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Seattle Fling 2011

Garden bloggers meet in Seattle in 2011

Fancy Foliage for the Ornamental Garden

 

Caladium 'White Christmas'

Caladium ‘White Christmas’

When people think of the ornamental garden their first thought is of flowers, but it is foliage that holds a garden together. Flowers on naked stems would not be as lovely as they are when surrounded by foliage, leaves of various shapes and in various shades of green ranging from almost white, to almost blue, to almost red, as well as deep green. We take foliage for granted, but it can be used to increase the interest of the garden and sometimes be a real show stopper.

Hostas are one of the most familiar and popular foliage plants. When on a garden tour ofSeattleand environs in 2011 I visited the amazing gardens of Michael Shadrack, author and hosta expert. In his garden the full range of hosta possibilities was on display, from the plant stand on his deck that held potted miniature hostas, to the lush beds of hostas where variegated, blue, green and chartreuse hostas mingled beneath the dappled shade of tall trees.

Shadrack explained that there are several reasons for the hostas popularity. They are easy to grow in fertile, moist-but-well-drained soil, many are hardy in our climate, they thrive in shade or part-shade and are fairly tolerant of short periods of drought or flood. They do produce flower stalks, but people usually do not grow them for the flowers. One caveat. Deer love hostas!

To illustrate the range of color and form we saw ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ that have tiny blue-green leaves. They grow in neat mounds eight inches tall and bloom in mid-summer. They grow well in containers as well as the garden. Other ‘blue’ hostas include the gigantic ‘Blue Angel,’ three feet tall and wide; and the medium sized blue ‘First Frost’ with gold margins that age to cream

An interesting 20 inch tall variegated hosta is ‘Remember Me’ which has golden centers with a green edge in spring, but changes over the season until the center is white with a narrow margin of blue green.

They grow so vigorously that hosta growers often have divisions to give away. Shadrack calls it a friendship plant because it is so easy to share.

Caladiums are another shade loving foliage plant. No flowers. This is a summer bulb that can be carried over during the winter, or you can just treat it like an annual. Last year I grew two large pots of red and green caladiums on either side of the Cottage Ornee door. I find it so hard to resist shades of red, but this year I am ordering ‘White Queen’ from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. The large leaves are mostly white with red veins. I think the white foliage will be more attractive and more eye catching in the Cottage’s shade.

‘Moonlight’ is the whitest of the Brent and Becky caladiums, but there are others with white speckles and veins, and others in shades of green and red or pink. Caladiums are really dramatic plants that are not hard to grow. If you grow caladiums, or any plant, in a pot make sure you water the pot every day during the summer. Pots, especially terra cotta pots, dry out very quickly in summer heat and breezes.

Heucherella 'Cracked Ice' courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Heucherella ‘Cracked Ice’ courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Heucherellas are a fairly new plant on the foliage scene. Heucherellas are a cross between heucheras, coral bells, and tiarella, foam flower. I like heucherellas because they have a more substantial flower than regular coral bells. Even though they do bloom, it is the colors and markings of the foliage that attract most people. And variety there is.

Most heucherellas prefer well drained, humusy soil and some shade, but others are quite tolerant of full sun.

‘Cracked Ice is a new variety this year with blue and green toned foliage with dramatic veining. In spring and fall there is a silvery pink overlay making it very difficult to describe this dark foliaged plant.

‘Sweet Tea’ has large rich reddish foliage that darkens in the summer but then becomes paler in the fall. It is about 20 inches tall, with a spread of 28 inches, and white flowers that bloom above the foliage in June and July,.

Another new entry is ‘Fire Frost’ whose yellow foliage has a frosted red center. This is a smaller plant, only 10 inches tall and with a spread of 18 inches. It will bloom from July into September.

For a very different form of foliage there is Hakonechloa, an 18 inch ornamental grass that bends  and sways gracefully. I think has a very oriental look about it. H. Aureola was the Perennial Plant Association Plant of the year in 2009. It has become very popular, and is a lovely edging in a shady bed.

Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ is this year’s Plant of the Year. This is another grass, but this switch grass variety is notable for its very upright five foot tall growth. It prefers sun, but can tolerate some light shade. The blue-green foliage turns golden in the fall.

Looking at the PPA Plant of the Year choice is always a good idea because they choose plants that are not only beautiful, but dependable in a wide variety of circumstances. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ chosen in 2012 has pretty forget-me-not flowers in spring, but it is the season long frosted foliage that makes it desirable.

What plants have you chosen because of their foliage?

Between the Rows   April 12, 2014

CSA – Community Supported Agriculture is for You

Winterfare Market February, 2012

For some people the initials CSA are just another of those annoying acronyms that can make our conversations sound like an unintelligible inter-office memo. For some CSA means Community Supported Agriculture which encompasses delicious local food, help for the farmer, and a community of like-minded folk who enjoy fresh food, and enjoy knowing they are supporting farmers and farms, and the very land and environment that surrounds us.

Small farmers never think they are going to get rich doing what they love. They only hope they won’t go broke after a bad season. In the 1980s a new idea came on the scene when the first community supported agriculture farms were first organized. The idea is that people would buy shares in the farm and its harvest at the beginning of the growing year, essentially sharing the risks the farmer would face over the course of the season. Would there be flooding rains? Drought? Would blight kill all the tomatoes? Mother Nature can throw all kinds of disasters at a farmer. CSA members are essentially buying the harvest as crops are planted and becoming a part of a community – a “we’re all in this together” community sharing the risk, the worry and the joys of the farm.

