Archive for category Vegetable Gardening

Frost? What Frost?

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

Italian summer pepper varieties still going strong.

The wacky, way-above-normal-temperatures weather continues in my piedmont garden. We live in a frost pocket. Our yard gets zapped by frost when nearby neighbors remain un-iced. So when I tell you that my house — on November 4 — still hasn’t seen a speck of frost, that is testimony to the strangeness of this year’s “autumn” weather pattern.

The weather forecasters have been promising cold any minute now for the last month or so. But every time a front approaches, it fizzles out, so that the cold air behind it never gets here. There’s talk of record snow in Siberia that will eventually mean deeply cold temperatures for much of the US, including my area, but I gather that weather is at least a month away. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy the best Italian sweet pepper crop we have ever grown.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

Pepper plants falling all over themselves.

In normal years, my staking system for these peppers is entirely adequate. Usually they are long gone by early October, either due to drought or frost. But this year, the peppers just keep growing, and flowering, and pushing out gorgeous large, heavy fruits that drag down overlong branches to the point where I’m having trouble finding the ripe fruits lurking deep inside this pepper forest. Those blue flowers bumping into the peppers are Blue Brazilian Sage (Salvia guarantica) — a very frost-sensitive perennial that is usually long gone by now.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

Four different pepper varieties are hopelessly tangled together at this point.

No ripe fruits appear in these photos, because I had already picked them before I took these shots. I picked every ripe fruit I saw, because the forecast called for a nighttime low that usually translates to frost at my house. And peppers are very frost-sensitive. But the chill didn’t materialize, and today I picked a dozen more beautifully ripe fruits, some red, some yellow, all tasting of summer sunshine and vitamin C.

Planted garlic bed

Planted garlic bed

Wonder Spouse only just planted the garlic he ordered, because the soil thermometer warned us that the soil was too warm until just a few days ago. Yes, that’s a potato in the foreground of the shot. A tiny spud somehow eluded Wonder Spouse during last spring’s harvest, and he didn’t have the heart to pull up such a healthy-looking plant.

Salad Season, Part II

Salad Season, Part II

About six weeks ago, I direct-sowed all the remaining seeds of the greens I had planted for this past spring’s crop. I sowed thickly, because the seeds of lettuce and other greens are not supposed to keep well. Mine had been sitting in a box in my study, so I guess the air-conditioned house kept them happier than I realized. I think I got 100% germination from all varieties, including the carrots. I thinned as much as I could, moving seedlings to adjacent beds. But eventually I ran out of room. And enthusiasm.

Salad Bed #2

Salad Bed #2

Those are Queen Sophia marigolds in the foreground of the shot of the second big greens bed. They’re usually done for the season by now too. Not this year. I couldn’t bear to pull them up to make room for more greens. They were there first, after all.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

Protected from the frost that refuses to materialize.

A couple of days ago, the weather forecasters began speaking excitedly of the imminent arrival of seasonal autumn temperatures, so I broke out my row covers and covered the salad greens. The big tent on the left is protecting broccoli. However, the crop is not happy; I think it’s just been too hot for the plants to thrive. Of course, now the forecasters have raised the predicted nighttime lows to temperatures well above freezing. But the weather is at least cooler now. The row covers will probably just encourage the lettuces, spinaches, carrots, beets, and dill to grow a little faster, meaning more fresh salads. We aren’t complaining.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

Queen Sophia marigolds own otherwise empty summer beds.

The marigolds I tucked in beside squashes, tomatoes, beans, etc. months ago have grown to epoch dimensions, spreading out as dead summer crops were pulled out of their way. Local bees — and the few stray butterflies still flitting about — are delighted the Queen Sophias continue to reign with enthusiasm.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

A closer look at the Queen Sophias.

What a strange autumn. We had almost no fall color, because the nighttime temperatures were too warm. A cold front that blew in today denuded many of the canopy giants in my yard. Yet summer peppers, salad greens, and sunny marigolds continue to thrive. That’s why I’m still gardening after more than 50 years of playing in the dirt. Every year — and every season — is different.

