Monday, February 22, 2016

Seed Shopping (the Other Winter Sport)

Rainy February days - what's there to do besides bake cupcakes and watch old movies???

Go seed shopping, of course!

I've got a few favorite websites I love to visit in the Winter, places that pull me into a mental Summer with glossy photos (can they be "glossy" if they're only on my computer screen?) of juicy veggies, sunny flowers and rampant ground cover (hiding all sorts of ugly landscape flaws in my yard). Yummy yummy yummy.

 And oh, the veggies!  I had great luck (as a Master Gardener, should I admit it's sometimes lucky when my plants grow well?) with cucumbers last year.  I had a sudden brainstorm last Spring and put the seedling cucumber plants in my cold frame. Voila - tons of beautiful, full sized cucumbers in a location that might have been too hot for many other plants.  I had to monitor the temps all summer, opening and closing the lid, raising and lowering the height of the lid, making sure the lid was open when the sprinklers went on...but it was sooo worth the fantastic harvest!

So I'm definitely shopping for more cucumber seeds this year.

And broccoli - my yard seems perfect for broccoli, even producing lots of side shoots through the hot summer.  Since broccoli is a cool weather crop, I always make sure the location is shady by afternoon. Some really hot summers I've even built a little shade structure with pvc pipe and row cover to protect the plants when the August temperatures have spiked.

The most important thing I've learned about choosing vegetables, besides reading the 'reviews' of how they taste, is making sure the ones I grow have the shortest number of days to harvest of any veggie in the catalogs. Annual flowers have to be short season, too, or I'll never get any flowers before the first hard frost. Luckily, all the good seed companies put the Days to Harvest number on their packets.

These are Rudbeckia flowers - what a contrast to the grey-skied February day outside! I love to shop for seeds for yellow plants on days like this but some times it's the red ones that jump off the catalog pages at me.
The Scarlet Runner Bean was a very satisfying vine last summer, growing quickly up the posts on the deck and flowering long into the fall. Just two plants covered about 8 feet of railing, hiding a less than great view from my chair.

If I'm careful where I plant the Snapdragons, I get some beautiful plants that the hummingbirds visit all summer. It's too bad that "Snaps" are also deer candy or I'd put them all over the yard.  Their height and cheerful colors look so good spiking above the shorter annuals. This summer, they'll go in containers on the deck with some small variegated grasses around them and a trailing vine (maybe Creeping Charlie) at the base.

But how could I resist trying this eggplant, a container variety called "Little Prince" - slices dipped in egg, coated in bread crumbs and Parmesan and baked in a hot oven -  what could be better than home-grown Eggplant Parmesan? Or grilled alongside the summer corn? Or in a flavorful Ratatouille? mmmmmm.
While I'm still salivating, I think I'll go order the vegetable and flower seeds I'll need this summer - since some of them can take up to 12 weeks to germinate and our last frost date is May 31, I'd better get shopping!

What will you be planting this summer? Tell us about your plans in the comments section below.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Growing Veggies in Cool Temps

Are you enjoying the slow cool-down we're having this Fall? It's a great time to clean up the beds while the temperatures are cool enough to work up a healthy sweat pulling out corn stalks and raking leaves off the lawn.

It's sad to put the garden to bed, though - summer's sweet days with blue skies and bright sunlight are gone, taking all the flowers and pretty colors of the veggies with them. The breezes across my yard have just the tiniest hint of winter and I miss the noisiest of the summer birds at the feeder.

But (aha!) there is a little glimmer of a growing season still in my garden - I'm experimenting with growing vegetables into the late Autumn, early Winter.

When I lived in the Willamette Valley, the growing season was beautifully long - the weeds grew every month of the year even if the vegetables didn't. I didn't know then that some veggies love the cool weather and I could have been growing broccoli, lettuce, peas, and all the root vegetables for most of the year, with a break for summer heat which they all hate.