When I first became aware of Community Supported Agriculture some years ago, there were not many CSA farms or people buying shares. The organizational elements were fairly standard. An individual or family would buy a share in the spring, and then as the May and June harvest started coming in they would pick up their weekly boxed or bagged share of greens, beans, radishes and vegetables of every type in season. Because man does not live by carrot alone, many CSAs also included a bouquet of summer flowers.

Now there are many more CSAs in our area. I spoke with Phil Korman, Executive Director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) who said that in the three counties, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden, in 2009 there were about 4550 farm shares sold, but in 2012 that number had increased to about 7300 farm shares sold. Some of those shares were to people outside the three counties. The expectation is that the number has continued to increase but statistics are only collected every five years. Korman pointed out that those farm shares did not include winter shares which are now available.

In fact, there are now many more kinds of CSA shares that people can buy. In addition to the regular vegetable garden shares, there are shares for meat, fish, eggs, flowers, and grain.

The last few years have seen other changes in CSA distributions. Originally, a shareholder paid up, and then picked up that share weekly at the farm. Nowadays CSA shares can be delivered to various sites including schools, retirement communities, and work sites.CooleyDickinsonHospitalallows staff to pay for their share with a payroll deduction, and the share is delivered to the hospital.  Some people share a share with a neighbor

Hager’s Farm Market and Upinngill Farm sell vouchers. The Hager vouchers are dated for use throughout the season, but they can be used at the Market on Route 2 in Shelburne with the shareholder making his own choices, for produce or pies, eggs or yogurt. Upinngill’s vouchers are not dated. Several can be used at one time. In both cases, at the Hager Farm Market and the Upinngill farmstand, the vouchers provide for a discount, so you are saving money, as well as getting wonderful produce.

There are 15 CSA farms inFranklinCounty, inGreenfield, Montague, Gill, Leyden, Colrain,Sunderland, Ashfield, Whately, and Berndarston. Each CSA farm delivers its share one day a week. All of them are now signing up shareholders for the 2014 season.

Western Massachusettshas been “an incredibly receptive community” to desiring and buying local farm products Korman said. The first local, and now longest running CSA farm is Brookfield Farm inAmherst. The first Winterfare was created inGreenfieldby volunteers just a few years ago. Now farmers plant winter storage crops for the 30 winter farmers markets that are ongoing across the state. CISA was the first non-profit organization in the state and created the Local Hero marketing project.

Currently there are 55 Local Hero restaurants using local produce for a total of about $2 million a year. There are also 240 Local Hero farms. They sold between 2002 and 2007 $4.5 million worth of farm products, but that amount has now doubled to $9 million. Food coops account for $16 million in sales. Right now in the three counties between 10%-15% of our food is fresh local food, but CISA’s goal is to have 25% of our food grown and enjoyed locally.

I was shocked that we are eating so little local food, but Korman gently pointed out that the whole population ofFranklinCountyis only half the population of the city ofSpringfield. I can see that it will be a great day when everyone inSpringfieldgets 25% of their dinners from local farms. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone lives in our beautiful and fertile valley or near a hilltown farm where fresh food is available for a good part of the year.

It’s finally getting warmer. It’s time to think about fresh salads, grilled vegetables and corn on the cob. It’s time to think about the possibility of joining a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

You can find a full listing and information about local CSA farms on the CISA website. http://www.buylocalfood.org/buy-local/find-local/csa-farm-listing/

Between the Rows  April 5, 2014

Epimediums and Hellebores Thrive in Dry Shade

Epimedium ‘Rubrum’

Dry shade is a challenge in the garden, but epimediums and hellebores, two very different plants, both turn dry shade into an opportunity. For years I admired epimediums in other gardens, always asking the name of the beautiful low plant with heart shaped leaves. Sometimes I got no answer, but even when I did I was incapable of remembering the word epimedium. I finally saw a pot of this plant at the Blue Meadow nursery in Montague and, out of the several varieties there, each with a nice little name tag, I bought Epimedium ‘Rubrum.’ I chose this because it was listed as the most hardy. Even then I was afraid Heath was too cold, but a friend who was working there that day just shrugged and told me to give it a try.

“Give it a try,” is always good advice. A plant in a pot is not much of a financial investment, and we all must learn to endure disappointments and failed experiments if we are to have a happy life.

Epimedium ‘Rubrum’ has thrived in my garden, planted beneath a ginkgo tree which provides shade for part of the day. I love the heart-shaped green leaves with their reddish border. The tiny pink flowers were a bit of a surprise. I had never actually seen an epimedium in early spring when it blooms. The delicate little flowers are best seen at eye level which means not only down on hands and knees, but maybe even down on your stomach, chin in hands, to admire them at leisure.

I have given away bits of E. ‘Rubrum’ to friends, assuring them that this easy care plant will increase at a stately rate. It is not invasive. It is a native ofAsia, but adapted to a well behaved life in Zones 3 to 9, depending on the variety. I later learned that there are some very hardy varieties.

