Eating babies

IMG_9284While thinning beets in my garden the other day, I stopped to consider the little plants I was killing. The slim red root that would never grow into a round beet. The first tiny seed leaves and larger dark green adult leaves. They looked so fragile, uprooted from the soil. I knew that thinning the crowded seedlings was necessary if the chosen few I left in the ground were to mature into beets for my table. I felt some remorse for the ones I pulled out.

Then I wondered how these babies would taste. Afterall, you can eat beet greens and we grow beets for their roots. The pulled seedlings were nothing more than tender young leaves and immature roots. I brushed the soil off one of the tiny roots and tasted a leaf. It was crunchy and mild. I ate the rest of the leaves with the root and decided it was pretty delightful.

Mature beet greens are slightly bitter and tough, and are best sautéed with garlic and olive oil. But as I munched another seedling, I decided its delicious crunch and fresh green taste would be best raw, in a salad.

On my way from the garden I picked a few nasturtium flowers to add to the salad. Nasturtium flowers are tender and have a slightly peppery taste. Their bright yellow and orange petals add beautiful color to dishes.

The salad I made for dinner guests that evening consisted of rough chopped romaine lettuce, sliced cucumber and orange bell pepper, the little beet seedlings—washed and chopped in half—and a handful of nasturtium petals. I tossed it with a simple lemon dressing (recipe below).

You’d probably pay a fortune for this early summer treat in a fancy restaurant, but I will look forward to making it at home every time I sow beet seeds. In fact, I might be making room in my garden for an extra row of beet seedlings from this point on, just so I can eat the baby plants.

Simple lemon salad dressing

  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons brown mustard
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper

Shake all together in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Taste and correct flavors as needed. Dress salad and toss just before serving. Any leftover dressing can be refrigerated to use later.

Pictured here are golden beet seedlings and nasturtium flowers. I grew two other kinds of beets, Detroit Red and Chioggia, and they were tasty too.

 

Doves on the swing

Birds enliven our gardens. They fly, dart, and interact with one another. Their songs add beautiful sounds. They are helpful to us gardeners as they eat huge amounts of insects, especially while raising chicks, which helps keep their numbers in balance. It’s a delight to find nests in trees and shrubs when the leaves fall in autumn. I love to look closely to see how birds wove found bits into the nest structure: twigs, grass blades, and even ribbons of littered paper and plastic. Once I found a string still tied to bamboo skewers I had used to mark seeds I direct-sowed in the spring garden. I had wondered what had happened to that little rig…

If we’re lucky, birds make their nest where we can witness the construction process, along with eggs and raising of chicks.

A few days ago, I hung hummingbird feeders as I usually do in mid-April to welcome the weary little birds on their return north. As I stepped onto the front porch, feeder in hand, I nearly collided with a mourning dove, who flapped madly to get out of my way. I then noticed a puzzling amount of sticks and tangles of dried grapevine on the porch floor, and looked up. In the swing, still hung high for the winter, was a flat, haphazard nest with one white egg poking up. Robins have tried to nest in this same spot before, but I removed the start of those nests and lowered the swing to discourage them. But I was too late to dissuade these birds.

Mother dove is now a constant presence incubating her egg (or maybe eggs by now) just outside our living room window. We carefully peek to see how she’s doing, and she replies with a blink of her big dark eye. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/id), it will be another week before the chicks hatch, then another couple weeks until they fledge. Guess we won’t be using our porch swing for a while.

Find of the day: Bloodroot

Take a walk in the woods this time of year and you might spy this tiny beauty, bloodroot. I found one today along a stream bank in a low moist woods. And I mean one—there waIMG_7573sn’t another in sight. I was especially lucky to find it since bloodroot only blooms for a day or two.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is a North American ephemeral wildflower that emerges in rich woods in late winter and early spring. Spring ephemerals flower and set seed quickly, before the trees leaf out to take advantage of sunlight, then go dormant once summer heats up. Other spring ephemerals include trillium, trout lily, Virginia bluebells, spring beauties, and Dutchman’s breeches.

As you can see, the leaf on this bloodroot was still wrapped around the stem, which is typical. The fragile flower opens during the day and closes at night, then fades after a day or two. The solitary leaf unfurls, displaying its unique deeply cleft shape, then grows to about 12-14 inches tall.

