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.

Naked Gardening

October is here and we’re turning our attention to scary orange things! Actually, this story goes all the way back to last year. At Halloween I like to save some seeds from the pumpkins I carve for the occasion. Like so many other people, I wash and roast them and then sit around peeling and eating them. As I did so one chilly autumn evening, I contemplated the pepitas one buys for Mexican cooking. They don’t have that hard, flavorless shell my pumpkin seeds have that need to be cracked and peeled before consuming. I occurred to me there must be some trick to doing them in volume economically. A machine maybe? I did a little searching on the Internet and discovered something even better: naked pumpkin seeds! Well, more properly, hulless pumpkin seeds. These are varieties that have bred away the hard seed coat to where it’s just a thin, soft membrane. I don’t know that these are what are grown make the pepitas at the store, but they sounded like such a good idea. Unfortunately, pumpkins are space-consuming crop to grow so I filed away this tidbit for when we have a bigger garden.

Then, as luck would have it, one of the bloggers I follow did a post about a hulless pumpkin aptly named ‘Lady Godiva.’ The author of My Food and Flowers is a Taiwanese gardener living in Canada who, apparently, grows absolutely everything in the world. When wrote about ‘Lady Godiva’ and I mentioned I wanted to grow this kind of pumpkin some day she kindly sent me some seeds.


I started them indoors in April and then set one out when the ground was nice and warm in the beds I had designated for squash and cucumbers. The vine grew pretty long, but I was able to weave it in and around other plants to accommodate it. By early September I had one nice pumpkin that was ready to pick.

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The dark seeds were easy to see through their thin, transparent shells.

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It was practically no work at all to rake the seeds out of the stringy flesh with my fingers. They came out nice and clean and only needed a rinse before roasting. There was about half a cup of seeds in this one pumpkin. I didn’t want to spend this precious bounty in a sauce where the flavor might not be as well appreciated so I opted for roasting them as a snack. I spread them out on a cookie sheet, sprinkled on some salt and left them in the oven until they started making popping noises. They’re delicious! Given how easy they are to grow and harvest, I would definitely plant these again in sufficient numbers for real cooking once we have the space.

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

Dear Peat, We’re Through

Dear Peat,

We’ve gardened together for years, and I appreciate all you brought to our joint endeavors, but I think it’s time we parted. I can’t kid myself that our relationship is sustainable any more so I’m moving on. I know we’ll be crossing paths if I buy some started plants at the farmers market or garden center, but I believe we can be adult about it and not make a scene.

Also, I feel I owe it to you to be up front about this. I’ve found someone else and we’re going to give it a try and see how it works out. You may have heard of Coco Coir. I picked her up at the garden center. We started some seeds together the same day. Yeah, I know that sounds kind of fast, but despite what’s going on outside, spring is going to come eventually and there’s no time to waste.

Take care of yourself and don’t feel bad. The world’s changing and you just don’t fit in my vision of it any more.

In other words, I’m just not comfortable buying peat-based mixes any more. So, in search of an alternative I’m giving coco coir a try. The coir came densely compressed in a brick wrapped in plastic. I broke it in half to fit it in the tub for soaking. It took up quite a bit of water. Wish I’d measured the volume difference before and after.

1 Soaking

Once it was thoroughly soaked I broke it up and fluffed it some. It nearly filled the container.

2 Fluffed

Just for the heck of it, I worked in some perlite I had laying around. The coir seemed kind of heavy and I thought the perlite might lighten it and improve drainage.

3 with Perlite

The final test was to sow some seeds. I picked out a few things to grow some microgreens and sowed them thickly on the coir. Step one, germination , was successful!

4 Seedlings

A month later I’ve got some nice lettuce…

5 Lettuce

…and some spinach. The seed coats stuck to the tips of a good number of the seed leaves. Any idea how to prevent this? I’m going to just have to pinch them off before harvesting.

7 Spinach

There are beets, too! Mostly golden but there’s obviously a red one in the mix. They suffer from the same persistent seed coat problem.

6 Beets

The biggest disappointment so far is the arugula. It’s small and chlorotic looking. I have fertilized it lightly but that doesn’t seem to have helped.