Epimedium ‘Sulphureum’

And there is variety. I bought my second epimedium, E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum,’ at the Bridge of Flowers plant sale a couple of years ago. The yellow flowers at the end of wiry stems are slightly larger so it is easier to see why epimediums are sometimes called bishop’s hats and fairy wings. It is less easy to see how anyone came to call it horny goat weed or rowdy lamb herb. Perhaps goats and lambs find it intoxicating, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Now I have two varieties of epimedium, but if you look at the Garden Vision  or Plant Delights catalogs you will see dozens of epimediums in many shades of lavender, purple, red, pink, white, orange and yellow. The flowers take many forms, including some that almost look like spiders, and the foliage varies as well. Not all the varieties have heart-shaped leaves, some are spiky and some are mottled.

Epimediums require very little care. The dying foliage should be cut down in the fall to clear the way for early spring growth.

Garden Vision nursery is located in Phillipston, Massachusetts. They open their nursery to viewing and sales the first two weekends in May.

Hellebores are another early bloomer that doesn’t mind dry shade. Right here I should say that any new plant should be kept adequately watered while it is settling in the first year, giving it time to let its roots grow enough to support the plant even when it is dry.

The term shade has many shades. Pun intended. There is dense shade like that under evergreens, there is high shade, a much weaker shade created by trees whose foliage begins up high, and dappled shade that dances dark and light. There is summer shade that is created when trees are fully leafed out, and the early spring sun can no longer shine through bare branches in the same way. But remember, some sun is usually needed for any flowering plant to actually bloom.

The BridgeofFlowershas a few hellebores, otherwise known as Christmas or Lenten roses because they bloom early in the spring. I always think of them as having blossoms in shades of green, but some bloom in shades of white, pink and deep red. On the Bridge they get a lot of sun which shows you how tolerant they are of differing conditions. They can survive in the shade, but they need some sun to bloom well.

Hellebores have deep roots and they do not need dividing the way most perennials do. This means they should be planted in a soil deeply dug and well enriched with compost and aged manure.

They are quite trouble free, and have a long bloom period. The dead flower stems should be cut back after blooming, and the dying foliage can be cut down in the late fall.

Last year I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museumfor the opening of the newly designed and planted Monk’s Garden. This small area is now a serene woodland underplanted with many hellebores as well as other groundcovers. Michael Van Valkenburg, the designer, said the place would be ‘crazy with hellebores” in the spring. I am planning to make another trip this spring and admire the craziness.

In the meantime I’m waiting for the snow to leave so I can see my epimedium shoots, and wonder where I might plant a hellebore.

Between the Rows   March 29, 2014

 

Five Plant Gardens by Nancy Ondra

 

Five Plant Gardens by Nancy Ondra

Nancy Ondra has been gardening for over 20 years and she has ten books to show for it and  Five Plant Gardens: 52 ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants (Storey Publishing $18.95) is her latest. This book has something for everyone, but it takes garden design to a new level of ease and understanding for the novice gardener.

Even an inexperienced flower gardener understands pretty quickly that you put tall plants in back of the short plants. Then what? Ondra actually has more than 52 ways to design a garden because she suggests alternates for each of the five plants in a garden, and suggests that you can build out from the five plant garden. By treating a five plant arrangement as a building block you can plan long borders along a path, around a deck or patio, or half moon plantings by a doorway or around a lamppost. It will not take long for even a new gardener to find places to install one of Ondra’s gardens.

Before she gets into general gardening advice Ondra explains why she chose Five Plants. “It’s enough variety to give you a good mix of flowers and foliage, heights and shapes, and seasons of interest, but not so much that the collection looks like a jumbled mess. It’s also a manageable number of new plants to learn about at one time, as well as a limited amount of money to spend.” How understand and practical she is.

I have been gardening in Heath for over 30 years, and I still found good advice in this book. Even those of us who have been playing in the garden for many years trot off to a nursery or plant sale and are quickly seduced by plants we never thought of before. When we get home we often just stick them wherever we might have a bare spot and have to think all over again about height, shape, texture and bloom time. For most of us, practicing interesting and attractive garden design is an ongoing process.

Ondra’s book is first divided into two parts, sunny gardens and then shady gardens. Within each section are 25 five plant combinations, but with some alternate plants in case you want to provide a little more variety when you are extending the original plan. For example, theWelcomeSpringGardenappeals to me because I am so hungry for flowers after our long winters. The five suggestions are Jacob’s ladder with its tall lacy foliage and clusters of blue flowers, deep blue Caesar’s Brother Siberian iris, ‘Corbett’ a yellow wild columbine and a striped bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum) and ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow.’ I was pleased that Ondra gave a warning about the vigor of ajuga. Ajuga is wonderful because it so quickly covers a lot of ground but it is so vigorous that it is difficult to contain. I don’t mind the ajuga that has invaded a section of my lawn because I am no devotee of fine turf, but it is good to be warned.

I think it is good to have early spring flowers right near the house where they will be a comfort and be admired while going out and coming home as the days warm. Alternates are the wonderful blue anchusa, or ‘Telham Beauty’ campanula, almost any other Siberian iris or a foxglove, and any columbine would also be pretty, as would dianthus.

Ondra is only addressing perennials in this book, but after working on ourBridgeofFlowersI have learned that it takes annuals to keep a small garden like this in bloom for the whole season. Ondra’s spring choices bloom early, but you might like to think about adding a few annuals once the season warms up. She notes how many of each perennial to put in her five plant scheme, but perennials are not always large when you buy them. You can add pansies or violas to boost that early spring bloom, and as the season progresses you can add other annuals taking your color cue from Ondra’s plan.