Now that I'm in Central Oregon, my growing season is frighteningly short - between 75 and 90 days. Some years it's almost impossible to grow corn or tomatoes outside of greenhouse. The cool summer nights stop the growth and the poor heat-loving plants can't always recover enough to produce good crops. So I grow a lot of the veggies that love our cool Springs and nuture them carefully as far into Summer as I can (shading the lettuces got me a few more weeks of harvest in June).

Now that I've gotten the last of the "hot" veggies out of the ground - beans, corn, tomatoes - I've got lots of room to plant a Fall crop.

Since the temperatures are staying warmer than usual, I think I'll put in a cover crop of legumes - some garden peas will like the Fall rains and they should be able to grow enough before the snow falls. I know my Summer corn uses up a lot of nitrogen so I can turn the pea plants back into the soil in the Spring, replenishing the bed where I intend to grow corn next year.

 The carrots and potatoes are still in the ground so I'll wait until early Winter to dig them up, before the ground freezes solid.
 A few of the raised beds get lots of sun in the afternoon and are protected from cold winds by a hedge, so I may build some cloches to grow broccoli and lettuce.

Several years ago I found this OSU publication with great directions for building a raised bed garden cloche. I built mine with row cover and deer screening instead of the plastic, but in the cooler Fall temps, the plastic is a better choice. If I also put some row cover over the plants inside the cloche when the nighttime temps get really low, I should be able to extend the growing season into December.

There's a ton of information in these publications if you want to try some cool-season gardening:

Cover Crops -

Fall and Winter Vegetable Gardening in PNW -

Warm Season Crops in a Cool Climate -

 Build your own raised bed cloche -

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Garden Party's Over

That's it! The first hard frost has wiped out the veggies. Not a moment too soon since the family of four deer has figured out how to push through my fence. Just this morning one of them lifted two cantaloupes out of the cold frame - just in time for breakfast (theirs,  not mine).

Once I put my frustration aside (after all, how many more veggies can I expect in October?) I'm intrigued by the deer's menu.  First they ate the carrot tops and the broccoli.  Okay, they're going to be pretty healthy this winter.  Then they ate the onion tops.  Well, that seems a little strange but maybe they needed some seasoning on the carrots. And then - then! - they ate the flat-leaf parsley.  Ha! Gourmand deer cleansing their palates after a hearty veggie meal. Alllll rightey then!

It all points to the end of the garden year - frost-burnt cucumber and squash vines, shriveled petunia stems, sad, frozen hostas, exceptionally hungry deer prowling in daylight hours. And the last of the hummingbirds seems to be gone from the feeder.

But I'm looking forward already. The flower beds are 13 years old now and looked patchy even at the height of the summer bloom - now is the time to fix what is obviously "broken" in the summer garden design.

Since the annuals are finished, I can pull them out to better see what the perennials are doing. Once I've pulled the last of the weeds and raked up any debris left behind, I like to step back (sometimes the view from an upstairs window is best) and see what is wrong with the design.  I take photos of my flower beds throughout the season so I'll be able to judge what's working well (or not) as the year moves along. This particular bed has wonderful Spring flowering bulbs and late Summer Lavender but it's pretty bland in between.  I can see, from this vantage point, that the Irises have multiplied and are overwhelming everything else so I'll be digging and dividing them. The lavender plants are doing well, placed evenly throughout the bed but it's now obvious that I need to add some contrast and height to the picture. I'll add some Russian Sage (Perovskia) which will arch above the shorter plants and some pink-flowering Persian  Stonecress (Aethionema schistosum) to cover the ground beneath.

It's a great time to put in some new plants: the nurseries don't want to carry their stock over winter and the garden is nice and damp from the random fall showers.  I do a lot of planting in October so the new plants will have enough time to produce new roots before the ground freezes solid - I've got four or maybe five weeks, so I'd better hurry.

If I can get the garden ready for the first snowfall,
my 2016 garden will be in great shape.  If the four-legged neighbors leave anything for me...

I've found that the OSU Extension Service's Garden Tips help me remember all my seasonal chores - here are the tips for October and November:

Monday, September 28, 2015

Perennials and Winter

This is such a great time of year - the kids are off to school, the veggies are showing the results of all the Summer's hard work and the pressure to keep up with the Jones' garden is easing up. Back to being a happy housebound garden-book reader.

