Goodbye Winter … Hello Spring!

Goodbye Winter …

I spent the day yesterday in the garden. It felt so good. Although I saw my first robin weeks ago, it has been below freezing most nights until this week. We finally had a sunny, warm day without strong breezes and a decent rain during the night. So, I took advantage of the soft soil to lift two roses that had succumbed to our cruel whiplash weather winter, and to move two others that I think will do better in their new bed.

It always brings such joy to my heart to see the peonies pushing up through the earth, and the Major Wheeler honeysuckle has fully populated its part of the fence with its red buds ready to open. I take inventory of my perennials and shrubs. My bay laurel, which I harvested a bit too heavily last fall for seedlings and my kitchen, took a hit from our 20 to 80 to 10 to 60’s winter. I pruned the dead branches while my chickie girls bustled around me clucking their concern. Adversity, if it doesn’t kill you, does make you stronger, and my Laurus Nobilis will be fine once the weather settles into Spring.

So much new growth. The girls have been enjoying lush patches of Chickweed for weeks now. My Bee Balm Oswego carpets its area, ready to send up stalks soon. It is one of my absolute favorite May flowers, brilliant full fluffy fragrant red blossoms that attract bees in droves. If I’m able to keep it deadheaded, I get a second, less vigorous but still pretty, blush in August.

I greet my yellow lilac with joy! The flower heads are forming fully and it has suffered no loss to its foliage. It will perfume the girls’ coop soon. My dwarf cherry which I installed in a huge pot at the center of the chicken compound has some buds blooming! My apple tree espaliers are leafing out which means they too have survived! The yellow daffodils are done, but my whites that grace the front of my white house are in full bloom and lovely. The prolific sweet violets are sprinkled everywhere. I love them! The cowslip and red primrose are starting to bloom. And a few surviving Judith Leyster tulips (always such a risk here in NC) are ready to open.

So much to do. Today I’ll move another rose and a small shrub and the hawthorne, which all need better situations. Sometimes when I am rushed or tired I will “park” a plant inappropriately, but now is the best time to give them better quarters. These are the days when I steal time from sleep and other chores to be in the garden. I’ve been sleeping all winter. Now, we will have a beautiful warm Spring. Hello!

 

Bell Pepper Lovers …

Know them by their fruits! I think it is cute that the number of bumps on the bottom of a sweet bell pepper correspond to its gender … if you think about it, it corresponds to people’s gender parts (sort of) lol!

But actually, it is not true. Check this out.

Makes you kind of wonder about the person at AWM Food who was sitting around contemplating peppers and sex enough to create this false pix haha!

 

Gardeners…Start Your Seeds!

Depending on what you plan to grow and where you live, it is not too early to at least be thinking about, if not actually preparing to, plant seeds for your Spring/Summer Garden.

You can re-purpose many containers for seed starting, just be sure they are clean.

Customers ask me all the time what the best method for seed germination is and I always tell them, “it depends!” The basics:

  • clean containers with drainage and tray
  • sterile seed starting medium (not soil)
  • cover for maintaining humidity in the first period with ventilation holes pricked
  • non-chlorinated water
  • some method of labeling … this can be a simple grid labeling system with A-Z taped on one side and sequential numbers on the other, then keeping a chart that corresponds (i.e., A1 = Brandywine, etc.)

This doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition and is wonderful for repurposing! You can use styrafoam egg cartons cutting the tops to use as trays and poking holes in the sides at the bottoms of the “cups” for draining. I have also used saved cardboard toilet paper rolls, pushing one end in to create a bottom to hold the seed starting mix and seeds, etc. Use your imagination but be sure the containers are clean. Farmer’s Almanac has a great general guide.

Temperature is so important, and providing the right temp can greatly increase your germination rates. (BTW, I always advise investing in a soil thermometer for direct sowing outdoors.) For example, tomatoes will germinate at the optimum rate at 68F, or your average home temp in the winter. Whereas peppers need 77F for optimal germination so providing some kind of bottom heat will help tremendously. You can use this excellent chart showing varying germination rates/temps and optimal temps for each variety.