Ondra is known for her passion for foliage, and this  is especially evident in her plans for the shade or partial shade garden. She describes a lovely array of ferns, hostas, grasses and ground covers like European ginger with its shiny leathery leaves. She also notes which flowers will attract humming birds or wild pollinators.

Nancy Ondra is an encouraging writer. Her 2009 book, the Perennial Care Manual, is still an important resource for me whenever I need to check if a plant I have impulsively bought should be planted in sun or shade, whether it will tolerate a damp spot, or a very dry spot. I know how often I have told a friend that the secret to a successful garden is putting the right plant in the right spot. I know this is true, but I sometimes forget the specifics for a given plant and I’m glad to have this book with it full advice for the care of over a hundred popular plants.

I think spring will arrive in a rush, as usual, and this book will be a big help to the new and experienced gardener.

Between the Rows   March 15, 2014

How Tea Changed the World

 

Chinese tea for two

I never imagined that tea changed the world. In my world, tea was served endlessly in the English novels I love, but tea did not become a regular part of my life until I met Elsa Bakalar in 1980. With Elsa I could imagine myself living in one of those English village novels where tea was served up with gossip, or to survive shock with milk and sugar. Now I have a collection of tea pots – and a collection of teas – black,China, green, white and Indian. Tea has changed my world, but how could it be that tea changed the whole world?

While weeding out my bookshelves, to make room for new books, I found a nearly forgotten volume, Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Changed the World by Henry Hobhouse. Hobhouse explains how quinine, a cure for malaria, opened Asia and Africa to colonial expansion, and allowed the population ofIndiato increase sevenfold. With sugar came slavery. Cotton also fueled the growth of slavery, but also, our Civil War, and what the poet William Blake called the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the textile industry inEngland. Those mills brought no prosperity to the workers. The potato brought an explosion of population toIreland, then a famine and great immigration to theUnited States.

And then there is tea. It could be said that tea, or at least the tea tax, was the beginning of our revolutionary war. The Boston Tea Party was held in December of 1773. In fact the Declaration of Independence specifically mentions King George’s “tyrannical acts” which include the tax on tea.

But tea was changing the world long before the 18th century. The Chinese were drinking an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves as early as 2737 BCE. According to legend, the mythical hero Shen Nong, brought agriculture to the Chinese people so they would not starve. He also brought them knowledge of medicinal plants including tea.  When one thinks about how tea drinking traveled around the world it is good to remember that water supplies throughout the ages were not always dependably clean. Boiled water is necessary for tea making, so it is a dependably healthy drink.

The English were great drinkers of tea beginning in the late seventeenth century. However, the Chinese were not terribly interested in selling their tea, and certainly not for the paper money the East India Company offered. They wanted copper, silver and gold.

As the demand grew for tea, the East India Company found an answer in another plant (not one of Hobson’s five), the poppy which grew inIndia. Opium had been banned inChina, but through a circuitous sales route and smugglers, the East India Company earned the hard currency that the Chinese demanded. This ultimately resulted in the two Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60. The Chinese lost.

Tea production has spread over the years. The British brought tea cultivation toIndia. The wild tea growing there was not C. sinensis, but C. Assamica. Today if you buy tea from a big importer like the Upton Tea Company you will see teas organized by China teas and Assam teas. I am reminded of all the times the grande dame in my English novels asks her guest “China or Indian?” as she sits with her tea pots, ready to pour.

They Upton Tea Company offers 480 types of tea, black, green, white, oolong and Pu-erh. The differences are in the way it is processed. Black teas are harvested and oxidized to change the color, flavor and chemical composition of the tea leaves. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, and green teas are not oxidized at all. A cup of Chinese green tea is probably the same cup of tea the mythical Shen Nong might have brewed up for himself. Pu-erh teas fromYunnan province inChina are doubly oxidized and have a strong flavor. It is sometimes sold in brick shaped blocks instead of as loose leaves.

Tea requires a wet and warm climate, a deep rich soil with lots of humus, and a pH between 5–5.5 which explains why it is grown in Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, the Philippines and parts of Africa, and Latin America as well as India and China. Another element that is needed is cheap labor to harvest the ‘tiny little tea laves’ by hand.

We visited our daughter Betsy in Kenya where she was serving in the Peace Corps in 1989 and made a tourist trip to Mrs. Mitchell’s tea farm. The 80 year old Mrs. Mitchell (she was celebrating her birthday when we visited) was definitely a grande dame. As a young man her father had been one of the first to start a tea plantation in Kenya. She had a spiel to give and did not welcome questions, but she said the interest in mechanizing the tea harvest was a very bad idea because it would put the tea pickers out of work, and un-employment in Kenya was already very high.

During our time in China we became aware of the gourmet aspects of the various teas, but we were more familiar with the Nescafe jars that workers carried with them all day. They put in their tea leaves in the morning and then kept refilling the jar as they drank it and as the opportunity for more boiling water presented itself.

Tea has a long and colorful history. When I have my afternoon cuppa I join with the witty British cleric Sydney Smith (1771-1845) in saying “I am so glad I was not born before tea!

Between the Rows   March 8, 2014

Cabbage – Here and There – Beijing

 

Chinese cabbage in Beijing

Cabbage. Such an ordinary vegetable. We don’t give it much thought. We shred it into a salad, dress it into coleslaw, or boil it up with corned beef, but there are many types of cabbage in the world, and many ways of serving it up. Think of corned beef and cabbage!

