Yes, it’s me again, nattering on about the cold, cold, horribly cold winter we’re having here in Minnesota—and a lot of other places too, I know. But, honestly, most of you in other states will be warm again far sooner than we will here in the tundra. So I feel entitled to go on about this a bit more and if you don’t agree, please don’t send me another email telling me that if I don’t love it in Minnesota, I should move. Move where? In with you? Awesome!
Anyway, as I was saying, a local meteorologist wrote the other day that Minnesotans are experiencing the coldest winter in 33 years. I didn’t live here then, but I believe him. Minnesotans are tough, but it’s been far below zero with mind-boggling wind chills for a long time now. Kids are bored at home because schools have been closed repeatedly. Parents are using up precious vacation days staying home with bored kids. And bored dogs wish they could go outside, but they can’t stand how cold their paws get, even with those awful booties that they hate.
We are a stir-crazy lot, motivated to do little more than lie on the couch and drink and order takeout while watching movie after movie. Or is that just me? BTW, I would highly recommend Seven Psychopaths and The Heat, but I thought Iron Man 3 was kind of meh even though I loved the first two.
What does this have to do with gardening? you wonder. Well, in an effort to stop spending so much time eating, drinking and watching movies, I recently tried focusing on spring to brighten my mood and, by golly, it worked! In addition to looking at a bunch of the garden-related photos I took last season, I also spent a few hours going through all of the seed and plant catalogs that have piled up on my living room coffee table. That was fun, especially because our sweet dog, Lily, helped by napping on me the whole time.
So if you’re bored and freezing and in need of some good cheer, I’ve posted a few photos below in the hope that they help a bit. And if you haven’t already started looking at your seed and plant catalogs, give it a go. I bet it will make you feel better to start thinking about what you’ll plant in just a few weeks or months, depending on where your live. I especially love Renee’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their catalog is a work of art—just ignore the religious quotes that pop up now and then), Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco Seeds, Prairie Moon Nursery and Territorial Seed Company.
That’s it for now. Hang in there. Spring is really, seriously, surely on the way.
Grafted tomatoes, especially heirlooms, were really hot this year. Why graft heirlooms? Well, the reasoning is that by grafting the heirlooms we love—Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters—to a rootstock that’s got, say, great drought tolerance or disease resistance, you get what amounts to a super heirloom.
The strategy isn’t new. Apple and grape varieties have been produced successfully on desirable rootstock for ages. But this is the first time that home gardeners in the U.S. are really starting to see grafted vegetables, including eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and watermelon, becoming increasingly available at the retail level. Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and White Flower Farm are just a few of the places where you’ll find grafted vegetables.
Though I admit that there can be problems with heirlooms tomatoes, I go out of my way to plant them. So I like the idea of making them more viable and widely available. Like a lot of gardeners, I feel strongly about the importance of including heirlooms of all types in the garden and, on the whole, I think heirloom tomatoes taste better than their hybrid peers, which often have tough skins and bland flavor. (Some of my favorite heirlooms are Black Krim, Green Zebra, Stupice and Sweet Million, though I always, always, always plant Sungolds, those out-of-this-world hybrid, yellow cherry tomatoes.)
Still, I’m always up for trying something new. So I was happy to get a surprise box of grafted tomato seedling samples (some heirlooms, some not) from Mighty ‘Mato early in the season. Having a limited amount of sun to work with, I kept two for myself, an Indigo Rose and a Brandywine, and gave the others to master gardener friends to plant and report back on. During the season, I also talked with more MGs and garden writers who were experimenting with grafted tomatoes. The outcome? Impressions were mixed.
Take Indigo Rose, for example. I had been wanting to try Indigo Rose, which was introduced by Oregon State University in 2012. Their goal was to produce a tomato with high levels of antioxidants. I wanted to grow the tomato because I fell for the weird looking purple-black fruit. I planted both grafted and ungrafted Indigo Rose tomatoes so I could compare the two (and so I could justify planting way too many tomatoes, like I always do).
Sadly, though they both produced an absurd amount of fruit all summer long, I didn’t like either of them, mainly because the tomatoes took FOREVER to ripen and when they finally did, they tasted bland and watery. Also of note was the fact that I honestly noticed no difference between the grafted plants and the ungrafted plants. Most of the gardeners I’ve talked to had similar experiences with Indigo Rose, though I will say that a few thought they were tastier than I did.
On the plus side, my friend, Deb, loved Mighty ‘Mato’s grafted Indigo Ruby, a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato. The plant grew well, was free of disease and produced very tasty tomatoes all season. I heard rave reviews from other gardeners, too, though I don’t know how they compared to ungrafted Indigo Ruby.
As for grafted Brandywine tomatoes, by all accounts, including mine, the grafted plants didn’t do as well as the heirlooms usually do on their own. I did hear lots of good things about grafted Legend tomatoes—great taste, good disease resistance and a LOT of tomatoes.
What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, I’m not ready to say that grafted tomatoes aren’t worth the price, which is steep compared to regular tomatoes, hybrids and heirlooms. But I’m not ready to sing their praises either. I’ll plant a couple more varieties next summer and report back on how things go. If you try grafted tomatoes, please let me know about your experiences. I’ll pass that information on so we can all compare notes.
Most every commercial potting mix contains sphagnum peat moss because it’s a good, lightweight, organic amendment that improves drainage, as well as water retention and air circulation. The downside to peat moss is that it isn’t a sustainable resource. Peat moss is the decomposing remains of living sphagnum moss, and it is harvested at unsustainable rates from bogs in a manner than involves scraping off the top layer of the living moss to get to the saleable product below.
This process destroys centuries-old bogs, doing away with wildlife habitat, releasing C02 into the air, and eliminating wetlands that help prevent flooding. Because of this, conservationists and scientists all over the world have been pushing for limits and even bans on peat moss harvesting.
In Britain, for example, where peat is often burned for fuel, harvesting has become so intense that the government has set goals for phasing out peat for home gardening use by 2020. Professional growers will need to go peat free by 2030. For more information, check out the Royal Horticulture Society’s website: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/More-about-peat.
Most of the peat used by the horticultural industry in the U.S. comes from Canada where talk of limits and bans is also heating up. So, whether you are concerned about the sustainability of peat of not, now seems like as good a time as any to explore some peat-free potting soil options.Read More»
People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.Read More»
I know it’s just January and there is much, much more winter to go. But I’m feeling unusually gloomy about all the cold and gray/white everywhere. So rather than stew, I spent some time looking at photos of gardens I’ve visited over the last couple of years. Seeing all those plants and blue sky cheered me right up. And I hope it helps you, too, if you’ve got a bit of the winter blues.
So, come on, then. Let’s go on a garden tour!
Ah, spring is coming. Whew!
Grafting. The term probably makes you think of roses, grapes, apples and nuts, which have long been grafted to improve disease resistance and productivity. But it won’t be long before grafting is also commonly associated with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, watermelon and other vegetables that are highly susceptible to crop destroyers, such as bacterial wilt, nematodes and soil-borne diseases.
That’s because, over the last decade, researches experimenting with grafting at many U.S. universities have reported increasingly positive results with several types of vegetables. The three main benefits of grafting being: improved disease resistance, higher yields (and sometimes quality), and increased ability to adapt to harsh environmental conditions like temperature extremes, floods and drought.
While much of the research centers around the needs of commercial growers, new lines of grafted vegetables will be available to home gardeners, too. As an urban gardener with little space to grow edibles, I’m intrigued by the idea of trying grafted veggies, which might save me from the inevitable blight and pestilence my crops are likely to suffer since I can’t rotate them as often as I should. But before I plant, I want to understand more about how grafting works and, specifically, how it might affect the fruiting part of the plant. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.Read More»
I read a lot of gardening books, and though most have something to offer, many just cover the same old ground in one way or another. So I was happy to find a copy of Michele Owens’ book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Wealthy, and Wise, at the library recently. It was a rainy, cold weekend and I’d heard good things about the book, so I planned on curling up on the couch with it, and a couple of others I picked out. As it turned out, those other books just lay there unopened on the coffee table because I couldn’t put Owens’ book down until I finished it.
If you’re not familiar with Michele Owens’ garden writing for Organic Gardening and other magazines, you can get a good understanding of who she is and what she believes in by checking out her blog posts on Garden Rant, which she founded a few years back with a handful of similarly smart, funny and straight-talking garden writers. As a former political speech writer and author of several best-selling business books, Owens is keenly aware of the need to do her research before writing and throughout the book she cites the work of many horticulturists, ecologists, microbiologists and others. But all these facts do not a snoozy tome make because she is adept at interweaving studies, facts and figures with her own passionate commentary as an experienced gardener who loves plants, nature and growing vegetables.
Because she’s married to a journalist who covers climate change, Owens gets a dinnertime update on just how much stress our warming world is putting on agriculture all over the world. This understanding, coupled with a love of good, healthy food, drives her to motivate people, everyone, not just gardeners, to grow at least some food in their own backyards. Sure, that will help relieve some pressure on the world’s food supply, she writes. But growing things to eat is also just a joyful, uplifting thing to do; just ask anyone who has ever grown even one tomato plant in a pot on a balcony or back patio. There really is nothing like being able to walk outside and pick something you’ve grown yourself and pop it in your mouth, or serve it up for dinner.Read More»
A few readers have emailed lately asking if I think it’s okay to just take a few seeds from plants in people’s gardens, or if I think they should ask first. It’s a good question, and one every gardener grapples with, I imagine. I admit that I have gathered a few seeds here and there from other people’s gardens. I didn’t go up into their yards or anything. But if a plant I liked was in a boulevard garden, or poking out of a fence or over a wall, I’d take a few seeds if it seemed like there were a lot to go around. I didn’t think much about this, probably because I wouldn’t mind if people took seeds from my gardens, at least not the ones that are accessible from the sidewalk.
But then the issue came up on our Master Gardener listserv, and I got those emails I mentioned from readers, and I realized that a lot of people consider taking seeds from other people’s plants a horrible thing to do. “It’s stealing,” one gardener wrote on our listserv. And many others agreed. Of course I see their point. And even though we stealers only take a few seeds, what if everyone who came along did that? What if the plant was special, maybe an heirloom grown by the gardener’s grandma and each year’s seeds were a precious treasure to be shared with family members?
I’ve thought about all of these things and decided that I won’t ever take seeds without asking again. But this doesn’t change the fact that I would be happy to share seeds from my own gardens, and I’m fine with people taking them without asking as long as you don’t venture into the yard and frighten our scared-of-everything dog, Lily. This whole thing has got me thinking about ways to share. I could put up a sign on the boulevard next season saying “Please feel free to take seeds from the boulevard gardens!” We live on a corner lot, so there are a lot of plants to choose from out there.
But I’m not sure how to let people know they’re welcome to seeds from plants inside the fence, too. We just need to know you’re coming so we can put Lily in the house. If you live around here, and you’re reading this, just email or call and we’ll tell you to come on over. For passersby, though, I obviously need a better system. I’m wondering if there’s a good a way to join up with other gardeners in the area to start a Little Free Seed Bank, modeled after the Little Free Library boxes that are popping up all over the place. If you haven’t seen these, homeowners, businesses, anyone who wants to, really, can give money to the program and get their own birdhouse-like box to stock with books that people can take and read for free. Take a book, leave a book, that’s the idea, and from what I can tell, it’s working beautifully.
Maybe there’s a way to do something like this with seeds, too. I threw this idea out to readers of my Everyday Gardener column in our local paper, The Southwest Journal, and several people emailed to say they’d be interested in working with me on trying to get a seed sharing plan off the ground next year. If you’re a local reader and you’re interested, too, please email and let me know. If you’re not local, but you like the idea and would like to know what we dream up, just email and I’ll keep in touch.
And, if you have a minute, I would also love to know what you think about sharing seeds in general. Would you be happy to share seeds from your garden with others? Would you want people to ask before they took seeds? Do you think it’s stealing to take a few seeds from people’s gardens without asking?
It dipped down to 28°F here in Minnesota the other night, so the day before I scrambled to harvest the last of the Sun Gold tomatoes that we’ve enjoyed all summer. I’m telling you, now that I’ve discovered this tasty, hybrid cherry tomato I will definitely plant one every year. And one is all you need because the indeterminate vine grew to nearly 6 feet tall this summer and produced sweet little orange tomatoes from June through, well, two days ago. And if the frost hadn’t hit, it would have just kept right on going.
As someone who is still learning how to grow many types of vegetables, I know how tricky it can be to figure out the best time to harvest in the fall. I’ve learned that you can’t rely on the stated days to maturity because that number can be affected by things like temperature, precipitation and the health and fertility of your soil. Instead, I’m learning which vegetables can tolerate frosts and freezes, as well as how to read the clues plants offer us at harvest time.
Generally, tender vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, snap beans, summer squash and peppers need to be harvested before a frost, which can occur at temps between 32°F and 36°F. But other vegetables like lettuce, spinach chives, carrots and parsnips can tolerate a light frost. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can tolerate quite a bit of frost, but they should be harvested before a hard freeze—24°F or below. I always associate winter squash and pumpkins with very cold temperatures, so I didn’t realize until recently that those actually need to be harvested before frost arrives because frost can damage their rinds and shorten their storage potential.
I’ve learned that Brussels sprouts actually taste better if you let them experience frost, and this is supposedly true of kale, too, though my own totally unscientific testing suggests otherwise. (It seemed the same.) Broccoli should be harvested while florets are still tight. Carrots can take a frost, and I met a farmer the other night who swears carrots taste better after a light frost. Anybody else think that? And I learned by accident, because I missed it in the garden, that Swiss chard weathers a frost just fine. (Which is kind of too bad because I’m honestly a bit tired of eating chard at this point.)
But getting back to tomatoes, I picked mine green and put them in a big bag to ripen. But had I left them on the vine through the frost, I’ve noticed that some experts say it’s just fine to can frosted tomatoes while others say it is unwise because the frost affects the fruits’ pH level, lowering the acidity needed to make them safe for canning. Who’s right here? I would love to hear your thoughts.