Timing is critical … plan your seed starts counting backwards in weeks from your last frost date for the variety you are planting. For example, tomatoes generally need to be started 6 weeks before the last frost date for your area (and new gardeners note that the number of days listed for seeds like tomatoes are days to mature from date of transplant, not germination), but some herbs require 10 weeks or more. This site provides great general map, but if you are on a zone line, check with your local weather or ag extension office.

Variety specifics matter! Not all seeds are good candidates for starting indoors. Seeds with taproots are problematic because you may disturb or break that root in transplanting. Some seeds require pre-treatment such as scarification, soaking or extended chilling to break their dormancy. And some seeds require light to germinate, so need to be planted in the open with little or no cover but maintaining moisture.

Once your seeds are germinated and reached the “true leaves” stage, light becomes very important. Perhaps the most important investment a gardener can make is some sort of grow light because growing on a windowsill is fraught with problems and will often result in spindly weakened starts. Place your grow light above the seeds and within a few inches to start, moving the light or seeds farther apart as they progress. As the seedling begin to mature, provide some hardening — brushing them lightly with your hand and/or turning on an overhead fan, to replicate conditions they will soon need to endure. When they are big enough and strong enough for garden placement, and when soil and air temps are acceptable, you will need to first expose them to sunlight in small time increments, lengthening the exposure until they can withstand the bright light of day. To be on the safe side, transplant on a cloudy day, especially if a gentle rain is in the offing. You can even cloche special seedlings to protect from the vagaries of Spring weather.

If you have questions about your seed starting efforts, I would love to help. Just leave a comment and I will reply!

Happy Gardening!

The Garden Chick

 

 

North Carolina Native Heirloom Varieties

There are many heirloom varieties of garden seeds that originated here in North Carolina (or thereabouts) but I offer some of my favorites on CherryGal.com which I’d like to recommend to you:

A very rare find is The African Queen Tomato which hails from Western NC, but probably was brought here by Caribbean slaves. It dates here to the mid-18th Century. Many fine qualities!

Another NC heirloom tomato is the German Johnson Pink, notable for being one of the four parents of the venerable Mortgage Lifter tomato.

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A heritage variety claimed by many Southern areas, the Sieva Carolina Pole Lima Bean is noted for its ability to bear even in extreme heat. Grown at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson.

These are just three — but if you know of other heritage or heirloom varieties that are claimed by North Carolina, I’d love to hear about it!

 

Why Organic Seeds? It really IS so important!

Is it really important to buy organic seeds, rather than non-organic? Are non-GMO seeds also organic? And what about organic hybrid varieties? And can an organic seed be treated? Is that so bad? These questions confound even experienced gardeners these days.

Conventional commercial seed propagation methods utilize chemicals and other treatments that can leech into the soil, migrate to other plants, drain off into the ground water and eventually water supply, affect pollinators in a very profound way and, affect your health as well.

Using conventional non-organic seed, even if it is non-GMO or untreated, is a poor start to an organic garden and can have lasting effects. This is why organic certification takes so long and is so expensive — the soil has to be redeemed from conventional assaults, and that typically takes 3-5 years, depending on the history of the growing area, surrounding areas, and type of soil and rainfall.

More and more, people are recognizing that organic produce not only tastes better … it is better — healthier, with more vitamins, nutrients and protein than conventional produce. But it is also important to grow your herbs and flowers organically, and for that you also need organic seed.

Hybrids, by the way, are not genetically modified. They are simply produced using natural methods. Many heirloom varieties began as hybrids that have been “stabilized” so that they are now “open-pollinated” — in other words seed gathered from them will grow true to the parent as long as no cross-pollination has occurred. So hybrids are not wrong, they just are not yet of the stability that you can save the seed. Also, most modern hybrid varieties are created for the convenience of growers and grocers, not for superior flavor or other characteristics that home gardeners value.

