Perennial Plant Transition

Over the last year I’ve experienced a subtle shift in interests and activities that has led to me blogging less and getting out and enjoying nature more. I still garden as much as ever, but just haven’t felt the need to share so many updates here. My organic kitchen garden is what it is and I still get produce and enjoyment from it in equal measures, but except for a couple of new-to-me crops I’m growing this year, there isn’t much to report. Instead I may be sharing more of my nature explorations, some of which I’m hoping will happen in my own urban perennial garden at an increasing rate.

When I discovered iNaturalist last year I had already been photographing the interesting flora, fauna, and fungi I’d encounter in my explorations. Having a place to share my finds, obtain or confirm identifications, and learn more about the organisms I encounter motivated me to spend even more time out looking around. As I began finding more and more flowering plants in shady habitats I started thinking about how I could incorporate them into the shady urban gardens around our home.

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Over the nearly thirty years I’ve been dragging the gardens back from the neglected wasteland they used to be I relied heavily on ferns and hostas to fill space and create some interesting contrasts in texture and color. At one point I had nearly ninety varieties of hosta, most of which are still going strong. Patches and specimens of native and exotic woodland plants, especially spring ephemerals round out the plantings and mostly provide flowers only early in the season. While they do attract pollinators, especially bumble bees, during their blooming period, hostas don’t produce a lot of flowers for the space they occupy. Since I’ve declared the garden a pollinator habitat I’ve been paying more attention to which plants bees and other insects are visiting in the woodlands and savannas in our area. The removal of some trees in a neighbor’s yard have opened up the canopy more so I’ve started experimenting with adding more floriferous and taller natives.

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I started slowly, first purchasing a single plant of a cultivar of Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium cv.) which did poorly at first because we were out of town when it really could have used some watering. Then I started seeing more about nursery plants being treated with neonicotinoid pesticides which, by design are harmful to insects. While the different interested parties go back and forth over the level of threat they pose in this application, I decided just growing my own plants from seed was probably the safest approach. I’ve had a full semester course in plant propagation and years of experience propagating my own plants by various methods, including from seed.

poke milkweed

The first species I wanted to try was Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) which I encountered dangling its clawlike flowers in the woods of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where I often walk. I purchased seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and sowed them shallowly in a single pot that I left outside over the winter to simulate natural conditions.

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I think nearly every seed germinated this spring and after they’d grown a few true leaves I transplanted them into individual pots. To keep them safe from the squirrels who sometimes dig in my plant pots I kept them inside the propagation cage I built from recovered deck wood. As they’ve grown and I’ve started pots of other species, I realized I was going to run out of squirrel-proof room so this weekend I took up another construction project.

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For years an unused trellis(?) has been laying behind the compost bins. It’s a simple frame of 2x2s with a layer of chicken wire that I realized would be a good size for another propagation box.

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I put together a wooden frame with a slatted bottom and hinged the trellis to the top for a lid to keep squirrels out but let the sun and rain in. I did find chipmunks can get through chicken wire but they rarely do and don’t do as much damage as the squirrels. It’s only 9” deep but that’s sufficient to get plants started and then they can be moved to the taller cage if they need to grow on more before transplanting.

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One of the next plants I would like to grow is Early Figwort (Scrofularia lanceolata) as it produces a lot of nectar for the size of its flowers. The specimen above was growing in an open prairie, but I’ve seen it in shadier edge conditions and believe it could thrive in my garden.

My list of seeds to obtain for this garden transition has been growing and I’ll be spending some time this summer deciding which species to focus on next. My goal is to have a long season of bloom with no interruption in nectar sources for the pollinators I’m fortunate to have visiting the small oasis I hope I’m creating for them.

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Do you consider pollinators when you select plants for your garden? I would appreciate hearing about your successes in the comments below, especially with native plants that grow in partial shade to shade.

Sorting the Sowing Schedule

The leeks are reaching up and ready for their first haircut—right on schedule!

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I’m trying something different this year with my garden planning. In the past I’ve used different schedules for starting seeds, transplanting, and sowing in sort of a mishmash blend. These are spread out on different calendars and tables from a variety of sources ranging from completely local to vaguely regional to purely theoretical. Recently I sat down with all this information and attempted to wrestle it into a simpler, more usable schedule specific to what I actually grow. The biggest source of inspiration is a chart I got from a local market farmer at a workshop on making a garden produce like a farm.

The most helpful thing I got from this chart is the scheduling of succession plantings. I’ve got a track record of planting an entire crop all at once, then having, for example, more lettuce than we can eat followed later by the dreaded lettuce lack. The farm’s chart shows numbered, regularly-timed sowings of crops in an easy to understand system. I used that system to transcribe all my different sources into one chart of my own that I’ll test out this year. Each week has a separate section for seed starting, transplanting and sowing. My intention is to make notes and adjust as I go along, if necessary. I might even make some notes of harvests just for reference. Next winter I can look it over for what worked and what didn’t, make the adjustments I need and apply it again the following growing season. For now, I’ve got thirty weeks of the year all planned out. Consulting the schedule it says it’s week 4 and time to sow the peppers!

Enlightenment of a Sort

As I write this the wind is howling and freezing rain is pelting the windowsills. Still, there has been enough decent weather recently that I’ve officially emerged from the “do nothing” months of winter and started tackling the larger projects I’ve been contemplating for months. So far this year I’ve managed to arrange a contractor to fix the front sidewalk, get married, make a dent in some of the junk purging, and start picking out the materials for a kitchen update. I’m anxious to get gardening now that I’ve got some forward momentum.