8 Arugula

I can’t blame the medium since the other greens are doing just fine. Besides, I can’t go back to peat. Not after all the things I said.

Testing Seeds

I’m in the process of testing some of my vegetable seeds to see if I should try planting them this year. Over time seeds lose their ability to germinate and grow. Some can be kept for surprisingly long by the average vegetable gardener and others konk out after only a year or two. I did some poking around online and found some general ranges for the number of years different kinds of seeds will keep:

Bean 2-4
Beet 3-6
Broccoli 3-5
Brussels sprouts 3-5
Cabbage 3-5
Carrot 2-4
Celeriac 3-5
Cauliflower 4-10
Celery 3-5
Chard 3-5
Chicory 4
Chinese cabbage 3
Collards 5-10
Corn, sweet 2-4
Cucumber 5-10
Eggplant 2-6
Endive 5-7
Fennel 4
Kale 4-5
Kohlrabi 3-5
Leek 1-3
Lettuce 2-6
Muskmelon 5-10
Mustard 4
Okra 2-4
Onion 1-2
Parsley 1-4
Parsnip 1-2
Pea 2-3
Pepper 2-4
Pumpkin 2-7
Radish 3-5
Rutabaga 4
Salsify 1
Spinach 1-5
Squash 2-7
Tomato 4-10
Turnip 4-5
Watermelon 4-5

These numbers were compiled from different sources and depend quite a bit on how the seeds have been stored. For gardeners without high tech storage facilities, cold, dry, dark storage is best.

I haven’t made a habit of testing seeds before this season but a couple of things inspired me to do so. First, two packets of carrot seeds I ordered last season failed to perform. The other seeds I got from the same company did just fine. The four-year-old carrot seeds I picked up from the "share shelf" at the community garden sprouted and grew like champs. Second, as I started doing my garden planning for 2013 I did a seed inventory and noticed I’ve got seeds as much as six years old.

Seed TestingTesting seeds is a simple process. Label a strip of paper towel with a pencil–ink runs–with  the name of the plant. Moisten the towel and scatter the seeds toward one end. Fold it over so the name shows and stack your little bundles in any container that will keep them from drying out. Plastic bags or boxes and glass jars work well. Check them periodically and note on the original seed packet when you tested them if they prove viable. Pitch the seeds that don’t sprout after a reasonable time. If you want to be even more methodical you could count out the seeds and record a percent germination for each variety.

These sprouts show that my ‘Amsterdam’ seasoning celery is still alive and that I can sow some this year with some confidence I won’t be wasting time and garden space on dead seeds.


The biggest surprise so far has been that the fava and scarlet runner beans I’ve had in a jar on the kitchen windowsill for over three years sprouted. That’s within the reasonable window of viability for beans, but they’ve been exposed to direct light, temperature and humidity variations and the horror of seeing their kin cooked and eaten. Once the couple of beans I tested sprouted I couldn’t throw them out so I potted them up instead. Any green growing thing is welcome this time of year.

FavaDo you save seeds from year to year? Have you ever tested them like this? I’m interested to hear about your experience in the comments.

Tommy Turns 18!

Here’s Tommy on his 18th birthday. It seems like just yesterday that I tucked his little seed into a little wad of ecologically-unsustainable peat but it really has been over two weeks, eighteen whole days. Just look how he’s growing! He’s even cut his first pair of true leaves.


Tommy is an heirloom cultivar—a portmanteau word from cultivated+variety—of tomato called San Marzano and has a long and distinguished history. The original San Marzano tomatoes were grown in Italy in the Eighteenth Century and have been prized since then for their flavor.  Since San Marzanos are heirlooms, it means they are open pollinated. A plant of this variety will pollinate itself and produce offspring that are the same as its parents. Hybrid garden plants can’t do this. Because of this, seed can be saved from year to year. In fact, Tommy was grown from seed I saved last year from a plant I got from a friend. With luck I’ll be able to save seed again this year and keep my own supply of this line going.

Here is where Tommy will eventually make his home. This is a view looking northeast.