Certified organic seed cannot be genetically modified, so anytime you purchase certified organic seed you are also purchasing non-GMO seed. But that seed might be treated to ward off fungal diseases when sown in cold wet soils. The “fungicides” most commonly used by such commercial growers are Thiram, which has been around for decades, and Apron and Maxim, newer brands. You should know a seed has been treated if it is brightly and unnaturally colored — hot pink, for example. You should not handle such seed with bare hands. These chemical coatings can cause kidney and liver damage when used over time, and they are acutely toxic to fish, so runoff can be poisonous to the environment. And since their purpose is to protect vast growing fields, a home gardener does not need them, and an organic gardener should never use them.

But more recently, systemic pesticides have become common among commercial growers. Known by their scientific name as Neonicotinoids, they are pushed by Bayer, Sygenta and Monsanto and have now unquestionably been linked to bee death. You see, this type of systemic poison not only affects the plant it produces, it leaches and migrates in the soil to surrounding plants. So importing just one beautiful flower from your local nursery can create a toxic zone in your otherwise organic garden. Some commercial nurseries have pledged to, or stopped altogether, offering plants that are grown with neonicotinoids. We encourage you to ask your local nurseries what their practice is.

So, that brings us full circle as to why Organics matter. They are healthier and safer for you and the planet and all God’s creatures. This is why CherryGal Heirloom Seeds has gone ALL ORGANIC for the 2017 season, and we never offer treated seeds. In fact, we are signatories of The Safe Seed Pledge. Happy Gardening!

 

Poison Ivy in the Garden

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Leaves of Three …

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Let it be!

We all learned that saying as children, but it is often forgotten by young and old at annoying peril. When I was a very young child of tender years, there was a fabulous wooded “jungle” near our then suburban home with fabulous thick vines hanging down from trees — perfect for imitating Tarzan and Jane! That was my first introduction to poison ivy. Not everyone is as sensitive as am I, but most will get some level of reaction. If not the multicolored swelling and puffy closed eyes, then an itch so severe it will drive you stark raving mad. You would think I would learn my lesson, but several years later when my sister and I visited the Baltimore Zoo in October, we fed the tame deer there handfuls of colorful leaves. You guessed it — poison ivy. It took another 10 or so years for me to get hit again. Again in the Autumn, on a walk with my wonderful dog Martha through the woods in Massachusetts. My little fluffy Martha was the perfect host to pick up every drop of the Urushiol (poisonous oil) that coats the leaves and I didn’t even think about this when I nuzzled her and let her climb under the covers that chilly evening. THAT time required a trip to emergency room!

PoisonIvyKidsHealthOrg

Today, I am extremely cautious about this noxious weed. As an avid gardener it is hard to avoid it, and once familiar with its habit, you become aware that it is ubiquitous and clever! Its scientific name, Toxicodendron radicans is a good indicator of danger. It spreads by runners underground and vines above ground and pops up under the leaves of your favorite plants. All parts of poison ivy are dangerous and it is very hard to eradicate if you are an organic gardener and don’t use the scorched earth pesticides available to kill it. I do what I can by donning throw away clothes that I pick up at yard sales giving me 100% coverage adding a face mask, scarf over my hair and ears, goggles and medical gloves and every Spring and Fall I go after it big time, using pliars to grasp and pull it out with, depositing it in heavy plastic bags for trash pick up.

After this, I will carefully remove all my protection, making sure it does not touch me in the removal, put them in the trash and don my favorite protection/remedy — Tecnu (which is very effective in removing the urushiol oils), rubbing it over any part of me that might have temporarily been exposed (not eyes) and then showering with good hot soapy water. The towel I use is put in the wash immediately. My clogs are “Tecnu’d” as are my pliars. And then I pray . . . seriously. If you think this is extreme, you’ve never experienced an exposure. Even the smallest patch can drive you crazy with itching and more serious exposures can blister and go on for weeks. Because I have dogs and cats that might also encounter patches, I do not pet them without applying Tecnu to my hands/arms afterward. If you do develop a rash, Tecnu has another product, Tecnu Xtreme, made of a plant called Grindelia Robusta which not only stops the reaction from spreading, but provides wonderful itch relief. And if you have a serious exposure, I’m afraid antihistimines and even cortisone treatments may be your only effective options.