Bloodroot is in the poppy family and gets its name from the red-orange juice in its stem and roots. Native Americans used the juice to dye clothing and baskets, and for war paint. They also used it to treat aches and fevers, ringworm, ulcers, and skin infections. Alkaloid compounds in the juice are possibly useful for dissolving warts and reducing plaque on teeth, however it believed to be too toxic to be ingested.

If you have a moist woodland spot on your property, consider planting some bloodroot. It can be found at specialty native plant nurseries, such as Prairie Moon Nursery (prariemoon.com). Not only will you be charmed by its delicate, fleeting beauty, the winter-starved bees will welcome the early pollen and nectar it provides.

Miraculous seeds

Looking for a miracle? Just start some seeds. This determined little bean seedling emerged today from a seed that, a few days ago, looked like a wrinkled pebble. It’s hard to believe this vigorous little life was inside that dried-up orb.

seedlingSeeds contain everything to start a new plant–root, shoot, and two little seed leaves called cotyledons. Plus all the DNA that will determine the plant’s form, habit, flower color, fruits, and other attributes.

Give a seed a little moisture, light, and warmth and presto–new life erupts. How can you not believe in miracles when you watch a seed germinate?

 

Feeling seedy

Despite the warm winter here in Pittsburgh, I—like many gardeners—have cabin fever. I’ve hit the problem head on with some retail therapy: my annual seed order.

I’m determined to grow fantastic onions this summer so I bought Walla Walla onion seeds from a loimg_61701cal garden center. Sure, I’ve grown nice onions before by purchasing ‘onion sets’ and plugging them into the garden. The resulting onions were fine, but not fantastic. I’m going for fantastic.

I learned from fellow master gardener Paul Pietrowski to choose long day onion varieties for our climate. He’s had the most success starting them from seed, rather than sets. So today I sowed the Walla Walla seeds in moistened, sterile seed starting mix. I’ll plant the seedlings outside in the garden after 8-10 weeks.

I ordered Italian ‘San Marzano’ tomato seeds from Renee’s Garden. I’m excited to try those for making sauce, as well as a new red beet, ‘Sweet Merlin.’ I’ll turn a packet of ‘Roma Improved’ beans into jars of pickled dilly beans.

Three interesting flowers caught my eye in the Select Seeds catalog. I’m excited to try ‘Chinese Giant Orange’ amaranth, which gets 8 feet tall and provides lots of seeds for birds. There is also a cool Queen Anne’s lace I’ll grow called ‘Dara.’ The blooms start out white, like regular Queen Anne’s lace, but turn pink and purple as they age. It’s a great plant for pollinators too. I saw the curious corkscrew vine on a visit to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia last summer. This fragrant climber is in the bean family and hails from South America.

How about you? Have you ordered seeds yet? What are you excited to try this year? !

It’s primrose time

I’m a sucker for the colorful displays of primroses that pop up in grocery stores this time of year. Who can resist those charming flowers in the middle of winter? I usually buy several and cluster them in a basket or decorative pot for some indoor cheer. It’s a lot of joy for less than ten bucks.

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If you fall prey to their spell too, be sure to water them regularly since they like to be moist. If the soil dries out so much that the plant wilts and water runs right through the pot don’t despair. Fill a container that is taller than the pot with water and set the pot in it. If the pot bobs on top, gently push it below the surface of the water for a minute. You may see air bubbles coming out of the pot, which is ok. Let the pot sit in the container of water for a 30-60 minutes to completely moisten the soil again, then remove it and let it drain in the sink.

Place your primroses out of direct sunlight. As the flowers fade, carefully clip them off with scissors. You may notice new flower buds forming under the old flowers. Feeding occasionally with a general-purpose flowering houseplant food will keep your primroses blooming for weeks. Just be sure to follow all label directions carefully.

Amazingly, grocery store primroses can assume a second life as a garden plant if you live in USDA hardiness zones 3-8 (winter temperatures to -35 degrees F). Keep them moist indoors until the weather warms up, then plant them in the garden once frosts are passed. They like a partly shady spot and moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil.

Like fall mums, getting grocery store primroses to come back year after year is a bit of a crap shoot. I’ve had some success planting them in a partly shady patch under some shrubs. The soil here is loose and rich from years of applying bark mulch. These outdoor primroses bloom a bit later than the ones in the grocery store, since those are forced in greenhouses.

