Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Best Veggie Scrubber

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."
~Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1969, 34th US President

This may seem an odd subject to blog about but if you scrub as many fresh veggies as I do, this is important and I’ve wanted to write a short post on it for quite some time. If you have a lot of vegetables to scrub, a good scrubber will not only clean the food you are about to eat but will not cause bodily fatigue as you use it.

I’ve used a lot of things to scrub my vegetables, everything from nail brushes to those green Scotch Brite pads. Most things I’ve tried worked well, except the loofa sponge. It got soft as soon as the water hit it. The Scotch Brite pads conform well to a variety of odd shapes and crevices but they break down over time and need to be replaced often throughout the year. As I said most cleaned well enough but many also caused some thumb or finger fatigue after a while. Some even caused wrist pain due to the amount of pressure needed to really get the dirt off. Carrots for instance can hold onto a lot of dirt stain, even those store bought that had already been rinsed.

Last year while shopping for my organic veggies at my local health food store I saw this little gem. It has become the only one I use and it shows no signs of wearing out.

The coir bristles are good and stiff. I wondered if they would hold up when wet unlike the loofa.  They do. The store offered the brush in two sizes. The one shown here is actually marketed as a nail brush per the tag but I thought it a perfect size for my smallish hands. There is another larger size marketed as the veggie scrubber this one was a better fit. The bristles are so tough I actually wouldn’t want to use it as a nail brush. That skin surrounding your nails can be pretty tender. Matter of fact these bristles are a bit too rough for the tender-skinned new potatoes or freshly dug sweet potatoes but are great for the tougher potato skins.

I also like that it is made from all natural materials and distributed by a company that is local to the Pacific Northwest, committed to quality, its employees and selling products made mostly of materials that are recyclable or biodegradable.

So if you do a lot of scrubbing like I do, I hope you find and like this brush. Scrubbing vegetables isn’t such a chore with it…well it’s at least a more enjoyable chore.

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Rhododendron, Daisy

Author’s photo

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tomato Willamette - A New Favorite

August, for me, was the beginning of three months of intensive harvesting and food processing. Kettles of salsa, tomato sauce, and corn dominated the kitchen in endless relays through the fall. Three large freezer chests were packed with cider, berries, and meat.
At the time, I believe this was referred to as returning to the simple life. Good for a laugh.
~ Ani Gurnee

I’ve talked to people here in the Pacific Northwest that have given up trying to grow tomatoes in their gardens, saying we just don’t have the hot weather for it.  Or do we?  We actually have a long growing season but is considered cool till August.  Forget Beefsteak or Brandywine here unless you have a greenhouse.  They need a long, hot growing season to reach their size, you’d be lucky to get one to ripen before frost.  So cool and iffy is our growing season for tomatoes, many gardeners stick with the cherry tomatoes. Such a small tomato doesn’t need a long, hot summer to give ample produce.  But read on and I hope to convince you to try growing larger varieties that prefer our cooler summers.

I’ve also talked with shoppers in the grocery store.  One man saw me choosing organic tomatoes and he complained that “tomatoes here (in the Northwest) have no flavor”.  He was from the east coast.  I told him he might try growing his own, so they would be fully ripened on the plant yielding more nutrition and flavor when he picked them.  The tomatoes in the grocery stores have been picked for transport so they are green, firmer so as not to bruise or crack and will ripen during transit or in the store.  Because they are picked green they never fully develop the nutrients and flavor of an on-the-plant ripened tomato.  Also the growers who supply grocery stores use those varieties that have been developed for more disease resistance and to have a sturdier fortitude for shipment.  The commercial world calls these “shipping tomatoes”. Flavor wasn’t necessarily the goal for hybridizers.

I have mentioned a few times on this blog that after trying several tomato varieties that Stupice, a roma type, became my favorite for its early production in my climate, meaty not too seedy, prolific harvest and reliability.  It’s the perfect tomato for growing in our cool, cloudy, unpredictable spring weather.  A Czechoslovakian heirloom, cold doesn’t set it back like most hot weather tomatoes.  Stupice has a 65 day maturity rate and is an indeterminate type, meaning it is more sprawling with vines that will need support and will produce longer into the season giving you a lengthy harvest. 

My new favorite is Willamette.  It is a determinate type, with a 70 day maturation after transplanting your seedling into your garden.  Determinate tomato varieties tend to be more compact, shorter and bush like that may not need staking and will give you more fruits all at once…great for canning, when you want to do batches.  However my experience with Willamette is that I wanted a trellis to support the vines, the tomato is so heavy it pulled them down.  The tomatoes are GEORGEOUS!  And double the size of Stupice with a beautiful multi-lobe shape like the beautiful heirlooms.  Willamette was developed at Oregon State University for our short growing season.  I will mention that while their maturity rates are registered at only 5 days difference, I think Stupice gave me ripe tomatoes much sooner than a 5 day difference.  Both last summer (Stupice) and this summer (Willamette) were cool, and wet well into July.  I had tomatoes way earlier last summer (Stupice) than this summer.

Like Stupice, Willamette is more meaty than seedy.  I don’t like tomatoes that ooze out half their weight in goopy seed stuffs before you actually get it onto your plate.

Both Stupice and Willamette fit well into the small garden but in my experience Stupice is a bigger plant which may need some pruning to keep it in its allotted space.

To have the best tomato variety to meet your specific needs and for your location I suggest you forgo the plant starts at the nursery or garden center and study seed catalogs for your region.  Then choose one or two varieties that have the characteristics you want, buy the seed and start your own.  That said most reputable nurseries do carry the most popular varieties that will grow in your region but you are limited to what they choose to sell.  I rarely find Stupice and haven’t seen Willamette for sale as plant starts.