Most people (85%) do have an allergic reaction if exposed. By the way, poison sumac looks very similar to poison ivy and is the one to watch out for in states outside the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Just as dangerous! And poison oak, which resembles oak leaves, grows at the base of oak trees in the Western states. When I get to Heaven, I intend to ask God what he was thinking when he created these plants (and mosquitos).

I hope this reminder is helpful. Let me know if you have other remedies or procedures for dealing with this ghastly plant. We gardeners have to share such important information.

PoisonIvy2a

 

Hardening Off: Time To Ready Your Seed Starts For The Real World!

VintageTomatoPacket

So a couple of months ago, when snow was swirling around outside and wicked winds were whipping through your garden, you got out your paper cups, or toilet rolls, or fancier cow pots and filled them with sterile seed starting medium and planted your choice heirloom tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds. You watched every day for emergence, keeping them moist but not too wet, warm on the top of the refrigerator or a heated seed starting mat. And celebrated when they finally poked their little green heads up. You added a grow light, lowered to a few inches above them, to keep them from getting straggly. Then followed weeks of growth as they developed their real leaves and then thicker stalks. You might have gently put a fan on them for a few minutes each day to strengthen them. And now, the weather is warming and your seedlings are ready, or almost ready, for the garden.

For any gardener who has ever experienced transplant shock and loss, you know how heartbreaking it is. This is the most critical time to ensure your future success — the “Hardening Off” period, when you ease your seedlings to readiness for the garden. Some gardeners like to rush the process, using devices to protect their seedlings from sudden temperature changes, or even snow. I prefer to let them gradually strengthen from short, daily exposures to sun and outside temps and hold the transplanting for when the weather and conditions are correct. I have found that rushing to the garden doesn’t produce fruit any faster. Tomatoes (and eggplants and peppers) come when the number of hours of daylight and temperatures are right for them, and not before. So why risk stressing those dear little things?

Emphasis is on gradual. Here in North Carolina, it is not unexpected that we go from quite chilly, windy days and close to freezing nights, to suddenly summer! Yesterday was such a day — in the 80’s after weeks of cold, inhospitable weather. Now, a warm day does not equate with warm soil. And a hot sunny day can literally fry your sweet little tomatoes, so caution! I like to take a tray of the largest seedlings out with me in the mid-morning, when the sun is still hospitable, and set it down with me while I weed or prepare soil. I set a timer, because it is so easy to lose track of time when gardening. First outings are strictly limited to 15 minutes, gradually increasing that time over a period of a week or two until they can stand quite well even in the middle of the day. This is when you are ready to transplant.

Now, there is still the possibility of shock and loss if the soil is too cold, or the sun too bold. Choose a day that’s cloudy but not threatening and do your transplanting in the morning or afternoon. You’ve already prepared the proper location and soil, with appropriate amendments so that the tilth and pH is right. Tomatoes can be planted quite deep (or laterally) up to their top leaves. They will develop roots all along the stem that is in the soil, adding strength and vitality to your plants. Water them in and keep an eye on them to be sure they are not stressed. And don’t forget to regularly side dress them with delicious organics. And dream of the beautiful fruits to come!

Happy Chickens, Happy Gardens!

Chickens Make Me Happy

Chickens Make Me Happy

Spring is a time of such intense activity for gardeners that we sometimes forget to stop and smell the roses! Last night I sat in my chair in my chickens’ compound and just enjoyed them – the quiet sounds they make, how they jump up in my lap for attention, how they compete with one another for the choicest little things in the soil, how they steal my blueberry buds (those are getting moved outside the compound soon) and just the gentle feathery goodness of them. It is a meditation that I enjoy at the end of the day. Before I had chickens, I would never have thought of myself as a bird person, let alone a chicken person. I wanted the backyard eggs. But these gals are endearing and there is just no way around it — you start to love them and they become members of your family, each an individual.