It’s kid of hard to see the beds with the leaf mulch still in place, but in this view you can see that garden is now twelve beds,  each of which is approximately 8’x3’ in size.  The second and third bed from the grass path there in the far corner have been reserved for the tomatoes and peppers this year. I prepared them in advance by installing the support stakes and then seeding the ground with a cover crop of buckwheat. My hope is that the buckwheat will have time to grow and be cut back before tomato and pepper planting time. It will help loosen the soil and then provide mulch.

Until then, Tommy’s got a lot of growing up to do. I’ll keep you posted on his progress in the coming weeks.

Meet Tommy

I’d characterize March as the month that has the hardest time making up its mind. The weather changes quickly and even though it looked like this out the back door only a week and a half ago–

–today the temperature was in the lower sixties and crocuses and the early hellebores are blooming.  Curious as to how the vegetable garden was faring I took a walk and found some green poking up through the leaf mulch.


Spinach that survived all winter and is now sending out new growth


The French sorrel is unfurling red-tinged leaves.

The patch of alpine strawberries seems to have made it as well. I’ll need to divide and separate these early this season since I essentially unpotted the seedlings and stuck them in the ground as a clump last fall.


Only a few of the garlic plants have emerged so far. This one is ‘Music.’


The biggest surprise survivor is this battered Green Oakleaf lettuce.


Indoors the garden is off to a good start, too. I’ve been sowing seeds in the basement and the first batch is starting to germinate. Which brings me to Tommy.


At the Con-Conspirator’s suggestion we’ve christened this particular San Marzano tomato seedling Tommy. We’ll be following his progress through the season from the seed starting rack hopefully right to the table. Along the way we’ll share some interesting tidbits about gardening, canning, pickling and cooking. Tommy’s just a little sprout right now, but he’ll be all grown up almost before we notice.

Garden Planning

I suppose it’s time I got thinking about what to grow in the garden this year. It may only be the middle of January but with the way time flies when I’m having fun seed starting time will be here before I know it.


Last month I did an inventory of the seeds I have on hand with notes on quantity and age. Armed with a list of crops I’ve run out of and want to grow again as well as a wish list of new things I’d like to try I’ve been perusing the pile of seed catalogs. Some varieties are common to several sources and some are available at only one place. Clearly I’ll have to place more than one order, but I’ll check the local garden centers first, of course. I’m also anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook that should be mailed toward the end of this month. I joined SSE last year for several reasons including access to that catalog of nearly fourteen thousand varieties. My hope is that some of the more unusual vegetables I’ve been reading about in nineteenth century garden books might be available there. And in addition to those sources, my seed guru will be offering up some goodies.


The part of the planning I don’t relish is trying to figure out how to rotate crops. In order to avoid depleting specific soil nutrients and to confuse overwintering pests one should avoid planting things from the same family in the same spot for several years. I like to think of myself as organized but when I look around online and in books at the way some people garden I wonder if they’re putting me on. I see a lot of plans where each bed has been assigned a neat succession of plantings to take it through the season. There’s even a nifty program that will help you in planning rotations. I couldn’t use it because I just don’t garden that way. 


To the extent that I do plan, I try to avoid egregious mistakes like planting all the tomatoes in the same place two years in a row. This year, for example, in the half of the garden we’d newly acquired I planted the tomatoes where I was fairly sure the previous gardener didn’t plant hers. Good so far. But I had too  many plants for that area so three additional plants found homes in three different rows of beans. I managed to get my Brassicas in a bed that had been mostly Brassica-free in 2010, but when some plants croaked early on I decided to fill that spot with another pepper. See the picture? Instead of neatly grouping plants like in the idealized plans, I’ve got random, single plants tucked in here and there wherever the opportunity arises. I can look back on previous years’ plans—which are actually records of what went on, not what was anticipated—and try to place things in the best spots. But it becomes something of a puzzle.


Maybe I just won’t worry about it too much. I’ll use my records to keep from putting entire blocks of plants where their relatives have grown for at least a couple years. But there’s inevitably going to be some overlap. If nothing else, I can use that as an excuse if something doesn’t grow as well as it should.