            I began thinking about cabbage this week when, while sorting through some old photographs, my husband and I found a few shots of the ai guo bai cai harvest in Beijing in the fall of 1989. I had been working at Women of China Magazine since April, but every day still brought new understandings of daily life. That was a time before ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ took hold. At that time the government controlled the farms, the stores, workplaces and housing. In 1989 there was a huge cabbage crop. What is grown must be eaten – or at least sold. Therefore the government decreed that every household must buy 40 kilograms (more than 80 pounds) of bai cai, Chinese cabbage to us.

            Trucks brought the cabbage into the city from outlying farms. Then blue-suited white capped workers, often women, unloaded the cabbage on street corners, and in front of the state stores. Every night the TV news talked about the sale of ai guo bai cai, literally ‘love country’ cabbage, or patriotic cabbage.

Chinese cabbage Courtesy National Garden Bureau

            Chinese cabbage, as most of us know, is not like the hard green heads that keep well, and are so familiar in sauerkraut and coleslaw. Chinese cabbage has looser, more elongated heads. It is not a cabbage that Chinese workers enjoyed stacking up in the hallways of their cold Beijing apartments. Nor did they enjoy eating their way through all that cabbage. I should note at this point that Beijing is a desert city. It is very dry. Also, Chinese apartments at the time were very cold in the winter. Even though these cabbages are not the storage cabbages that we are familiar with, they kept fairly well. The outer leaves would dry out and protect the inner leaves. They would be removed when it was time to prepare the fresh inner leaves for cooking.

            On the rare occasions when I worked a full day in the office with my colleagues I got to see the lunches that were provided by the work unit canteen. Workers brought their own metal bowls which they carried downstairs to be filled with a big helping of rice topped with some vegetable. That fall the rice was topped watery cabbage. This sort of meal was not considered suitable for a foreigner, so I was sent down the street to eat at the newly opened McDonalds.

            Barrel headed Chinese cabbage and other asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi have become more popular and more common in the U.S. since we were in Beijing so long ago. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and the Kitazawa Seed Company offer a range of Chinese cabbage and other asian greens.

Cabbage courtesy National Garden Bureau

            All cabbages, Chinese and American, are cool weather crops. You can plant early in the spring for summer eating, and a mid-summer crop for fall storage. They are all heavy feeders and need a fertile, humusy soil with a pH of pH 6.5 to 7. Regular even waterings are essential for good cabbage development. Cabbages are susceptible to club root and bacterial soft root disease, soil borne diseases. This means you should rotate your cabbage beds with non-brassicas, in a five or six year rotation. Also look for disease resistant seeds. Bilko, a 12 inch tall, dark green Chinese cabbage from Johnny’s is resistant to both club root and fusarium yellows.

            You are more likely to find cabbage starts of the more familiar greed and red cabbages at garden centers in the spring, but seeds are available for many asian greens that can be ready to harvest in as little as three weeks.

            The Kitizawa catalog lists 21 varieties of pak choi. Some have the typical dark green leaves with crisp white stems., other have reddish, or yellow-green leaves. They have a slight mustardy flavor and are used in many Chinese dishes from soup to noodle dishes to stir-fries. The Chinese also pickle the coarser leaves. Pickling is an important and traditional method of food preservation in China.

            We are very aware of the changes in China since we were there, but at the time it was unheard of for vegetables to be eaten raw. We assume this was a cultural habit because the Chinese traditionally used ‘night soil’ or cleanings from outhouses and such as fertilizer on farms. Even in 1989 we occasionally saw a man on a bicycle hauling his ‘honey pots’ filled with night soil from the city out to the nearby farms.

            Locally, we can buy asian greens like mizuna, tatsoi, and komatsuna which are often used in salad mixes, but can also be grown for another couple of weeks for cooking. Pak choi seeds are including in the Botanical Interests Seeds Savory Mix of microgreens that I have growing in our guest room. More on that another day.

            Cabbage is a nutritious vegetable that provides a big helping of vitamins, minerals and fiber. I cannot speak to the value of the cabbage boiled up the way I saw it served from the Women of China canteen, but I can say that growing cabbage, Chinese or American, and gently cooking it will give us all a big nutritional boost.

Between the Rows           February 15, 2014

In the Pink at the Lyman Plant House, Smith College

In the Pink at Lyman Plant House

Banish the winter blues and get In the Pink at the Annual Bulb show at the Smith College Lyman Plant House. This annual show, always fabulous, is running from now until Sunday, March 16.

It is no surprise to me that the powers that be would choose In the Pink as the theme for this year’s show. I love pink, as anyone who strolls down the Rose Walk can attest.  But there is something spring-like about all shades of pink from the most delicate aqueous shell pink to vibrant pinks, all of which find their most perfect expression in flowers.

Walking into the Lyman Plant House rooms that are perfumed with the fragrance of an early spring, it is hard to imagine all the planning and work required on the part of the greenhouse staff. I once asked Rob Nicholson, Manager of the greenhouse what it took to open the Bulb Show on the assigned date. His reply was succinct, “Patience and careful monitoring of temperature.”  That almost sounds easy.

Of course, there is work to do in the greenhouse all year to keep this wide array of plants from the tropical jungle to the arid desert in good health. I asked if they had to use a lot of pesticides and things to keep the plants in good shape.