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2016: Our Best Onion Yield Ever

We ate one of our last home-grown onions of the season last night. It was a Candy onion — a softball-sized, sweet mild white onion known for its good storage quality. After curing our harvested onions in our garage for a few weeks, we stored them in our cool basement. The handful of remaining bulbs down there have mostly now gone soft and will be composted. But all in all, it was without a doubt our best onion season ever. How did we do it? I think it was a combination of nearly perfect onion-growing weather and the application of a new strategy to combat a lesson learned the hard way.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

In the 2015 growing season, voles ate about two-thirds of our Yellow Granex onion crop.

Voles are everywhere in my vegetable garden. The sturdy deer fence that repels those hoofed beasts along with raccoons and even all but the most persistent squirrels merely protects the voles. Dense plantings of vegetables provide ample cover for these voracious rodents when they venture above ground, so hawks and owls aren’t’ any better able to catch them than the wandering cats or coyotes thwarted by the fence. We’ve tried vole traps. I’ve reached the conclusion that the voles are amused by the contraptions. They build tunnels around them, and yes sometimes I’m certain I hear snickering down the ubiquitous holes I find in every vegetable bed. But this past spring, I tried a new strategy that I think is likely responsible for the abundance of beautiful bulbs we harvested, all with no evidence of rodent nibbling.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

The latest weapon in my vole-fighting arsenal.

Swedish growers developed the above product; the name translates as “plant-protection.” It is essentially super-concentrated blood meal combined with a vegetable oil that ensures the product sticks to the plants upon which it is applied. The Swedes developed it to protect tender trees from gnawing critters during their long, snowy winters. It is USDA approved for organic gardening operations. But I suspected that if I merely sprinkled the product above ground around the onions, the voles would tunnel in and devour the bulbs again. So I went underground, where they operate.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

Onion plants freshly planted in their bed on Feb. 22, 2016.

I took the above photo just after I finished planting the onion starts in their bed full of compost and supplemented with an organic root crop fertilizer. Onions like two things: plenty of nutrients, and a steady supply of water. Mine got both this year.

I always order onion plants, because in my part of North Carolina, the plants need to be in the ground as early in the spring growing season as you can manage. Companies that sell onion starts, as these skinny baby plants are called, contract with growers in the deep south, where their climate allows them to get seedlings going in late winter. The starts are shipped to customers when the growing season for onions is about to begin for a given area. My starts showed up on Feb. 20, and I was able to plant them on Feb. 22.

They don't look like much when you first plant them.

They don’t look like much when you first plant them.

February in my area was mild and relatively dry this year. I was thus able to clear and prepare my spring vegetable beds much earlier than usual. I cleared the onion bed first, because I knew I would need it first, so it was ready to go when my starts arrived, except for the implementation of my new anti-vole strategy. I decided to dig a trench outside the entire perimeter of the bed — about 6-8 inches deep — the level where I usually encounter the vole subway system. Inside the trench, I liberally sprinkled Plantskydd. The strong odor of dried (bovine) blood is supposed to repel rodents — and even deer. My results indicate that this is true.

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment that compared this product to the less expensive blood meal product you can buy from organic suppliers. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to take a chance on losing some of my crop. My suspicion is that Plantskydd is superior because it is super-concentrated, and because the vegetable oil mixed with it allows the dried blood to persist longer in the soil than regular blood meal. All I know for certain is that when we harvested our onions, we did not find a single vole tunnel in that bed. I am sold on the efficacy of Plantskydd.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

The onion bed on April 30, 2016.

We grew two varieties of onions this year:

  • Yellow Granex Hybrid — These are short-day-length Vidalia-type onions; this is the go-to onion variety for my region. They are sweet, large and slightly flattened, with light yellow skin and flesh. They do not store well.
  • Candy Hybrid — This intermediate-day-length onion was a bit of a gamble. Theoretically, it is less sensitive to the day-length issues that limit folks in my region to a few onion varieties. When I read they stored well, produced softball-sized bulbs, and were extra sweet with mild, white flesh, I decided they were worth the risk.
The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens.

The onion bed on April 30 with an adjacent bed of young salad greens behind it. Candy onions are on the left end; Yellow Granex plants are on the right end.

Spring rains came fairly regularly this year, which hasn’t happened in quite a few seasons. It had also rained enough during the winter to fill the shallow well that I use to water the vegetables; this has not often been the case in recent springs. My onion bed received about an inch of water every week from late February through the end of May. I’m fairly certain this was the other reason our harvest was so successful.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onion bed just before first harvest on May 25.

