When it comes to understanding container gardening, my old boss came up with a saying I like to use: ‘first you thrill, then you spill.‘ I think it gets at two of the most crucial elements to crafting a real whizzbanger of a pot quite nicely. Here’s three great tips for making a great garden container:
1. Height: Height is part of the ‘thrill’ element of a pot. You need something eye catching. A colorful, vivid, imposing ‘je ne sais quoi’ to firmly establish the pot’s presence in the world. Choose foliage over flowers for this part of the display- something that will give you volume and bulk. A great summer choice are canna lilies, as is woodland tobacco, or a big plume of elephant ears.
2. Stuffing: This is what goes along the edges of the pot and gets crammed in in every available blank space. No bare patches allowed. Feel free to choose 1-3 different annuals to make it interesting, but don’t select anything that will compete with the size of your background anchor plant. Something with lacy, differently colored foliage that stands out, like any of the wormwoods, is a good choice here. You can’t go wrong with coleus, either. Even something like coral bells is great for stuffing- the airy flowers it produces midsummer add another element to the mix, too. I like to use some of the salvias here. Don’t be afraid to step it up a notch on the color and texture. This is the layer to do it with.
3. Spill: My favorite part, this is where you can get buck-wild messy. Lantana is a failsafe for full sun and it comes in a myriad of tropical popsicle colors. Million bells is good in the same way. For shade, sweet potato vine is tenacious and brilliantly lime-green or purple, however you want it. And if you’re looking for an upward climber, try moonflower- it blooms at night!
While you’re at it, don’t forget the golden rule of container gardening: water, water, water.
Image by Helen O’Donnell
May 15th is the traditional cut off date for a final frost. Meaning, starting next week, everything goes – in your garden. I will be seeding watermelons and transplanting chile peppers. As you prepare to fill your summer plot, consider not only what you’re planting, but where you’re planting. The logic and tradition of companion planting is based on setting up mutually beneficial relationships between plants. This method of organization can encourage pest control and stimulate vigorous growth. It is even said to produce tastier tomatoes.
Every plant demands and provides differently – absorbing certain soil nutrients, attracting specific pests while repelling others. It makes sense, then, to arrange your garden in a way that takes advantage of these individual properties. Companion Planting originated with the Native American custom of the “Three Sisters” guild. Historically, Native Americans would plant corn, squash and beans side by side on a small plot of land. The tall stalks of corn provided trellis for the beans, while the sprawling squash offered ground cover, stamping out potential weeds. Beans, a legume, are nitrogen fixing, and will not disturb nutrient intake of corn or squash.
Trap crops are another example of companion planting. If you are concerned about squash bugs attacking your cucumber bed, plant zucchini nearby. Summer squash leaves are sweeter and more preferable to the pests, thus deterring them from your main crop cukes.
Overtime, growers have collectively developed a comprehensive guide to companion planting. Inevitably, these guides are part truth, part lore, but in any case, a home garden offers the perfect scale in which to trial some of this knowledge. We can’t tend to our garden at all times, so why not let the plants themselves do some of the work?
Here are a few suggestions:
Basil with tomatoes – repels tomato hornworms
Nasturtiums with squash – deters squash bugs
Radishes and cucumbers – trap crop for cucumber beetles
Lettuce and carrots – for best flavor of both
Bee balm and tomatoes – for enhanced tomato flavor
Tomatoes and lettuce – tall trellis can provide welcome shade for tender greens
So, if you haven’t picked up on it yet let me tell you again: I am lazy. Fortunately the natural world is so beautifully accomodating, I haven’t yet found any incentive to turn over a new leaf and become a new me. Lazy suits me just fine. Which is why I’m partial to growing natives, particularly in the garden setting where they do all the growing work themselves. Below are my top three edible natives- where you can get ‘em and how to treat them right. Sit back, and enjoy.
The Ramp: Yeah, you’ve all heard of it before, but how many of you have actually gotten off your lazy behinds and grown it yourselves? The farmer’s market is a lot easier, right? (I know, I know. Look who’s talking). Rule numero uno when buying native plants for food, particularly in farmers markets is this: ALWAYS ask your vendor where their product comes from. If it’s wild foraged, stay away from it. Ramps are rare in the state of Vermont, and they take a long time to reach maturity in any of the woods that they’re found. A single picker can decimate a population in no time, and then what? There’s no coming back from that. Give ramps moist, rich garden soil and plenty of early springtime light and they will perform like total gems in the garden setting, steadily taking over if given ample space. This website sells both ramp seeds and bulbs.
Stinging Nettle: This beast is tough to wrangle. I love it for its nutritious, succulent spring greens and usefulness in cleansing tonics. It seems to pop up everywhere around my house, thriving in the sandiest of soils and hottest locations. However, give it good garden soil and it will go NUTS. So be careful, because this mother stings (hence the name- we all got that, right?). The cool weather of spring gives nettles an almost buttery texture and they are supremely tender when steamed. Buy the seeds here or venture out into your local park later in the summer with a pair of snips- you’re sure to find a tenancious specimen in seed.
