Tag Archives: roselle

Giving Thanks for Lessons Learned During 2014 Gardening Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October In My Garden – A Weekly Report

Japanese anemones

Japanese anemones

October is a busy time in the garden; the cool weather and moist soil make it possible to enjoy a multitude of gardening activities. In anticipation of frost, I threw away the eggplants (they don’t fruit anymore) and the remaining cucumber plants, but left the peppers and Swiss chard in the ground.

Octobergarden2014 055

roselle

My zinnias and Japanese anemones are still blooming, the yellow mums are happy with the purple asters (a great color combination), and (finally!) the roselle is blooming (see my September 13 post).

mums & asters

mums & asters

Plants are starting to change color, my favorite hydrangea, oak leaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), has a few red leaves. The panicles of tan and bone flowers are fragile dry but still very pretty (makes great cut flowers for vases that cannot hold water). However, my Annabelles (Hydrangea arborescens) have turned on me; their round flower heads are so black I cut them off and threw them away. The stems will get it in March next year to keep their shape.

oakleaf hydrangea

oakleaf hydrangea

Fall is a great time to get rid of the plants that are just getting out of hand. A few years ago I would have praised balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus) as a great kid plant. Just before the petals open, the purple flowers inflate and my kids would pop them like bubble wrap.  A perennial, balloon flower emerges every year and grows to about 2-3 feet tall with arching stems.  In the fall, the leaves turn gold and the large seed pods disperse across the garden. Now, years later, I guess my garden has reached the point of significant mass of seeds, I can see small balloon flower plants all across the front garden, taking up space and creating havoc.  I ruthlessly cut the original plants back to prevent any more seeding and pulled out all the small, baby plants I could find. If you see a plant getting too aggressive, don’t be afraid to cut it back or pull it out.

balloon flower

balloon flower

Fall is also a great time for bean stew and I throw whatever greens I have into the crockpot. This time, I added Swiss chard (leaving a few leaves on the plants so the plants can still photosynthesis and grow) plus dried rosemary and thyme. For another dinner, I harvested the spinach, a cool weather green, and the red peppers to cook with chicken in a skillet.

Fall also is the time to lift and divide perennials. The previous owner had planted purple flowering, bearded irises and when we first moved here, I had divided them to the point that I had enough to fill the two front beds. Every April, a mass of purple would color the house for a few weeks but then for the rest of the summer, the green leaves would just sit there. Sure, they provided a green background for the front garden but now that I want more space for edibles, I decided to re-design the two beds. I cut the iris foliage back to 6 inches, pulled the rhizomes out, cut off the old & diseased parts, and gave the rhizomes to staff at the kids’ school, friends, and coworkers. I re-planted a few irises and I will lift and divide the yarrow (Achillea), red hot poker (Kniphofia), and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) from other beds to add color. In the spring, I will plant herbs and vegetables. Because the beds look a little empty now, the kids and I went to Grist Mill Park in Alexandria, Virginia, to fill bags with wood mulch to cover the beds. In Fairfax County, you can help yourself to free wood mulch year round at certain parks.  Later, as the county picks up the autumn leaves, you can get free leaf mulch, which is good for increasing organic matter. Since we don’t have a truck, we double bagged the Fiskars Kangaroo garden bag with 45 gallon plastic bags (get them at the hardware store). Wood mulch is heavy, we could only fill the bags half full but the leaf mulch should be much lighter, which we will get in November. November is a busy time in the garden; the cool weather and moist soil make it possible to enjoy a multitude of gardening activities . . .Septemberingarden2014 091

Landscape Edible: Growing Hibiscus for Tea

Hibiscus sabdariffa in August in container

Hibiscus sabdariffa (or roselle) in August

Fall is beginning to show its face: the nights are cool, the days are short, and stores are stocked with Halloween candy. Two of my tomato plants, Abraham Lincoln and Rutgers, are downright ugly. The leaves are brown and yellow and the large, green tomatoes sit there, defiantly, not bothering to ripen for me. I wait for them to change color, I even offer to take one that has a hint of red, but no, they never seem to change.  I am torn between pulling the plants out in anger and disgust (but I raised them from seed!) or keeping them there in hopes I will get just a few more tomatoes before frost takes over. Stupice, however, is much nicer. The plant is green, the small tomatoes keep appearing, and the older ones turn red every day.

Fall also marks the end of the vigorous lemon cucumber plant; we laid it to rest about two weeks ago. The eggplants never really took off so that was not as heart wrenching. The peppers are finally coming into their full glory with yellow and red pendulous fruit. The pole beans just keep producing beans. Nothing seems to deter them, not even when a critter munched on some leaves.

My real stressor now is a plant new to my garden: Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as roselle or Florida cranberry. For a month now, I have been anxiously watching my plants, waiting for a hint of a flower bud. Because they are tropical plants, they grow like annuals in my Zone 7 Virginia garden. In other words, they are “terminal,” their days are numbered.

The flowers are supposed to be yellow, about 3 inches across, and more like okra or cotton in shape, not like those large tropical hibiscus flowers you see in Florida. Lasting one day, the flowers withdraw into the calyx to form a seed pod.  As the seed matures, the red calyx, which was originally at the base of the flower, grows to cover the seed pod. It is this red covering, the calyx that is harvested for tea, jams, and jellies. Rich in anthocyanin, the red calyxes serve as a natural food color and are responsible for the “zing” in Celestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger tea. I grew them because I had read that I could make my own herbal tea so I had started my plants from seed in the beginning of the year.  Later I learned that it is a true landscape edible – the leaves can be cooked, maybe with a chicken stir fry, to add a citrus/tangy flavor.

The plant itself is pretty, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, with maple like leaves. I grew mine in large plastic containers and if I had known, I would have added flowering annuals at the base to complement the red and green colors in the stems and leaves. Because mine were in containers in full sun, I had to make sure they received enough water all summer long. I had grown ornamental hibiscus plants before and knew they had “healthy appetites” so I had mixed fertilizer in the soil before I planted the seedlings.

By August, I had not seen any flowers and I was anxiously watching the calendar. I did some research and discovered that the flowering is initiated by short days, i.e., autumn. Sure enough, in the beginning of September I saw small buds, almost too small to capture by the camera. I read that I need to harvest the pods while the calyxes are still tender and juicy, about 10 days after the flowers appear. The seed pods have to be harvested, cut off the plant, and the calyxes have to be taken apart and dried.

Hibiscus flower buds in September, note red on stems and buds

Hibiscus flower buds in September

I also learned that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, only a few hours south, has a variety called Thai Red Roselle that will start blooming earlier in the summer to ensure plenty of calyxes before frost. Needless to say, that went on my 2015 wish list! I will continue to keep vigilance. In November, surely after our first frost has occurred, I will let you know how these plants perform plus I will list a quick summary of successes/lessons learned from my 2014 season.