Next time you shop for groceries, look for these little cuties in the floral department. At the very least they will bring some cheer to these gray winter days.

Here’s one for the pollinators

Butterfly weed, a North American prairie plant, was named Perennial Plant of the Year for 2017 by the Perennial Plant Association. Great news for pollinators!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a veritable nectar bar for many different kinds of bees, beneficial wasps, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. And if you want to help monarch butterflies, this plant is tops because it’s a favorite food source for their caterpillars.

monarch_caterpillar_danaus_plexippus_on_asclepias_tuberosa_butterfly_milkweed_2284495213The overall habit is upright, with lance-like leaves spiraling up the stem. It tops out at 2-3 feet, and is crowned with orange flower umbels from early summer to mid-fall. The flowers are pretty cool if you look at them closely. After flowering, long skinny seedpods form—a dead giveaway that butterfly weed is in the milkweed family. As fall progresses, the pods dry out, split open, and release seeds that have silky hairs to help them float on the wind.

Butterfly weed grows best in full sun and average, well-draining soil. It can handle brutal summer heat and winters as low as -25 degrees F (USDA Zones 4-9).  True to its prairie origins, butterfly weed is pretty drought tolerant once established in the garden. It seeds around a little in my garden, but I welcome it wherever it pops up. It’s never invasive and is such a great wildlife plant. As an added bonus, deer don’t seem to like it.

If you love hot colors, butterfly weed’s blazing orange flowers will be just your thing. Grow it with other eye-popping perennials like daylilies and red bee balm (Monarda) for a fiesta of color. If orange flowers scare you, tone down butterfly weed’s volume with blue, purple, or white companion flowers for a softer look.

You can grow butterfly weed from seed fairly easily. Plants aren’t often available in garden centers, but hopefully that will change now that it has some street cred. Patronize your local garden center and ask for it if they don’t offer it. Plant some and you’ll be doing something great for pollinators and hummingbirds.

Photo credit: Marshal Hedin from San Diego [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s What’s New

I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) in Baltimore this week. This giant trade show draws thousands from the horticulture industry each year—plant growers and breeders, and suppliers of a dizzying array of machinery, tools and products. It’s a great place to see what’s new, what we’ll see in garden centers soon, and connect with people.

One of the most exciting line of plants are the Bushel and Berry blueberry and bramble fruits. These plants are bred to stay small, so they can be grown in containers, yet produce large volumes of delicious fruits. The raspberries and blackberimg_5972ries are thornless for painless picking. Many of the plants in this line were introduced several years ago under the brand, Brazelberry. Since then, the plants have been tested and improved and more added to the lineup. What this means is that when you buy plants in the blue Bushel and Berry pots, you can be sure you are getting a terrific plant that will provide a bounty of delicious berries. To top it off, the plants are beautiful too!

Here are a few other photos from the show:

 

Don’t kill that orchid!

You can enjoy beautiful, long-blooming orchids in your home thanks to modern propagation methods that allow orchids to be

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This orchid bloomed for months in my bedroom. What a joy!

inexpensively mass produced. Most of the ones you’ll find in big box and other retail outlets are the moth or Phalenopsis orchids, and they are super easy to grow at home. Moth orchids are terrific because they bloom a long time—usually months and months. And the flowers are so exotic and beautiful! If you have one or are considering buying one, here are some tips to keep it blooming:

  • Before leaving the store, make sure your orchid is loosely but completely covered with a plastic or paper sleeve if temperatures are below 50 degrees. Go directly home—it’s not a good idea to leave your orchid in the car while you run more errands since they don’t love the cold.
  • Once home, remove all the wrapping and tags. Place the orchid in a bright window. Eastern exposure is ideal. Southern and western windows work too, so long as the plant is protected from strong afternoon sun by a sheer curtain or blind.
  • Moth orchids make good housemates because they like the same indoor temperatures we do—mid 60s to low 70s. If you keep your house on the cool side, find a warm spot for your new friend.
  • When it comes to watering, don’t drown your orchid with kindness—this is probably the biggest mistake when it comes to keeping orchids. In the wild, orchids live on tree branches and rocky outcrops, with their roots exposed to air. Water your orchid when the pot feels light when you pick it up. This can be hard to gauge but you’ll get the feel for it. Generally every 7-14 days is sufficient. Water by dunking the pot containing the plant and bark into a larger pot of water, just up to the rim, and leave it til it stops bubbling, generally 5 minutes or so. If your orchid is planted pot-in-pot (the plant and bark in an inner pot, with a decorative outer pot that has no drainage hole), you can use the outer pot as the “dunking pot.” Once bubbling stops, lift the pot out of the water and let it drain. Empty the dunking pot before putting your orchid back in it. Alternatively, place the pot in the shower, and run it for several minutes using tepid water. If your orchid is planted pot-in-pot, remove the outer decorative pot so the plant can drain.
  • An orchid’s beautiful blooms require energy, so they benefit from some food. Feed your orchid in the late spring and summer, when it’s not flowering. The easiest way to feed is with orchid sticks that you shove into the bark mix. You can also use liquid orchid food mixed to half strength every time you water.