But before I settle into my over-stuffed chair with a good book, I really must get the perennials ready for their long winter's sleep.

In an earlier posting, I said that I leave my Blue Oat Grass up all winter, preferring to pull out the dead leaves in Spring.  I've found that the seedheads look really nice waving gently in the winter breeze and snow balances very prettily on the thin blue leaves.  But the Karl Foerster Grass needs to be cut back since it's huge and impossible to "de-leaf" in the Spring the way I clean up the Oat Grass.

So I'll snugly tie a length of garden twine around the leaves of the Feather Reed Grass about 6" above the ground and cut the grass with hedge clippers. In the Spring it'll be easier to clean out any dead leaves when the new ones emerge from the clump.

The Peonies are fading fast so I'll cut them down to the ground. The Roses can be trimmed down to keep the canes from whipping around in the winter wind and breaking.  I usually leave about 8 or 10" since my Roses are growing in a protected area but many gardeners will wrap their Roses in burlap and mound mulch or soil around the bundle.

Some people trim their Lavender in the Spring but I've found it's easier to get the flower "wands" trimmed off in the Fall since the new growth in Spring comes up right in middle of the old stems. I'm carefully to not disturb the woody stems which will produce next Summer's flowers. There usually are some old dead branches underneath so I clean them up while I'm there. It also gives me a chance to evaluate the plant and look for any new starts that have sprouted over the Summer. By next Spring or Summer, I may be able to cut them free of the older plant and move them to a better location.

The Butterfly Bushes need to be cut back hard - in many parts of Oregon, it's an invasive plant but here in the High Desert we just need to prune it hard in the Fall to keep it under control. Mine have been growing about 8 years so I prune them down to about 12". When the early Summer growth appears, I often trim them back again, pruning out old branches then.

The Forsythia, the Hibiscus and all the Spireas will stay un-pruned for now - in the Spring I can see where any damage was done by the Winter and cut back to green wood then.

Once I've done the Performance Review of the plants and cleaned up fallen leaves and branches, I'll get the hose out again and do some heavy watering. So many plants suffer from the drying cold winds of Winter unnecessarily - dragging out the hose every 6 weeks will prevent a lot of dieback next Spring. If we get a few good snowfalls or some timely rainstorms, I'll mark my calendar and check the soil again in a month.

Many of us remember that the past couple Winters have brought shockingly cold temps - minus 25 and below! With temps like that, we really can't determine what Hardiness Zone our plants are living in. And as much as I'd like a greenhouse that encloses my entire yard, it just isn't practical (and my hubby won't agree to buy it for me - imagine that!), I'll have to use other methods to protect my perennials and trees.

Toasty warm decomposing compost (
So I turn to mulch.  Once the plants are trimmed, the ground beneath them is cleaned up and well watered, I can put down a nice 4 or 5 inches of mulch. I use either ground bark from a landscaping company or the aged compost from Knott Landfill, making sure to keep it back a bit from the trunks of any plants. (The insects are looking for a good, warm place to over-winter in safety and a shrub with mulch against the trunk is ideal.) In the Spring, I'll turn the mulch into the soil as an amendment.

That should do it, my plants are as ready as I am for the winds to blow and, I hope, the snows to fall.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cooling Down

Big blue sky, chilly, dew-laden mornings - I love September!

It'll be hard to say goodbye to the little hummingbirds at the feeder by the window.  And all the plants on the front porch have to go to "sleep" in the cold room inside, leaving an empty doorway to greet visitors.

But the harvest is fully underway with daily tomatoes, green beans and herbs arriving in the kitchen in almost overwhelming numbers. Every armful of veggies brings the promise of flavorful winter meals from the freezer - yum!

Until this past week, I hadn't noticed that some of my neighbors have veggie gardens - are you wondering how I missed it all summer but notice now, in September? Our gardens are all open, no fencing, with lots of small trees and bushes that keep most backyards secluded. But the view has changed recently with the cooler overnight temps -

Row Cover! Wrapped over some PVC hoops pushed into the soil. I'll bet there are some tomatoes under that fabric.