Onions are ready to harvest when the green stem at the base of the leaves where it attaches to the bulb flops over. The Yellow Granex plants (left end in the above photo) flopped over before the Candy plants surrendered to Summer’s impending arrival.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs -- leaves still attached -- to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

We hung the harvested Yellow Granex bulbs — leaves still attached — to anything handy in the garage. In this case, our push mower was drafted into onion-curing duty.

The heat of early summer, perhaps combined with the disturbance created by harvesting the Yellow Granex end of the bed, seemed to push the Candy bulbs into accelerating their production cycle.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

By May 31, some of the Candy plants were flopping over, ready to be harvested.

I kept watering as needed, trying to encourage the last of the Candy plants to push just a few more bits of goodness into the maturing bulbs. But by June 19, we had pulled up the last of this variety.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

The last of the Candy onion harvest on June 19.

I pulled the onions in the early morning, then left them on their beds for an hour or so, allowing the skins to toughen up a bit before I moved them to the garage. We found that the Candy onions actually tasted sweeter after we let them rest in our cool basement for a month or so. In the meantime, we devoured the Yellow Granex bulbs, since we knew they wouldn’t store as well.

One of Wonder Spouse’s favorite ways to cook our onions is to marinate them briefly with other summer veggies — such as squash, tomatoes, and fat portobello mushrooms — and then grill them just long enough to heat them up and give them a bit of yummy charred goodness.  Whatever meat he added to the mix played a distant second fiddle to those sweetly zingy grilled onions. My mouth is watering from that tasty memory as I type this.

I will definitely be employing my Plantskydd methodology for next spring’s onion crop. It will be interesting to see if I can repeat — or even better — my results. I used this product in a couple of other ways in my vegetable garden this year. I’ll tell you about those techniques soon, as I continue to review this year’s growing season.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to   an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

Young pepper transplants in front of maturing onions on May 25. These peppers are still producing, thanks to an unusually prolonged, frost-free fall.

 

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Another Turn of the Wheel: Welcome Summer

red cactus zinnia

Flowers and fruits abound as we celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice, which in my area, will arrive at 6:34 this evening. This year — the first time since 1948 around here — the solstice’s arrival will be enhanced by a full moon. The myriad fireflies that dance in my landscape after sunset may have trouble being seen as they compete for visibility with that bright orb in our night sky. But she will dim in a few days, and the fireflies will dance for another month or so.

Unfurling inflorescence of bronze fennel

Unfurling inflorescence of bronze fennel

Late spring was kind to us this year, and most plants are only just now beginning to notice that the frequent rains have diminished, that the temperatures are trending suddenly much higher, and our famous southeastern humidity has arrived to make humans sweat even during early morning tasks outside.

Cucumber 'Diva'

Cucumber ‘Diva’

Yesterday shortly after sunrise, I was in the vegetable garden tying enthusiastic tomato shoots to their trellises, watering thirsty beans and squashes, and hunting drowsy insect pests before the sun energized them when I heard cicadas thrumming for the first time this year. One day ahead of the arrival of the solstice, I thought perhaps they were testing their instruments to ensure they could greet Summer with fully tuned accompaniment.

Honeybees pollinating a squash blossom

Honeybees pollinating a squash blossom

Busy insects abound. Dragonflies patrol the skies for tasty morsels, honeybees and myriad other bee species diligently visit flowers from dawn to dusk, mosquitoes buzz, flies swarm, ladybugs devour sluggish aphids — it’s a jungle out there.

dragonfly

I spend too much time these days taking photographs, as I vainly try to capture early summer’s energy and diversity. But it’s all so wonderful, I can’t help myself. Do you remember that feeling of release and energy that overwhelmed you every June when your elementary school let out for the summer? Our futures glowed with possibilities filled with sunshine, warm water, fireflies in bottles, and long, warm evenings playing with friends, or sitting with elders on wide porches listening to their stories of summers past.

First signs of ripening for my Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

First signs of ripening for my Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes

Summer’s arrival is a moment of infinite possibilities for gardeners too.  Sweat equity starts to pay off handsomely in fresh green beans, tender squash, refreshing cucumbers, and the ultimate reward — fresh tomato-basil sandwiches — truly the taste of summer at my house.