“Of course, we’d prefer never to use pesticides, but when a collection of rare and exotic plants is kept in an enclosed greenhouse it sets up a situation where the plants inevitably are infested since they are not in a complex ecosystem where there are checks and balances. When we need to use pesticides we tend to use very mild ones that break down very quickly as we have to be able to allow visitors in the next morning. Pesticides are rated with an REI (re-entry interval) that dictates how soon humans are allowed back into the space so we are limited to those with REIs of 4-12 hours. Then I try to use ‘biologicals’ which are geared to disrupt insect metabolism such as molting cycles, rather than the old style neurotoxin types. We also use insecticidal soaps . . . which suffocated the insect pest. I find the pesticide laws are pretty inconsistent as any consumer can go to any box store and buy materials more dangerous than what we use, and misuse them,” Nicholson said.

I asked if they used neonicotinoids, nicotine based chemicals that have become controversial and are in so many pesticides. He said “The neonics we used were systemic. Granular material is applied to the soil, dissolves and gets absorbed into the plants. They have a long term effect. They were very low toxicity to humans, easy to apply, and worked well to keep our mums clean of mealy bugs.”

However, he added, “There is a lot of concern about this class of pesticides contributing to collapse of beehives. The European Union banned them last year. . . .the pesticide gets into pollen, bees collect the pollen and bring it back to the hive and taint it. As our Chrysanthemum Show in November can attract a large number of bees if the weather conditions are right (and greenhouse vents are open) we felt we could no longer use these on flowering plants that could draw in outside bees.”

Nicholson expressed his concern about the importance of protecting bees which are so vital to our food system. “. . .our country needs to take a hard look at this class of pesticides, do the proper research and then act accordingly.”

Nicholson feels strongly that we all need to be informed consumers, buy as little of any pesticide as possible, and follow instructions to the letter. All pesticides should be stored under lock and key. “As a toddler I drank pesticide stored in a Planter’s Peanuts can in my neighbor’s garage. It almost killed me,” he said. Then he reiterated the necessity to educate ourselves about “a very complex subject and industry,” especially since there are so many pesticides available that are not dangerous to the bees or to our children.

Recently there has been research that suggests acetamiprid and imidacloprid, the two most dangerous chemicals in the neonicotinoids, may cause damage to young children’s brain development. Because I have young children on my lawns from time to time I would never knowingly use products that contain neonicotinoids. That means I wouldn’t dare use common pesticides like Ortho Flower Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer or Knockout Ready to Use Grub Killer which are only two of the many products that contain acetamiprid or imidacloprid. Further information about which products contain these chemicals are on the Xerces Society website,

The purpose of the Xerces Society is to protect invertebrates like bees, butterflies and many other creatures including mussels and crabs. I take Rob Nicholson’s advice to do my research seriously. Education is key, for all of us, and the Xerces Society is one place to start. Of course, I believe that using pesticides on the lawn is totally unnecessary, and agree with Nicholson that there are many safer products to use on plants.

To feel In the Pink, (March 1-16) the Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2. You still have a week to get there.  Talcott Greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College is also hosting a spring bulb show for the next week, through March 16.  Hours 10am – 4 pm.

Between the Rows  March 1, 2014

 

Microgreens for Nutrition and Fun

Microgreens on my windowsill, Savory Mix and pea shoots

What are microgreens?  You can find microgreen seed mixes in the seed racks. You can find ‘baby’ greens mixed in with salad mixes at the supermarket. Why are these tiny greens becoming more and more popular?

The term microgreen is fairly self-explanatory. Microgreens are lettuces, spinach and other green vegetables that are harvested when they are about two weeks old, and hardly more than an inch or two tall. This makes them ideal for winter growing in the house.

But the appeal goes beyond the pleasure of multiple harvests over the course of the winter season. Recent research shows that microgreens are amazingly nutritious. Qin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR), and graduate student Zhenlei Xiao of the AGNR Department of Nutrition and Food Science participated in a study “which looked at nutrients like Vitamin C, E, K and beta carotene found in 25 different types of microgreens including cilantro, celery, red cabbage, green basil and arugula. . . Their research ultimately discovered that the microgreens contained four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts.”

That is a lot of nutrition for a tiny plant! Microgreens have been used as garnishes in upscale restaurants for some years, but all of us can enjoy them for mere pennies.

It takes very little to set up a microgreens project, and would certainly be fun if you have children in the house. I bought all my equipment at the Greenfield Farmer’s Cooperative Exchange, and aside from seeds, I spent about $10.  I bought two 10×21 inch black plastic trays, and six 5×7 plastic planting boxes with drainage holes, and a bag of soilless seed starting mix. You can lower your cost if you have any plastic salad containers from the supermarket. These will need to have drainage holes punched in the bottom.

Put at least two inches of dampened seed starting mix in your planting box. Tamp it down so the surface is fairly flat. Then sprinkle with seeds. You do not need to plant in rows and since these seedlings will be harvested when they are tiny they can be planted thickly. Someone made the analogy that because these germinating seeds don’t need nutrition from the soil, they are just like day old chicks that are still getting all their nutrition from the egg yolk that is absorbed before they hatch.

Then sprinkle a bit of seed starting mix over the seeds and tamp down lightly again. I prefer not to water from above. I put the planting trays in the larger trays and pour water into the larger tray so that it covers the bottom. The water is then absorbed gently into the planting trays by osmosis. I’ve put my trays on a card table by a big south window in my cold guest room. I used a heat mat below the trays, but this is not necessary, although germination will be slightly slower.