My brother-in-law is always sending me great chicken videos and posts, and there is one in particular that I want to direct your attention to: the Facebook page of the Chickens Make me Happy Community with all manner of adorable photos shared by its members. Just scroll through a few of these and you might get a sense of why we chicken people are so passionate about our “flocks.”

On another matter, chickens not only provide eggs, but great fertilizer for your garden. No magic to it – you just collect it and add to your compost pile. And save those eggshells. Rinse them out and dry them, grind them up and add them to your dried used coffee grounds for the best tomato fertilizer you can have! Prevents blossom end rot! I got a used coffee grinder at a yard sale and it is dedicated to this task year round. I dry my grounds on a corner of my seedling heat mat. That way there is no mold and the grounds dry in one day. Happy Gardening!

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Drying the grounds …

Store in a Zip Lock until ready to use

Store in a Zip Lock until ready to use

More on chickweed …

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Chickweed Salvation Salve

A while back, when chickweed was emerging all over my garden, I wrote a post about its many attributes. Some time later I showed a friend a patch of persistently reddened skin that I had tried everything to cure without effect. I had concluded it might be the start of some skin cancer (we gardeners always worry about that). So, armed with my column about chickweed, my friend concocted a simply fabulous Chickweed Salve which I have been using for several days now with some amazing results! It is a beautiful green goo! First, I noticed immediately how incredibly soothing the salve was. And after several days use, the reddening has calmed. The skin is no longer raised. And I am hoping for full “remission” of whatever it was, in time.

So when today a neighbor showed me her little pooch’es “hot spots” which the vet had not been able to heal effectively, and which had developed ugly crusting over, I gave her a bit of the Chickweed Salve and she promised to report back.

I hope my dear friend will respond to this post and provide everyone with this great salve (i.e., salvation) recipe!

Spring Has Sprung .. the grass has riz

VintageSeedsSalzer

I wonder where my schedule is! Seriously, we go from blizzard to Spring pretty darn fast here in the Piedmont NC! It’s been 80+ this week and I am scrambling to get starts in the ground, knowing that we could still experience a late frost. ALL my time is devoted to gardening right now. When I’m not gardening, I’m thinking about it. I am planning what to put in tomorrow, and how best to utilize my shrinking garden. Since I brought my four Buff Orpington beauties into my life, my garden has shrunk substantially. I now can only utilize about half the garden I used to … the girls get the rest, either by design (they need the space) or cuisine (they eat anything edible left open to them). I don’t mind. I have wonderful pop-up garden toppers for my six raised beds, so that is where my strawberries, greens, and other veggies go.

Last year I devised tomato cages that defied my girls long enough to grow the tomatoes tall enough so that they survived and prospered. My dilemma this year is that I need to rotate, and I have little room to do that in. So I am getting creative in the “mixed garden” style. Putting rhubarb among my herb bed (transferred outside the girls’ compound because rhubarb leaves are poisonous); and horseradish next to the roses, which they leave alone.

Everything is greening up now to my delight. My oakleaf hydrangea is leafing out; my much desired Bartzella peony has popped through; my blueberries are loaded with bee-attracting blossoms, despite the girls’ having nipped the bottom branches clean. My dwarf cherry, newly potted, will blossom soon.

Inside, I have had mixed and delayed germination on some old tomato and pepper seeds I wanted to propagate. Because so many of my prior suppliers have been gobbled up by Monsanto, making them undesirable for future supply, I am trying to germinate some old seeds from prior years so that I can offer these wonderful varieties free of GMOs, and organically grown. However, I purchased a new germination system which I do not have complete faith in. I followed the instructions and got about 20% germination. So I threw out the instructions, took off the cover, added some organic fertilization solution, and now things are starting to pop. Thank Goodness! Some Springs you just need to push it!

I hope your Spring is going well. Please blog and let me know how you are faring.