Zucchini 'Dunja'

Zucchini ‘Dunja’

Savor Summer’s soft side today, my friends, for soon we begin the hard slog through heat and humidity, rampant bugs and insidious fungal diseases. But today — today we embrace the new season with hopes for bountiful harvests, the welcoming symphony of thunderstorm rains, and nights full of fireflies, cicada songs, and family gatherings.

Daylily 'Ron Rouseau' -- and friend

Daylily ‘Ron Rouseau’ — and friend

Happy Summer Solstice to all!

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Recovering from a Late-spring Hard Freeze

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Freeze-killed new growth on American Holly (Ilex opaca). Note that — so far — the flower buds appear unscathed.

The damage to one of my hollies (They all looked like this.) in the above photo occurred this past Wednesday, April 6, when the temperature at my house fell to 26.8 degrees. Unfortunately, late tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow before the sun returns, my area’s temperatures are predicted to be lower than this previous event. I am expecting my yard to see temperatures between 23-25 degrees for at least 8 hours. This one is going to hurt. A lot.

I am worse off than many, because I live in an area not yet completely encircled by concrete and asphalt. The heat-island effect that urban/suburban areas generate by absorbing the sun’s heat in man-made materials usually prevents temperatures from falling as low as they do at my house. Plus I live on a hill that slopes to a floodplain. Cold air is heavy and sinks, and as it slides down my hill, it pauses long enough to caress newly sprouted green shoots until they become brown, shriveled sludge.

Magnolia sprengeri 'Diva' after the recent freeze.

Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ after the recent freeze.

If a miracle occurs and the roaring winds now driving in arctic air don’t diminish to stillness, the damage won’t be as bad. But odds are most of the fresh new green growth on canopy and understory trees, shrubs, and perennials will look the way my poor Magnolia ‘Diva’ in the above photo already looks.

This has happened once before in my years here. I called it the Black Spring, because literally every leaf on every canopy tree died. Finally about mid-June, the trees mustered a new flush of leaf growth, but it was a much-reduced push of foliage. That summer was hot and dry with no tree shade to hide in. Such a trauma leaves plants in a weakened state that makes them more vulnerable to disease and insect attacks. So how should you plan to recover from any freeze damage to plants at your house?

Reduce your expectations for the growing season

Perhaps your fruit and/or nut trees produced an abundance of flowers, followed by tender new leaves, as my pecan trees did. If tonight’s freeze kills that new growth, it is likely you won’t see much fruit this year.

My pecan trees are about 40 feet tall, and planted in one of the coldest spots in my yard (before I understood that area’s temperature issues). The growth of one tree was completely killed, as you can see in the second photo above. The other tree was heavily damaged, but still shows some green. It is closer to a tall stand of Eastern Red Cedars, which protected it somewhat.

But no matter. Pecans need two trees for good cross-pollination and nut production. The squirrels will see no pecans this season. And I will need to figure out a way to provide water to the completely killed tree if we go into drought, so that it can summon enough energy for a new flush of leaf growth. And to the other tree, too, if it suffers the same fate tonight.

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Range of Wednesday freeze damage to my blueberry flowers

Depending on what happens tonight, I may still have a few blueberries to harvest in a month or so. The early-bloomers had already set fruit, and I’m hoping — because they are still tiny — the cold won’t kill them. But as the photo above illustrates, still-blooming flowers were mostly damaged at least a bit. Odds are high that the later-blooming bushes will yield few if any berries this year.

Appreciate the wondrous early spring we enjoyed

Those of us who work with plants know that myriad circumstances can overrule our expectations at any moment. To be sure, we are always at the mercy of the weather. That’s one of the reasons I like to take pictures of my charges frequently during this time of year. I need the glamor shots to lift my spirits after the weather does its worst.

Know your yard’s cold spots before you plant, and know which plants are most cold-sensitive

As I noted above, I planted our pecan trees before I fully understood the microclimate variations on our property. I also didn’t realize the cold sensitivity of deciduous magnolias, native or otherwise.

My Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ was unscathed by the first freeze. It blooms much earlier, so its flowers were done. And its leaves had been out much longer, so they had toughened up, unlike poor Elizabeth and Butterflies. The buds on my tall native Magnolia fraseri were still tightly closed during the first freeze, but they were swelling. My camera’s zoom lens revealed at least some freeze damage to those buds. Magnolia macrophylla had not even begun to enlarge its buds. The first freeze did not damage it. The reality in my yard is that my beloved early-blooming deciduous magnolias will always be damaged by freezing temperatures. The only variable is the duration of the freeze and the consequent extent of the damage.