In my garden the green beans are still producing so I'm determined to protect the vines from any frost. And the tomatoes haven't all reached the blush color that means they'll ripen off the vine. Last year my corn plants weren't ready for harvest by the time of the first frost so I wrapped up the 6' tall plants - it was quite a sight, especially when a slight breeze made the row cover look like a huge ghost lurking just behind the garden fence!

The floating row cover I bought from the Master Gardeners protects the plants when the temperature drops to about 30 degrees. I use clothes pins to anchor the fabric to the trellis and tomato cages and it stays there until the weather forecast promises above freezing nights.  The irrigation can pass through the fabric and it's not so heavy that the sunlight is blocked. (In the middle of summer, I use it to protect the cabbage from the moths that eat huge holes in the heads.)

My other season extender is my cold frame, made from old windows and 2x12 lumber. I was lucky to have the windows and lumber but I've seen other cold frames made of stacked straw bales with a 'lid' of rigid plastic on top. If you've got the space, you can even just dig a hole in the groundabout 12 - 15" deep and make a cover of plastic. If the ground is soft, you may want to line it with lumber but the important part is having the cold frame face south.  As you can see, the back is higher than the front so when the lid is closed, the light gets all the way to the back.
If you're going to use the cold frame farther into the fall and winter, you can add some heating cables on the bottom. I've used  incandescent light bulbs in a shop light but they're getting harder to find. This picture shows a cold frame with water jugs - the water is heated from the sun all day long and gives off the heat overnight. I'd put the jugs in clusters all around the plants and not expect too much once the daytime temps go below freezing. Some veggies like broccoli, peas and spinach do really well in this setting but warm temp plants like eggplant, green beans and tomatoes, not so much.

If you've still got plants in the ground not quite ready to harvest and there's a sudden cold snap, go for anything that can cover your plants: blankets, sheets, cardboard boxes, even bottomless milk jugs for small plants.

There are lots of options for getting your crop to harvest despite the weather.  Here are some sites with good information:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dig Now for Spring Bulbs

I'm anticipating Spring - it's hard to believe I'd say that in late September, but it's a really important thought for me since (if you've read any of my previous posts, you know) I'm a lazy gardener.  I don't like to work too hard without a really good reason.

But here are a few good reasons:
And the only way I can have these wonderful flowers is if I kneel in the dirt with my back to the sun, and dig holes. Lots and lots of holes!

First I shop for the best bulbs Holland has to offer.  Why Holland, you ask? It's a long, fascinating story about price gouging, insider trading, huge deals and massive market losses - when you've got some time, look up "Dutch Tulip Mania of 1637".  It makes the housing bubble and market crash of 2008 look like kindergarten games. But the bottom line is, the premium bulbs in the world come from Holland. We've gotten some pretty good growers here in the Pacific Northwest, too, so I shop a number of stores, looking for the healthiest, most unique blooms.

Estella Rijnveld Tulip
When I shop for bulbs, I make sure they'll survive our Zone 5 climate - if I was in Madras, I could buy Zone 6 plants and in Sunriver, they'd be Zone 4 (or maybe even 3 if I was at a higher elevation). I never buy dahlias since I forget to dig them up before the ground freezes (and kills them) and I haven't had a lot of luck with growing Amaryllis inside (one year's bloom for an $8 bulb seems impractical). So I buy lots and lots of Muscari, Daffodils, Alliums and Anemones. Many people love the Crocus and Chionodoxa, too. The Chionodoxa multiply so they need a large area to go crazy in.

I spend a lot of time in the aisle at the stores, checking the bulb packages to be sure the bulbs aren't soft. I won't know until I have them in my hand if they have any diseases or maggots, but softness is a good indicator before I pony up my money. Once the bulbs are home, I look them over carefully to avoid bringing anything harmful into my garden. Out of 100, I might get one or two shriveled bulbs but I think that's pretty good if they came all the way from the Netherlands!