With a few dozen pots of plants to observe growing away under one of my new fluorescent fixtures something has occurred to me.

Under the Lights

I noticed the plants at the edges of the tray were leaning in toward the bulbs more than I’ve seen in past years. You can kind of see it in that pot of tomatoes to the right of the orangeish label. (Ignore the horribly leggy cilantro in the back, there. I started it on the windowsill and didn’t get it under lights soon enough.) It occurred to me that my previous light fixtures were quite a bit wider and the bulbs were spaced farther apart than in these new ones.

Light from Above

From above I can see they don’t even provide full coverage for the width of one flat when they’re low over it. I have another hanging parallel to this one and I was planning on placing flats perpendicular to them to get four under each pair of fixtures. Not sure what to do at this point. I wish I’d thought of that when I bought them. For now I’m just going to rotate the rows of pots within the tray. This is going to be a pain when the plants get larger and go into larger pots.

Indigo Apple and Amish Paste

In better news, the tomato plants are growing well enough that they may be getting potted up by next weekend. Here’s a fun comparison. On the left is ‘Indigo Apple’ and on the right is good old ‘Amish Paste.’ Indigo Apple has been bred to have high levels of anthocyanins and even the leaves are dark with a purplish tinge. The reviews of their performance and flavor are mixed but I thought they’d be something interesting to try this year.

Spinach

The official opening day of the community gardens was yesterday but I was up there a little over a week ago to check on things. Under the leaf mulch the overwintered spinach was looking excellent if a little muddy. I covered it up again because I knew this temporary return to wintry weather was coming.

Artsly Garlic

This week I visited again and found garlic poking up through the mulch. My favorite spring bulb! I couldn’t see what I was doing and the photo turned out blurry so I ran an artsy Photoshop filter on it. Edgy, huh? OK, I’m not an artist or a photographer but, hey, I was excited.

Seed Starting for the Poorly Prepared

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I shared any of my fascinating goings-on here. Believe me, I haven’t been just sitting around–much, at least. March is the month when I seem to emerge from the winter inertia along with the plants and critters outdoors.

American Flag Leek

Seed starting actually commenced weeks ago with the onions, shallots and leeks. Here are the American Flag leeks waving their seed coats up toward the shop lights. Today they got their first haircut.

In the time since the leeks and their ilk were sown I started a few other things as well. Then last weekend I got started on my favorites, the tomatoes and peppers. In the past my system was to sow a couple of seeds together in a tall, 2” pot. I have tons of these around from back when I grew Paphiopedilum orchids. If both of the seeds germinated I would just snip off the weaker one. If neither germinated I’d have wasted the space that barren pot was taking. This year I decided to sow multiple seeds in 4” pots and since they shouldn’t be in there too long and need a lot of root room, I cut the pots shorter for easy access. Or, at least I started doing that after I realized what a pain it is to get to seedlings in a pot as tall as they are. (See left-hand pot of leeks above.)

Early Jalapeno

Anyway, after potting up a few kinds of peppers as seen above, I realized I didn’t have nearly enough pots. Either I hid them very well from myself or I purged a little too aggressively last fall. As I was contemplating driving out to the garden center yet again, I was hit with a brainstorm…

Paper Pot

Paper pots! I quickly rolled and folded up a bunch and I was back in business.

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See how meticulously I placed the seeds in the potting mix? I also labeled the tags with the number planted in each pot.

Paper Pots in Use

Once the plants have reached the size where they can be transplanted I’ll move them up to individual 4” pots. Those will be plastic pots because they will be more durable for moving around under the lights and transporting out to the garden when they are ready. I’ll have plenty of time to get out to the garden center before then. I’d better start making a list.

In Which It Takes Me a Moment

Over at 2 Boys 1 Homestead, a blog I’ve recently started following, Ben mentioned a few days ago that he is considering growing a patch of lentils. I’ve wanted to try growing my own for a while so they have come and gone from the forefront of my attention over the years. This mention so soon after my call for nominations of fun new crops to grow in 2015 got me thinking about them again. I like lentils. There are a handful of recipes I turn to again and again when we’re having a Bollywood night that call for lentils. My main concern, apart from the question of whether they’ll even grow and mature here, is that their yield per given unit of area might be on the low side. Still, I moved them to the front of the line for trying this season. Then I thought where am I ever going to find seeds for them? Better start googling.

If you laughed at that last bit you’re faster than I am.

Sprouted Lentils

I have a bag of lentil seeds, a.k.a. lentils in the pantry! The only thing left was to test them to see if they will germinate. They did. They were also delicious. I’d forgotten how good lentil sprouts are.

It’s ironic it took me this long to think of lentils given that during my recent seed testing bout I tried everything I could think of from the spice cupboard including anise, cardamom and mustard but I never made it over to the pantry where the legumes live. Now that I know I’ve got some viable lentil seeds and that they’re a variety I like I’m closer to allocating a small area of the garden to giving them a go.

Shooting Toward Spring

A few weeks ago I started testing dozens of packets of seeds and was pleasantly surprised at the results. Most had high rates of germination including the ones most near and dear to me, the tomatoes. Another survivor, which came as no surprise, was the snap peas. Once the testing was over, I just couldn’t bring myself to discard the sprouted seeds so I potted them up. They’re a nice little bit of early gardening and when they’re a little larger I’ll enjoy adding their tender shoots to a salad.

Pea Shoots