Remember local wildlife

Normally by now, I’m tapering down the frequency with which I’m filling seed feeders to encourage disbursement of winter flocks of Northern Cardinals and other feeder-loving species. I always leave out one suet cake until the temperatures remain reliably warm, because woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding fledglings, and the harried-looking parents seem to really appreciate being able to stuff a bit of suet down a young one’s throat when they can’t find a tasty bug to quell the youngster’s clamoring.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

My summer bird species are all mostly here now, and their bug supply has been adversely impacted by the freeze. Consequently, I’ve re-stocked the seed feeders and put out more suet. The warblers seem quite grateful for the suet, but I hadn’t seen them visit the feeders before Wednesday’s freeze. As I do throughout the year, I’m making sure all my bird baths are full of clean, unfrozen water.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

Poisonous to humans, Pokeweed is a favorite food of Robins and many other native animals.

In the woods adjacent to my house, tonight’s freeze may kill blackberry flower buds, damage new tender shoots of pokeweed, and turn fresh elderberry growth into mush. If that happens, the native fruits my birds rely on will be severely limited. I can’t really offer them anything equivalent, so it is likely they will relocate to areas where their wild foods were not damaged — if they can find such areas.

If a Black Spring darkens my door…

If tomorrow reveals another Black Spring for my yard, I will expect to see many fewer bird species while my trees struggle to re-leaf themselves. If drought appears, I’ll need to add water to challenged plants where I can. I can’t water canopy trees. For them, I can watch closely for signs of dying limbs, and disease and insect encroachment.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

My beautiful ash trees are just pushing out tender leaves and flowers. I am worried about their chances tonight.

Summer annuals and summer-blooming perennials and woody plants will not be affected by the freeze directly, but the absence of shade provided by canopy trees will stress them, especially if the rains stop coming. My summer vegetable garden should not be too adversely impacted — barring drought or plagues of locusts/disease, etc. I will tend my tomatoes, savor the tang of basil, and do what I can for my damaged charges.

This year's tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

This year’s tomato seedlings are safe and warm in the greenhouse.

Such is the lot of those of us who work the earth. And the truth, of course, is that we know embracing the bad along with the wondrous good is all part of our journey.

Stay warm, friends.

Stay warm, friends.

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Glory in the Morning

A native Redbud flower

A native Redbud flower

My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.

Vegetables

The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

Wildflowers

The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.

Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.

Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.

Now it's springtime!

Now it’s springtime!

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.

Happy Spring, everyone!

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Late Winter Pluses and Minuses

Witchhazel 'Amethyst'

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’

It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.

They're baaack!

They’re back!

As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.

pileated holes

The work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs,  salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.

Salad season can't come soon enough!

Salad season can’t come soon enough!

When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.

Onion starts -- planted!

Onion starts — planted!

The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.

onions close

It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.

In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.

Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

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2015 Review of Renee’s Garden Seeds: Part I

Rudbeckia 'Cappuccino'

Rudbeckia ‘Cappuccino’

With apologies for tardiness, here are my thoughts about the free seeds from Renee’s Garden that I trialed this year. As those of you who have been reading my blog for a year or two may recall, every year, Renee’s Garden offers up to 15 free seed packets to members of the Garden Writers Association in the hopes, I imagine, that we will write about the seeds we try. I know that I feel obliged every year to write up how my Renee’s Seeds samples fared. I had hoped to squeak in my review before last year slipped entirely away, but I know most folks haven’t ordered their seeds yet, so you’ll still have time to ponder my results here.

Zinnia 'BluePoint Florist' mix

Zinnia ‘Blue Point’ mix

I ordered 11 seed packets, and received an additional sample in a promotional mailing sent out by this company, so I tried 12 seed varieties this year ranging from perennials to annuals to herbs to a vegetable. I’ve assigned grades ranging from A to F to this year’s seeds, but many more high grades than low ones. This post describes all the varieties that earned an A from me.

Grade A

Kale ‘Tuscan Baby Leaf’ — A

baby kale seedlings

This was the freebie seed packet sent with a promotional mailing. Described as a cut-and-come-again salad baby kale, I had to try it, and it has not disappointed. I first tried it with the spring garden greens and loved it then. For that round, I started seedlings in the greenhouse and transplanted them out when the weather had settled. They produced well and were delicious, but they bolted sooner than many of the other spring greens.