I planted my first three little trays on February 2. Two were planted with a savory mix (beets, swiss chard, radishes, mustard, cress, cabbage, mustard, pak choi and kohlrabi) of microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests, and one was planted only with pea seeds. I took my first harvest of microgreens on February 14, cutting all the microgreens in one box into a Valentines’s Day salad. On February 17 I harvested the single box of pea shoots and added them to another salad. A new harvest every night since then. My only tool was a scissors to cut the seedlings down.

Because the microgreens aren’t getting any nutrition from the soilless mix, you can replant right in the same planting box, by sprinkling more seed and then covering them with a bit more of the seed starting mix. This is the way you can keep the microgreens growing and being harvested until you are ready to start planting vegetables outside.

This is a great way to use up leftover seeds. My collection of leftovers includes lettuces, radishes, beets, cilantro, basil, cabbage and spinach. Even if they are not as viable as they were you have nothing to lose.

You can continue to plant and harvest microgreens outdoors when the weather warms up. You just need to remember to keep them watered.

This is a great gardening project for children. It does not require a lot of skill. Set up mess can be contained on a few sheets of newspaper. Numerous lessons can be found in seed starting. You can begin with vocabulary. As children notice that the seedlings are always trying to lean towards the sun you can teach them about heliotropism, which is the growth of a plant towards the sun. Anyone who has grown plants on the windowsill has noticed that the plant leaves will always come to lean towards the sun, and need to be turned regularly to have an even appearance. This is particularly noticeable and rapid in seedlings which makes them a good example.

Then you can talk about the first part of that word helio or Helios which is the name of the Greek sun god. I hope you have a nice picture book of Greek myths in the house because so many of our words have an origin and history in those ancient stories – narcissus, echo, cereal, crocus, daphne and iris. Children love stories of gods, goddesses and magical creatures. So do I!

Between the Rows     February 22, 2014

 

New Vegetables for 2014

Artisan tomato collection
courtesy Johnnys Selected Seeds

What’s new in vegetables? What a question. While I am not aware of any completely new species of vegetables, there are always new varieties which at least purport to be better, have shorter or longer growing season, more disease resistance, be smaller for container growing, larger for those who enjoy the thrill of giant vegetable growing, more flavorful for demanding cooks or more nutritious for the ever more health conscious.

Every seed catalog begins with a page or two of new varieties being introduced for the first time – at least for that seed company. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is one of my favorite companies. This year they are offering Artisan Tomatoes ™, a new family of tomatoes that have been bred for the specialty market. They are small, pretty tomatoes with good flavor. Artisan Pink Tiger, Green Tiger and Blush Tiger get their name from the tiger stripings on the skin. Because a mix of these pretty tomatoes is part of the appeal, you can also buy a packet of Artisan ™ Tiger Mix. There is also Purple Bumble Bee and Pink Bumble Bee which are round cherry tomatoes. Double pleasure is available in the Artisan ™ Mix which gives you all the Tigers and Bumble Bees. These seeds are also available at Totally Tomatoes.

Burpee Seeds is looking at tomatoes in a different way. They are offering a new Beefsteak Hybrid that promises to produce three pound tomatoes with heirloom flavor. Like the little Artisan ™ tomatoes these are indeterminate, which means the tomato vine will keep growing and growing, up to 12 feet, setting fruit until frost. Determinate tomatoes are more compact and will grow to about four feet, don’t need much staking. Determinate tomatoes will all ripen pretty much at once, within two weeks.

Burpee is also introducing Pick-a-Bushel semi-bush hybrid cucumber that can be grown in containers. Each plant will produce 10-20 small cukes. Pick-a-Bushel is a 2014 AAS Regional winner, and is a disease resistant variety.

Speaking of AAS, or the All-America Seed Selections, which have tested seeds for dependability and desirability over a wide range of conditions, I was attracted by the bush bean Mascotte. It has bushy upright growth, and its compact size makes it suitable for container growing. The fine pods are long and straight, and disease resistant. I love green beans, and wax beans, too. More and more people are determined to grow a few vegetables for their dinners, even if they have to grow them in a pot on the deck.

Pepper Mama Mia Giallo is another AAS national winner. This elongated yellow sweet pepper has compact growth and resistance to tobacco mosaic. I have never grown peppers, but these ripen in a (relatively) short period, 125 days. They can be started indoors and then moved out to the garden in 5-6 weeks. My Front Garden, right in front of the house, faces south and is protected from the wind. I believe in global disruption more than global warming as far as the garden is concerned, but this might be the place and time to try peppers. Watch for the AAS logo on seed packets when you go shopping.

Hakurei turnips are not new at all, but they were new to me last year and now I plan to grow them every year. These little round white turnips look a lot like radishes and they can be used raw in salads like radishes. This is how I have eaten them, but they can also be cooked up quickly with their greens and eaten hot. I like them because they can be planted early in the spring and late in the summer, harvesting them in 30 days when young or in 40-50 days when mature and about 2 inches in diameter. They resist frost and when a floating row cover is used they are also protected from flea beetles and root maggots. These sweet and spicy delights are for eating fresh. They are not suitable for storage.

If you can’t wait to start gardening you can get a jump on the season by planting microgreens indoors. Microgreens are not only ready for harvest in 14 days, recent research shows that these tiny plants are a powerhouse of vitamins. Twenty-five microgreens were tested by the USDA at the University of Maryland. Results showed that almost all had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. I planted a Savory mix from Botanical Interests which includes beets, swiss chard, radishes, mustard, cabbage and kohlrabi seeds. I also planted a flat of pea seeds and plan to harvest the pea shoots for my salads as well. Several companies are offering similar mixes, or you can just use some of the seeds you plan to plant outdoors.