Miner’s Lettuce: This plant is a rare example of an exceptionally yummy garden variety weed that Americans took to Europe- and not the other way around. Dandelions, chickweed, mustard, and lots of other popular edible plants are European in origin- having arrived here in the ballast soil of ships and other supplies the colonist brought over hundreds of years ago. Miner’s lettuce was first discovered, named by botanists, and cultivated as an edible on the west coast. What a joy its been since! Buy the seeds at Territorial. The plants are cold hardy, and can almost tolerate those early unpredictable spring frosts. They like freely draining rich soil, but they’re beautifully weedy and will tolerate just about any circumstances (just the way I like it!).
‘Tiptoe through the snowdrops, to the window…’
Here on the east coast we get about two seconds flat to sing springtime songs. Turn around and BAM summer’s fist is stuffed right up your sniffer. Today- it’s already hot outside. The clay brown earth is warming up. Earthworms are at the soil’s surface mixing all that hummusy goodness down into the root zone. Crocuses have come and gone.
It’s time to harden off your seedlings.
Step one Start the hardening off process about a week before you plan to plant outdoors. For cold hardy brassicas, this is a few weeks before your last frost date. For warmth loving nightshades like tomatoes and eggplants, this is when you’re safely past the final frost date. Wait until daytime temps are safely in the 55 degrees F range and place seedlings outside in a sheltered location for about 3-4 hours. Bring back inside for the night
Step two Repeat! Move seedlings out for a little bit longer each day, gradually increasing light exposure over time. Make sure to water more as you increase heat and light levels.
Step three After a full week, seedlings can spend their first night outdoors, provided temperatures will remain above 50 degrees F.
Step four Plant seedlings out in the garden on a cloudy day and water in well. If the weather turns suddenly cold, swaddling your seedlings in a swath of fabric like burlap or remay to protect from freezing.
‘Summer time, and the living is easy….’
Lazy gardeners know bulbs and tubers are an easy way to deliver maximum impact with minimum output. Storing a portion of the growing season’s food packed away in a long, brown bulky root Dahlias are the perfect example. Dinner plate sized blossoms open July through October, depending on where you live, and dazzle in various shades from near black to iridescent, shimmering pink.
Soil: Dahlias will grow in virtually any kind of soil provided it is deeply tilled to at least a foot. Make sure to plant after the danger of frost has past: A primarily Mexican genus, these plants love warm, sun-toasted earth. Good drainage is also important. Generally, when planting any kind of tuber or bulb, wet soils are a good thing to avoid. Producing elephantine blossoms requires a lot of food, so when planting, fill in the hole with rich compost plus a small handful of bone meal.
Planting: Large dahlias should be planted about six inches deep, smaller varieties should go down about four inches. Lay the tubers ‘eye-side’ up, so the sprouts get a good leg up into the sunshine. Pound a sturdy stake into the hole a few inches away from the tuber so you’re prepared for August when these things will be going gangbusters.
New Growth: Slugs love dahlias. Especially if you live somewhere cool and moist like Washington or Maine, lay down slug pellets as soon as your dahlia shoots start to emerge. Start feeding with compost tea or organic flower feed after six weeks, and continue to do so every month until frost. Dahlias also need ample water, so keep an eye on the weather.
Check out Swan Island Dahlias for virtually every variety under the sun
Basil is a cook’s friend. Not only does it add summer to any dish, but it fills the kitchen a fresh and bright aroma. Speaking of brightness, if you happen to have a windowsill nearby, now might be the time to start your basil seeds in the pot. No windowsill? No fear. Do it anyway! As long as you plant your basil indoors in a spot that gets about 4 – 6 hours of full sunlight a day (ideally South facing) you should see progress.
Although there aren’t as many varieties of basil as there are provinces in Italy, you have a few to chose from. I would suggest Genovese (for the flavor) or Mammoth (for the size). Sow the seeds thinly, about 1 – 2 inches apart and cover with a quarter inch of soil. Use either a pot (at least 18 inches in diameter) or a window box (with seeds scattered lengthwise). Basil is happiest in warm, course-textured soil that drains well (good drainage is vital when growing basil), however keep soil moist with frequent misting. Clip leaves often, right at the node taking about 1/3 of the stem. This will promote growth and further enhance the flavor.
These are just a few tips, however your local nursery might have the best suggestions for you in terms of climate, fertilization, and variety. Keep basil growing year-round in your kitchen (if possible) so that you can add the herb of summer to your food. If you’re feeling like there’s too much basil to go around, this award-winning pesto recipe is your answer.
Word is we get two extra minutes of sunlight a day right now. Almost imperceptible to me, but my plants see it. Pushing out the new fuzzy buds of spring, my once lugubrious house plants are down right peppy now. And that’s what’s put fertilizer on my brain.
Fertilizer is a tricky subject. Something that adheres nicely to that old adage ‘everything is best in moderation’. Throughout the winter, however, it’s honestly best to not fertilize at all. The last thing you want to do is make your plants grow when it’s not time to be growing. The best time to fertilize (and the best time to do everything in gardening) is to act when the plant tells you to (I don’t hear voices, I promise). The flushed pink nubs of buds appeared on my Tibouchina about three weeks ago, and I started rubbing my hands (almost salivating, actually). Even though it was below freezing outside, my princess flower was telling me ‘not long to wait now….’.
When you start to see these silent signs, get ready to hop on the horse again. It’s time to go, and it will happen fast. Fertilize when these new spring leaves have unfurled, and do it gently with a dilute solution to begin with. In general, I always feed less than the recommended dose on the back of the package. A great fertilizer to start with is something with an organic seaweed base. About once a month after feeding, it’s good practice to flush away any salts that may have accrued in your house plant’s soil over the course of its residence in its pot.
Getting the jump on spring and giving your plants that vital dose of N (nitrogen) P (phosphorous) and K (potassium) will ensure they give you lots of the good stuff (flowers! fruit! They’re coming!) all season long.
The perfect home is radiant with light, with windows on all sides, and sills full of happy plants. But there are options for the rest of us living in reality, here on planet earth. And you don’t have to compromise by just growing moss (no offense, moss-lovers). I’ve sung the praises of the Belgian endive numerous times on the pages of Wilder’s book, and here on the blog, so let’s get down to some new stuff which behaves just the same indoors and are absolute gluttons for torture:
1. Rhubarb. The magenta queen of pies is insatiable. Put a bucket over her bed and, come springtime, leaves and stalks will still appear- blanched and sunlight starved. Although this one is not a good option for apartment growing (rhubarb likes to fan out and grow deep), for those of you with limited light in the backyard and a jonesing for something different, rhubarb is a good pick.
2. Sea kale. Growing this seaside cousin of the cabbage is a little trickier than rhubarb. The fat and healthy root must be harvested in fall, taken inside, buried in a bucket and put somewhere warm, dark and moist for the duration of winter. The young, tender shoots that emerge can be harvested at six weeks old and make for a succulent addition to wintry salads.
3. Bean sprouts. What could be easier than this? Slap a few handfuls of pre-soaked mung beans between two sheets of thick, absorbant paper towels. The towels should stay moist for at least 24hrs for easier growing (if they dry out quickly you’ll have to continually add water). Keep them in a gloomy location and in about a week you’ll have enough for a homegrown stirfry.
Fall has come and gone. Bare branches on the trees mean lots of leaves in the backyard and if you’re a good, diligent little green-thumb, you know there’s no way around it: it’s time compost.
Just like bakers and chefs, composters have their own recipes. You can get as complicated as you like, but the basic recipe is this: two parts brown plus one part green. Brown materials are high in carbon and include woody brush, sawdust, straw, and, of course, fallen leaves. Green materials, like grass clippings, kitchen scraps, or old flower bouquets are the compost’s vital nitrogen source. Before you start piling and mixing find a good compost spot that’s not too shady, not too sunny, and definitely not too damp. Composting speeds up natural decay, so chopping and shredding compost ingredients will allow for faster decompostion and take you to black gold faster than leaving ingredients whole.
To go back to the baking analogy, a compost pile is like a big, smelly cake. Or maybe a lasagne. Either way, it’s arranged in layers, with alternating levels of organic materials (your green and brown mix), activators (that speed up decay) and soil, which introduces microorganisms to do the dirty work of breaking everything down.
Layer one should be a green and brown mix. On top of layer one goes a sprinkling of manure, or, if unavailable, a fertilizer. On top of that is the last layer: healthy top soil from an organic garden (this is really crucial so as to avoid chemical inputs and ensure microorganisms are alive and wriggling). Keep adding these layers as the pile grows, and add water as necessary so all ingredients are moist, but not sopping. To give an idea of ratios, if the green and brown layer is 6 inches thick, both the manure layer and the top soil layer should be about 1 inch thick.
In the middle of frigid winter, decompostion will cease and shut down. If you have heavy rains in your area, tarp your pile to prevent leaching of precious nutrients. If snow is your only problem, let the white stuff insulate everything, and it will start up naturally again in spring. By next summer’s end you’ll have a beautiful, black, finished product.
Almost 500 species of salvia call Mexico and central and south America home. That’s good news for growers coveting the colorful, tubular blooms (the native USA varieties of which usually go dormant by summer’s end). When September rolls around, subtropical and tropical species are just getting going, opening trumpets up wide to fall days. For a crackling scarlet salvia, go with pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), for perfect sky blue blossoms, select Peruvian large leaf sage (Salvia macrophylla), and to get a jump on the sinister Halloween season plant Andean sage (Salvia discolor)- it’s autumn-appearing flowers are near black.
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