However, when copious autumn rains began to fall, I decided to plant a small fall vegetable garden of broccoli and salad greens. I direct-sowed all the greens, using the same packets of seeds from the spring. All germinated enthusiastically, including this baby leaf kale. When our autumn temperatures turned absurdly warm, I was able to protect these crops through minor dips in temperatures by covering them with a tent of spun garden fabric. At this point, after something like 8 inches of rain during the month of December, the salad greens are mostly mush — except for this kale, which continues to happily grow and produce. I’m guessing that the prolonged cold forecast for January will finally end this delicious, tender, productive vegetable, but I’ll let you know.

Conclusion: I must give this variety an A for prolonged, delicious productivity, but with the caveat that my region experienced an extraordinary fall growing season. As a spring green, its productive life was too short to be worth the space it occupied.

Foxglove ‘Freckled Rose Princess’ — A-minus

The flowers lived up to their name.

The flowers lived up to their name.

I like foxgloves. I think they provide elegance to a flower garden, and the ones I’ve grown usually bloom for quite a while. Pollinators of many persuasions like them, and because they are poisonous, deer and rabbits don’t touch them. They aren’t native, but the ones I grow have never demonstrated any invasive tendencies. This variety sounded lovely, so I figured I’d try them.

I sowed the seeds in the greenhouse. They weren’t the fastest germinators, but they came up reasonably strongly. I managed to grow about 8 or 10 plants to transplant size, then planted them in their permanent bed at one end of my enclosed vegetable area. This bed is a trial bed for plants I’m testing.

Basal rosette of leaves in early November

Basal rosette of leaves in early November

A late spring-early summer drought required me to water the new foxglove plants attentively. By doing so, I was rewarded with a number of bloom stalks that showed off rosy bells for about six weeks. When the flowers were done, I removed the stalks. About that time, the rains returned enough to encourage lush growth in the basal rosettes.

Digitalis in mid-November

Foxgloves in mid-November

I was looking forward to a 2016 mid spring full of foxglove flowers until one of the wettest, warmest Decembers ever recorded hit my region. The last time I checked, most of the foxglove rosettes appear to have rotted into brown goop. I have a feeling they’re gone for good, but I’m going to wait to see if new growth emerges when spring returns.

Conclusion: This is a beautiful perennial that needs even moisture and perfect drainage to flourish. I’m not sure my gardening conditions meet this variety’s requirements. I’ll update you next spring. I’m giving this one an A-minus, because my December rains were more than many fussier perennials could probably handle.

Parsley ‘Gigante Italian’ — A+

Greenhouse-started seedlings

Greenhouse-started seedlings

All parsleys are biennials, meaning they grow vegetatively through the first year, then produce seeds the following spring, after which the plants die. I started my parsley seeds in the greenhouse and got abundant, nearly instantaneous germination. I ended up with about a dozen vigorous seedlings that grew rapidly and well. I gave away a few plants to friends and transplanted the rest in open areas of my bed of chives, where they flourished.

Chives and flourishing recently transplanted parsley plants in mid spring

Chives and flourishing recently transplanted parsley plants in mid spring

I harvested parsley leaves all spring, summer, and fall. This large, flat-leaved Italian variety enhanced salads, sauces, and many other savory dishes. About September, the plants surprised me by sending up flower stalks, which I had not been expecting until the next spring. I responded by cutting off the stalks before the flowers opened, in the hopes of prolonging their productivity. The tactic seemed to work, because the plants are still alive. This is one of the few herbs (chives being the other) that didn’t seem to mind the deluges of December.

Still tasty, thanks to a record mild December

Still tasty, thanks to a record mild December

Conclusion: I’ll be growing this variety again. Santa brought me a food dehydrator, so that I can dry and preserve the abundant tasty leaves of wonderful herbs like this one.

Basil, Thai ‘Queenette’ — A

Thai Basil

Renee’s Garden imports the seeds of this variety directly from Thailand, and I can attest that this is the very best Thai basil I’ve ever grown. Greenhouse-started seeds germinated well and produced strong, well-branched plants. This annual herb was powerfully fragrant and flowered constantly, attracting a great diversity of pollinators, including many of the smaller, solitary bees and wasps so important to a healthy garden.