My favorite part of Spring bulb planting is the weather - it has to cool down to plant. No sweltering heat, no blindingly bright sun, just the cool, sweet-smelling days of late October with a gentle breeze if I'm lucky.  Unfortunately, I've also dug bulbs into muddy soil in driving rain because I was running out of calendar.  But the reward is great no matter the planting conditions - the important thing is to be sure the soil has begun its cool-down before the bulbs are planted.

Little bulbs, big bulbs, HUGE bulbs - how deep should the hole be dug? I follow the grower's advice: the bottom of the hole should be measured 3 times the diameter of the bulb.  It's not an exact science so I just use the trowel with the inch marks on it and figure the size against the marks. The bigger the bulb, the deeper the hole. The Gladiator Allium is HUGE and you might be digging an 8" deep hole for it. But the little Crocus and Squill need only about 2".
So far, so good - the worst is almost over.  Now just scratch up the soil at the bottom of the hole and mix some fertilizer in.  If you can find a Bulb Fertilizer it'll say it's something like 5-10-5 with more phosphorus than nitrogen or potassium. Bone Meal has lots of phosphorus too, but we've found that critters like to dig up the plants to eat the bone meal. I once had a cat who would lick the dirt wherever the bone meal spilled!

If Bulb Fertilizer is hard to find, a balanced fertilizer will work too - use one that's 10-10-10 or 16-16-16.  It's especially important to not let the bulb sit directly on the fertilizer since it would "burn" the root plate of the bulb where the roots grow.  

After you've placed the bulb in the hole and replaced the dirt, pat it down and pour water over it.  The flow of water will push dirt into the air pockets so the bulb is in full contact with the soil.

That's it. You're ready for Spring - how easy was that? Well, except for digging in rocks or tree roots or while it's raining/snowing. But, like childbirth, the work is forgotten when you see those lovely blooms brighten a grey March day.

Here's some more information you may enjoy:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tulips and Daffodills and Crocus - Oh My!

Keukenhof Gardens, Holland

Need some inspiration? This photo is from Holland, in the Netherlands, where they've made Spring bulb design an art and a very profitable business. It's much like the annual New York Fashion Week when design houses parade their newest and most exciting creations. The bulbs in the Keukenhof Park are planted each Fall to showcase the work of the Dutch growers. Almost 80 acres are planted with 8 MILLION bulbs! Imagine a photo of what the annual Fall planting must be like!

 Has the photo inspired - or intimidated you? They make my wallet hurt - I once tried to count just the blue Muscari in the first picture and stopped when my estimate went over 1,000 bulbs. That was a design dream that quickly turned into an economical nightmare.

But the amazing number of bulbs they manage to plant every year heartens me - surely I can get a few dozen in the ground this fall without too many complaints. Right?

"White Lion" Double Daffodil
"Faith" Daffodil
In the past few years, I've planted hundreds of daffodils.  After the initial fascination with the big trumpeted  old-fashioned King Alfred, I bought  some gorgeous double daffodils, some multi-flower, and some split-cup narcissus. The originality of some breeders stops me in my tracks - just look at those pink trumpets!

But every Fall when the bulb catalogs arrive, I fall in love with the newest varieties (oh you fickle woman!) and carefully choose a few dozen new ones. Last year it was "Spring Beauty" Scilla which popped up between the ornamental grasses in early Spring this year - the brightness of the little blue flower was startling to see. 
"Spring Beauty" Scilla siberica
Sweet Woodruff (photo by Heather Birkett, Wash.)
Anemone Blanda
            A month later, the Anemone Blanda I had naturalized in the side garden bloomed just weeks before the Sweet Woodruff flowered.  I had seen the effect of the anemone coming up through the green leaves of the woodruff in a fellow Master Gardener's yard (thanks, Bev) and the effect was so charming, I've been gradually adding the anemone to the bed. It's early yet so I don't have a good photo of the bed but if you apply a little imagination with these two photos, you might see what I'm working toward.

 Once the design is planned and the purchases are made, the work begins.  Next time I'll explain how the magic happens and any tricks we can use to make it a little easier. Meanwhile, one last Keukenhof:

And a couple of good websites for design ideas: