But then, plant more peas!

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

Get Your Veggies by Growing Microgreens

mustard microgreens

Now that winter is coming, you can still grow your greens, just indoors. Growing microgreens is a fun, cheap way to grow nutritious vegetable seedlings for sandwiches, wraps, soup, and salads. Microgreens are the shoots of edible plants, requiring very little space and minimal cost.

Microgreens differ from sprouts. With microgreens, the seed germinates in a growing medium and after one or two weeks, the “micro” stems and leaves are cut down to the soil level and eaten. Sprouts are seeds grown in a moist container—no soil. After a few days, the entire sprout–root and seed–is harvested and eaten.

Although there are microgreen kits for sale, a cheap way to grow them is by reusing the plastic containers from the grocery store, such as clam shells for berries, baked goods, and Chinese food containers. Poke a few holes for drainage and fill with bagged, sterile, soilless growing medium, not soil from the garden. The mix specifically made for starting seeds works best. Fill the container with 2 inches of mix and water thoroughly.

radish seeds germinate in 24 hours

The best seed for microgreens germinate quickly and produce tasty shoots and leaves. There is no such thing as a microgreen seed; microgreen is really a stage in which the plant is harvested. However, you may find seed packages sold as “microgreens” because the package is a mix with similar germination rates. Popular seed are kale, mizuna, mustard, radish, carrot, cress, arugula, basil, onion, chive, broccoli, fennel, sweet pea, celery, bok choy, and Asian greens. Local independent garden centers carry these seed packets or order online from any of these companies.

Because seed germinate and grow at different rates, it is best to use one type per container. Cover the surface with seeds and press down with your fingers to put them in direct contact with the moisture. Place the container on top of a tray to catch the excess water. Cover with another container to increase the humidity level and warmth. Always label containers with the plants’ names and keep records so you learn how soon you can harvest and what you like to eat.

radish microgreens in five days

After the seeds germinate, remove the cover and provide light via grow lights, fluorescent tubes, or a south facing window. If you do not have a very sunny window, you may have to rotate the container for the stems to grow straight. If the top level of the soil dries out, water by either misting the top or putting the container in a pan of water so the water is absorbed via the bottom drainage holes.

The first set of “leaves” you will see will not be the true leaves. They will be the cotyledons or the seed leaf within the embryonic seed. If the plant grew outside for the mature fruit or vegetable, these would eventually shrivel and disappear. For many microgreens, you can harvest at this stage because there is plenty of flavor in these “leaves” and stems. For example, you can harvest radishes at this stage because you will taste plenty of spice and the stems will be crisp.

With some plants, you wait until the second set of “leaves” appear, which will be the first set of true leaves. For example, you will want to harvest cilantro at this stage because you get more flavor in the true leaf. At this point, the seedling is probably 2 inches tall.

Harvest by cutting straight across with scissors a centimeter above soil line. You can cut what you need and wash or cut all of it, wash, dry, and refrigerate in a plastic bag for a few days.

Growing microgreens is fun and easy. The more you determine the flavors you like the more you can set up a system where you are sowing seeds on a weekly basis to feed your family nutritious and colorful vegetables year round.

Habanada: A New Habanero Without the Heat

As a professional garden communicator I receive plants from nurseries to trial in my Virginia garden. I grow them to see how well they perform in our hot and humid summers, our mild winters, and with our own particular population of insects and diseases. Frequently I am growing plants that I would not have even looked at in a garden center. This year I grew something new to me and a game changer for gardeners as well as chefs: Habanada.

Burpee sent me a Roulette “sweet habanero” pepper plant. I have heard of habanero chilies but I have not grown them before because I cannot tolerate the heat of chili peppers. I always grow sweet pepper plants. This habanada plant has not only grown well, it has been producing many peppers about three inches long. Each pepper has folds and dimples, a broad shoulder, and a tapered end. Now in the beginning of August, the plant has about 10 peppers. I ate one raw and it was not spicy at all. It was not sweet either, certainly not as sweet as yellow and red snacking peppers. Intrigued, I had to learn more.

A search on the Internet told me that several years ago, the University of New Mexico discovered a plant from its habanero line that did not register on the Scoville scale. The Scoville scale measures the level of capsaicinoids, the chemicals that cause the burning sensation or the heat. A normal habanero can reach 300,000 Scoville heat units (very high). They sent seeds to Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek who was interested in peppers at the time. Mazourk was inspired to breed a delicious pepper without the heat as part of his doctoral research. The result was the habanada.

I read that the habanada has “floral properties,” that it tastes like a melon or a guava, but to me it is savory, similar to a soft cheese. I picked them at a more orange than red stage but I will let some mature to red and see how they taste again. With the ones I did pick, I chopped them and made an omelet that was delicious. No doubt chefs will be able to see the possibilities of using habanadas in desserts, as a spread, or maybe even a jelly. It can be used whenever a sweet or hot pepper is called for in an entrée and it certainly can be used to color a dish.

The plant was easy to grow. It is about 3 feet tall now. I used a single stake because a single stake has always sufficed with my other peppers but this plant is bushier so I had to keep it propped up with yarn. Next time, I will use a tomato cage. Oh yes, there will be a next time, I am growing this again next year. My habanada plant grows with my other peppers and tomatoes and they all receive ample sun and water but habanadas do not need as much fertilizer as tomatoes.

I highly recommend the habanada, not only as a star performer in the garden but as a tasty pepper!

Visiting Local Demonstration Gardens for Ideas and Help

As the summer peaks, I like to visit the local demonstration gardens to see how well the plants and vegetables performed in this area. Demonstration gardens are a great way to learn what works in the Washington DC metro area and how to manage our local issues, such as deer and rabbits. Each county that has a Master Gardener program usually has at least one demonstration garden, managed by the volunteer Master Gardeners. To find such a garden, call your local county Master Gardener program representative (your local extension agent). Some have several to showcase various environmental conditions and some use the garden as a place to teach or host workshops.

The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (Arlington and Alexandria) have seven demonstration gardens:

  • Glencarlyn Library Community Gardens, corner of S. Third and S. Kensington Streets, off Carlin Springs Road, Arlington
  • Teaching Garden at Fairlington Community Center
  • Master Gardener Tribute Bench and Garden at Fairlington Community Center
  • Organic Vegetable Garden, Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Marcy Road, Arlington
  • Rock Quarry Shade Garden, Bon Air Park on Wilson Boulevard and N. Lexington Street, Arlington
  • Simpson Park Gardens, E. Monroe Avenue at the end of Leslie Avenue, next to the YMCA in Alexandria
  • Sunny Garden, Bon Air Park, Arlington

The Prince William County Master Gardeners manage a very large “Teaching Garden” at St. Benedict Monastery, 9535 Linton Hall Road, Bristow, VA. Within this large garden are mini gardens to illustrate certain conditions or issues, such as a deer resistant garden, shade garden, vegetable garden, and pollinator garden.

The Loudoun County Master Gardeners uses Ida Lee Park on Ida Lee Park Drive, Leesburg, as a teaching garden.

The Montgomery County Master Gardeners have a demonstration garden at the Agriculture History Farm Park, 18410 Muncaster Road, Derwood, MD, and they manage the herb garden at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. Each year, for a temporary period they manage award winning gardens near the Old MacDonald Barn at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.

The Prince Georges County Master Gardeners have demonstration gardens at their headquarters at 6707 Groveton Drive, Clinton, MD.

The Urban Demonstration Garden, part of the Capital Area Food Bank at the DC warehouse, 4900 Puerto Rico Avenue NE Washington DC.

The Washington Youth Garden, a program of the Friends of the National Arboretum with support from the U.S. National Arboretum (on Arboretum grounds) in Washington DC.

In addition some plant societies such as the National Capital Dahlia Society have demonstration gardens specific to their plant of interest. Contact the society directly to see if they have one. The National Capital Dahlia Society has the Nordahl Exhibition Garden for displaying dahlias at the Agricultural History Park in Derwood, MD. The Plant NoVA Natives has a list of demonstration gardens that have native plants on their website.

All-America Selections: Clancy Potatoes From True Potato Seed

Clancy potatoes, photo courtesy of All-America Selections

Last week, I received seed packets of various All-America Selections (AAS), both National and Regional 2019 winners.  All-America Selections are plants, flowers and edibles, tested for garden performance by a panel of expert judges. The varieties that perform best over all of North America become AAS National Winners and the ones that perform well in certain regions are AAS Regional Winners. This is an independent trialing process to offer gardeners reliable new varieties. AAS has an excellent website devoted to gardeners, detailing each plant with growing instructions and beautiful photos.

All the seed packets that I received look very exciting–I cannot wait to plant them this year in my Virginia garden. However, the one seed package that really was different and new to me was Clancy potato seeds, bred by Bejo Seeds. Not seed potatoes mind you but actual seeds. These seeds are so tiny they are coated to make them easier to handle. Clancy is the first potato from seed that is an AAS winner. Clancy grows to about 3 feet in height with blue flowers and produces rose-blush to red skinned tubers with a white to yellow interior. These round to oblong tubers are about 4-5 inches in length and are good for boiling and mashed potatoes.

True Potato Seed is so small, is coated

Usually potatoes are grown from “seed potatoes” which are either very small tubers or parts of a tuber. These are planted in March in our area and eventually a bushy plant appears that produces more and larger tubers to eat. True seed comes from the resulting fruit of a potato flower. True potato seed (TPS) is resistant to diseases especially viruses and lasts much longer than seed potatoes.

Last year I grew seed potatoes in fabric containers from small tubers but I have never grown potatoes from TPS before. TPS needs to be started indoors under lights about 6 weeks before the average last frost (end of April in Northern Virginia). They are sown with a very thin layer of seed starting mix on top of the seed as light inhibits germination. The surface of the soil must be moist until seedlings poke through and then watering can decrease. After the seedlings have produced four true leaves, the plants can be set outside to harden off. I harden off my plants by putting them on the deck in the daytime when the temperature is about 50 degrees and back inside if frost is predicted or the evenings are too cold. When there is no more danger of frost, the plants can be planted in containers or in the ground. All potato plants need to be “hilled” which is a process of covering the plant with soil as tubers form so the tubers are not exposed to light. The top 6 inches or so of the plant is not covered to allow leaves to continue to photosynthesis. Potatoes require full sun with good drainage and loose soil which is easy to provide in a large container where I can add bags of potting soil. In the summer, the plants must be well watered. Clancy will probably be harvested in mid to late summer.

I am truly looking forward to growing Clancy but I am also looking forward to the other AAS winners such as Big Duck Marigold Gold, Viking Begonia XL Red on Chocolate, Holi Scarlet Zinnia, Melon Orange Silverwave, Pepper Just Sweet, and the many tomatoes cultivars! If you are looking for new plants to try with a seal of approval, look to AAS for flower and vegetable winners.

Various All-America Selections to try this year

February Pegplant’s Post Giveaway: Italian Herb Seeds

Every January I attend the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in Baltimore. MANTS is a trade show serving the horticulture industry. It is a green industry marketplace for finding plants, nursery stock, and garden items wholesale. I attend as press to meet new people in the horticulture field and to learn of new businesses and products. This year, I met Joe Salerno, the owner of Salerno Seeds, a 40-year-old, family-owned New York business that imports seed packets produced and packed in Italy. The herb and vegetable seed packets are sold in a few New York retail locations and online. Joe has kindly sent me five packets for my February 2019 Pegplant’s Post giveaway: oregano, thyme, borage, arugula, and wild chicory.

This giveaway opportunity is for subscribers of Pegplant’s Post, an online, free gardening newsletter for the Washington DC metro area. Each issue provides 50 to 100 gardening events; newly published gardening books; local tips, advice, and articles; and a monthly giveaway contest.

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 is issued on the last weekend of the month.

 

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!