Queenette flowers

Queenette flowers

I don’t cook much with this herb, but many folks do, and I know it is used in teas too. I grow it mostly as a companion plant for my vegetables, because it attracts beneficial insects, and I think its strong fragrance confuses some pest insects. My plants flourished with almost no supplemental water during the dry early summer. And later autumn rains didn’t bother them either.

Queenette plants in mid-July

Queenette plants in mid-July

The flower stalks make great additions to bouquets, and I used them often that way all growing season.

It is very frost-sensitive.

It is very frost-sensitive.

Conclusion: This is a wonderful summer annual herb that adds fragrance and insect appeal to any garden. I would happily grow it again, despite the fact that the faintest of frosts kills it completely — well before even other basil varieties surrender. This variety gets a solid A.

Zinnia ‘Blue Point’ mix — A-minus

Color representation was heavily weighted toward the pink shades

Color representation was heavily weighted toward the pink shades

I try a different zinnia variety from Renee’s Garden every year. Sometimes I’ve been wowed, sometimes disappointed; this year fell somewhere in between. In the past when I’ve tried a mix, I’ve been pleased by the relatively even color balance that resulted from the greenhouse-started seedlings I transplant into my garden. But this annual variety yielded more pink shades by far. They were nice enough, but I like to use zinnias for bouquets full of color. This year required more monochromatic bouquet construction.

One of the few whites from this trial.

One of the few whites from this trial.

The plants grew tall — about 5 feet or so, and the rains of autumn plagued the leaves with fungus. But for much of the summer, they looked pretty good.

Zinnia bed in June. Note the abundance of pink flowers in this "mix."

Zinnia bed in June. Note the abundance of pink flowers in this “mix.”

Still, zinnias are annual flowers I will always include. They are easy to grow, make great cut flowers, and draw a diversity of pollinators to the garden. Every piedmont gardener with four or more hours of sunshine on a flowerbed should grow zinnias.

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying a Blue Point zinnia

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying a Blue Point zinnia

Conclusion: I might try this variety again, but if I get another uneven color mixture of plants, I’d discard this zinnia option permanently. I’m giving it a provisional A-minus, based on the hope that future mixes would yield more color variety.

Rudbeckia ‘Capuccino’

Flowers on a single plant in mid-July!

Flowers on a single plant in mid-July!

What a gorgeous perennial this turned out to be. I had tried this the year before, but only got a couple of weak plants started in the greenhouse that never took off when I transplanted them. I had better success on my second try. I still had germination problems. More than half the seeds didn’t germinate for me in the greenhouse. This is very unusual. I almost always get excellent germination from any seed — perennial, annual, vegetable, etc. — that I start in my greenhouse. But the plants that did come up grew vigorously. I was able to transplant out four very healthy plants.

All the pollinators loved these flowers.

All the pollinators loved these flowers.

Floriferous is the word that best describes their productivity. During June and July, the two plants that survived vole and drought challenges bloomed copiously and constantly. I imagine they would make great cut flowers, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any, because the pollinators were addicted to them — and they looked so gosh-darned fabulous in the garden.

I liked the way the flower patterns and colors varied.

I liked the way the flower patterns and colors varied.

I was very hopeful that these plants would survive the winter and return for a new growing season. After all, the native rudbeckias have no trouble with this. But like the foxgloves, my Capuccinos did not fare well during the warm, absurdly wet December my area experienced. The vigorous basal rosettes present in November seem to have melted into mush. Like the foxgloves, I will not dig up where I planted them until the new growing season begins. If I don’t see signs of resprouting then, I’ll know they drowned.

I liked the way the petals of new flowers un-rolled themselves in the sunshine.

I liked the way the petals of new flowers un-folded themselves in the sunshine.

Conclusion: As much as I want to give this variety an A+ for its wow factor, its weak germination combined with its apparent inability to handle wet soil mean I must give it a provisional A-minus. If it comes back next spring, I reserve the right to revise the grade upward.

Red Admiral on dahlia6

That concludes my description of the varieties that earned A grades in my garden. In my next post, I’ll describe the varieties that didn’t perform quite as well for me, along with a couple of varieties from previous years that continue to do well.

Here’s hoping the new gardening season will bring us optimal growing conditions. We could all use a break from droughts and deluges.

 

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