Enjoy your orchid!

Winter pruning

On a sunny mild day early in the year, I bundle up and tromp outside to begin winter pruning of my shrubs and small trees. Despite the cold, this is a garden chore I relish. I love being out in the brisk fresh air. I revel in the lengthening daylight and spending time felcosin my garden after December’s hectic, short days.

Pruning is part science, part art. It is done primarily to improve the health of shrubs and trees. If you find yourself repeatedly pruning or shearing (or wanting to prune or shear) trees or shrubs to reduce their size or keep them from encroaching on your house, walkway, or driveway, consider removing the plant and replacing it with something more suitable since repeated whacking isn’t good for the plant and, certainly, you have better things to do with your time!

My pruning tools include sharp hand pruners, sharp loppers, leather gloves to protect my hands, and a tarp for gathering trimmings and dragging them to the brush pile.

pruning

When pruning trees and branching shrubs, cut all the way back to where the branch joins another branch.

 

If you want to do some winter pruning, keep the following points in mind:

  • Spring-blooming shrubs like forsythia, lilacs, quince, viburnum, azalea, crabapples, and rhododendron have already formed their spring flower buds (they formed them after blooming last spring). Those buds are just waiting for longer days and warmer temperatures to pop open. Prune those spring bloomers now and you’ll be cutting off those flower buds, reducing the spring show. If you don’t want to reduce the spring flowers, wait to prune these plants until just after they are done blooming and before they have formed next year’s flower buds.
  • Some plants “bleed” sap heavily when they are cut. Maples are notorious for this. After all, maple sap is what is tapped in winter to make maple syrup. These trees are better off being cut in the fall, right after they go dormant.
  • Don’t attempt to prune large trees yourself or any tree or shrub that requires you to climb a ladder. Hire a certified arborist. To find one, visit the International Society of Arboriculture website.
  • It’s ok to remove up to about a quarter to a third of the plant’s living branches. If your plant has not been pruned in a long time, you may need to spread the pruning out over 2-3 years.
  • Aside from the tools listed above, the best tools you can use for pruning are your eyes. Put down your pruners periodically to look at what you are doing. This helps keep you from cutting too much or ruining the plant’s shape.

Ready to tackle your pruning project? Here are the basic steps:

  1. Begin by walking all the way around the plant at least once. Note how it grows and its natural form. Does it have an upright, horizontal, or weeping habit? Does it grow with a lot of branches at the base (called a suckering habit) or does it branch from one or two main trunks (like a tree)? Overall does it look balanced, or is it lopsided with more or less growth on one side?
  2. Trim out dead, broken branches first. Cut back to where the branch intersects with another live branch, or all the way to the ground in the case of suckering shrubs. If the plant has not been pruned in some time, it can take quite some time to remove all the dead branches. In fact, cutting dead wood should make up 80% of any pruning job.
  3. Once all the dead wood is out of the way, you can start to see the natural form of the healthy plant. The next step is to clear out its interior to improve light and air circulation. Trim branches that are crossing back and growing inward, toward the center of the plant. If the plant’s habit is suckering growth from the base, thin a few of the biggest interior branches at ground level.
  4. Step back and observe the plant’s natural overall shape. The last little bit of pruning involves a few snips to enhance that natural form: thinning any overly dense areas or trimming the odd wayward stem or two.

Congratulations on a good pruning job!

Below are photos showing renovation of overgrown spireas I helped a friend with. Left–the old beautiful spirea were engulfing the garden before pruning. Center–after pruning, the shrubs are a much more manageable size while retaining their graceful natural shape. Right–spirea grow from the base, so here you can see the cuts we made and remaining branches.