To grow my microgreens I used little planting flats and watering trays, and seed starting mix.  You can also use plastic containers that mushrooms and other vegetables come in, but put drainage holes in the bottom. My microgreens are not ready for their closeup yet, but keep watching.

Whether you are trying a new variety of vegetable that has just come on the market, or a vegetable variety that is new to you, it is time to make some decisions, because it will not be too long before you can start planting those seeds indoors. 

 Between the Rows   February 8, 2014

New Flowers for 2014

Achillea ‘King Edward’

 

Is it too early to talk about new flowers for 2014?  NO! By tomorrow afternoon Punxatawny Phil will have told us whether we can count on an early spring. I have heard a rumor that he may very well do so.  Maybe. I already know that it is still light at 5:30  in the evening. Spring seems like a real possibility and it is time to pay serious attention to the plant catalogs piling up since before Christmas.

            Everyone has favorite seeds and plants, but this week I will talk about what’s NEW! in the flower garden and next week I’ll talk about what is NEW! in the edible garden.

             Bluestone Perennials is offering a new Achillea (yarrow) named ‘King Edward.’ This unusual yarrow is only six inches tall with pale daisy-like flowers. It makes a spreading groundcover in a sunny site and is suitable for rock gardens. Considering the dry recent summers it is good to know this is heat and drought resistant. 

I was also taken by the tall Astilbe ‘Purple Candles.’ I prefer the taller astilbes and this is three to four feet tall with decidedly purple spikes of bloom and bronzy foliage. It is hardy, likes some shade, is tolerant of a wet site, and does not appeal to deer. It blooms a bit later than most other astilbes which is another benefit. Astilbes are beautiful and easy – at any height and in any color.

 

Astilbe ‘Purple Candles’

Plant Delights Nursery is offering Brunnera ‘Alexander’s Great’ for the first time this year. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ has become more and more popular because of its silvery leaves, delicate early spring blue flowers and its willingness to bloom in the shade. ‘Alexander’s Great’ is similar but bigger, filling containers and making a dramatic accent in shady borders. A good, humusy soil and adequate water will make this stunner thrive.

Echinaceas, cone flowers, used to be only a purply-pink or white. Now they come in a whole array of colors from deep red ‘Hot Lava” to white ‘Vanilla Cupcake’ with its high center cone. “Aloha’ has soft melony-orange petals around an orange cone, as well as fragrance. It is wonderful that this hardy, drought resistant, deer resistant, butterfly attractor now comes in so many colors and forms.

Heucherella ‘Dayglow Pink’ isn’t really brand new, but I cannot resist including a lovely plant with delicately branched pink flowers held 16 inches above green foliage with dark markings. Heucherellas are a cross between heucheras or coral bells, and tiarella, or foam flower. The flowers owe a lot to their foamy tiarella lineage. They bloom in June and July, in full sun or part shade.

 

Double TAke Orange Storm Quince courtesy Proven Winners

Quince ‘Scarlet Storm’ is a small shrub, not a perennial, but because it is small, three to four feet tall with an equal spread, and thornless it would work very well in a border providing rich early spring bloom. The double red blossoms resemble a camellia, which I think makes it special. And don’t forget, no thorns.

Annuals are vital to keeping a garden in bloom all season. Perennials have their own bloom season of three to six weeks, but annuals bloom until frost, and you can buy them as starts at the garden center.

I love Renee’s Seeds and this year she has a new nasturtium mix, ‘Aloha Mix’ that gives you a whole range of pinks and yellow blossoms in one seed envelope. I have been planting nasturtiums as a transition between the vegetables in my early Front Garden, and the Daylily Bank. The ‘Aloha Mix’ will echo the shades of many of my daylilies. In addition, the leaves and flowers are both edible, and they attract pollinators.

Renee is also very aware that many people have limited space to garden, but still need to keep their hands in the dirt. She offers numerous plants that do well in containers. Her ‘Junior’ sunflower is a pollen-free, dwarf branching sunflower which makes any large container into a super bouquet. Flower stalks are about two and a half feet tall. On the other hand, if you have room she suggests ‘Sunzilla’ a sunflower variety that can grow to 16 feet. Have you always longed to grow a giant plant?

It always pays to look at the All-America Seed Selections. All-America Selections “is an independent, non-profit organization that tests new varieties then introduces only the best garden performers as AAS Winners.” These flowers and vegetables have been tested all over the country for dependability over the widest area. Last year I bought Angelonia starts. This is a wonderful annual in shades of rich plum and lavender as well as white. They are sometimes called summer snapdragons, and that is a fair description of the many small flowers on one to two foot stems. This year AAS has named Angelonia Serenita Pink a national winner. It is even drought tolerant. You are sure to find the seeds or starts at garden centers.

It seems there is always a new petunia every year. AAS is offering ‘African Sunset’ a brilliant orange color that I can well imagine as the sky darkens over the veldt. This is a self cleaning plant which means no dead-heading. A plant that does not need deadheading is perfect for a hanging planter, as well as in the border. I had to laugh; the AAS website says this is a great plant if orange is one of your school colors. Any Princetonias in your family?

Next week I’ll talk about new edibles.

 Between the Rows   February 1, 2014