I start my tomato seeds pretty early by most standards.  I start them indoors in February mostly because I’m antsy to get going in the garden again but it’s still way too cold.  As they grow I pot them up so they don’t get root bound so by the time mid May rolls around I’ve got a gallon size plant to transplant.  Now is when you start your countdown.  If the seed packet says 70 days to maturity, begin counting when you’ve transplanted your plant into the garden. Not when you sowed the seed.  So 70 days from my May planting date will be sometime in August for harvest.  Poor weather shouldn’t be a factor since I’ve chosen varieties that perform well in my climate, which can be cool and wet well into June.  Frost however is another issue.  My last frost date is April 15 so again it shouldn’t be a factor but be prepared to cover your plants if a late frost is predicted.

I don’t do canning, and I only cook for 2 so I don’t need a super prolific plant.  Even though one is a determinate and the other an indeterminate, both these varieties yield an easy amount, spaced out just right so I can share a few with neighbors and enjoy them on our plates without feeling overwhelmed by tomatoes!

Stupice is an heirloom, meaning its been grown for many years and the seed has been saved because of certain qualities of the plant/fruit and has been passed down through the generations.  Seed Savers is a company committed to preserving that tradition.  Willamette is a hybrid tomato, meaning a tomato that was recently (40 years ago) cross bred with other tomatoes for certain desired tomato qualities.  Make no mistake…hybrid is not GMO.  Genetic modification (GMO) is the controversial science and practice of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another, ie: animal genes inserted into plant genes. I do not use GMO seed or purchase GMO foods at market.  Never.

So, to recap. 

Stupice: indeterminate, a bigger plant (may want to prune it to keep it in check for a small garden), medium size roma type tomatoes, needs staking, harvest over a long extended period, cool weather friendly.

 Willamette: determinate, a compact plant, large meaty tomatoes, minimal staking but still recommended, harvest over a more concentrated timeframe, cool weather friendly.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Borage, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Colchicum, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Cyclamen coum, Daphne aucasica, Echinacea, Fuchsia magellanica ‘hawkhead’, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Heather(Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hosta, Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Lobelia, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Oregano vulgare compactum ‘humile’ (compact oregano), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rose, Salvia, Schizostylus, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Tomato, Veronica ‘royal candles’,

Author’s photos

Friday, August 3, 2012

Echinacea (Cone Flower)

Where flowers bloom, so does hope. 
~Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady and wildflower advocate, 1912-2007

This beautiful flower with droopy petals and an ever elongating seed head is also a medicinal plant used throughout history, its properties easing illness and boosting our immunity.  But don’t go eating any of these plants in your garden, not all of them are used for medicinal purposes. 

 For years I had an Echinacea plant, barely alive in a sunny spot on the sunny south side of my house.  I couldn’t figure out what was keeping it from thriving.  I moved it to a slightly less hot, sunny spot but still it just sat there and looked worse and worse.  Finally I decided to get serious so I moved it again to a different sunny spot.  I also planted about 5 more along side, creating a large patch of Echinacea.  Since then I have added more and they are all growing and thriving.  I think the first two spots were too wet of soil, one being by a downspout and the other had shrubs shading the soil too much.  Sometimes it takes a few moves to find just the right place, so don’t get frustrated if a plant seems to fail…try moving it.  This is one plant where one just isn’t enough.  A single plant seems puny but en-masse it is a sight to behold.  Begin with no less than 3 plants, planted in a triangle, 20 inches (51 cm) apart if you want to make an impact in your garden.

There are many species of Echinacea, all native to North America.  You might be most familiar with the purple varieties but in the past several years Echinacea has become a favorite among hybridizers, introducing new colors of yellows and oranges every year.  I still prefer the standard purple though I’ve seen a soft butter yellow that I’d love to bring into my garden someday.

Most common in gardens and nurseries in my region is Echinacea purpurea or Eastern purple Coneflower.  It is a robust, stocky flower and plant with deeper green leaves as seen here in my garden.

Pictured next is Echinacea pallida, a more delicate species.  It is just beautiful.  It has a much softer color and the petal is longer…flowing, a little like ribbons around the May pole.

Overall the plant structure of E. pallida is more delicate and open than the E. purpurea species as you can see the two side by side below (E. pallida is on the left).   The only negative thing I can say about E. pallida is that its stems are not as strong as E. purpurea so I’ve had to stake the plant.  I’ve not had to stake E. purpurea, though after a windstorm a stem or two does need help.  With E. pallida the overall plant leans over so one encircling or half circle support is all that is needed.   Perhaps if you plant your E. pallida amonst your E. purpureas they will provide all the support needed for the other.  I need to move one and will be trying that this year.  Normally I don’t like staking plants…who’s got time for all that fussing.  But there are some plants that are so beloved either for their look, color or fragrance that in order to keep them one must make the choice to stake.  Like many things in life you must pick your battles.  Echinacea pallida is worth it for me.

Plant your Echinacea in a full sun location.  Keep them well watered until they get established, at least for the first year, perhaps into the second.  Even with our rainy weather, keep an eye on the level of soil moisture.  That first year of establishing in a garden the plant must develop a strong root network.  Don’t keep them too wet though, as roots need the soil to dry a little so oxygen can reach into the soil pockets too.  Only after they are established will they handle the stress of drought.

The pollen and nectar are gathered by bees and butterflies in the summer.  I do not suggest you deadhead your Echinacea.  If you do you will miss the fun of seeing the song birds in the winter feasting on the seeds.  It is a plant that truly provides food for your garden wildlife practically year round.

The most commonly sold Echinacea in western U.S. nurseries is E. purpurea.  Finding E. pallida may take more work but if you like variety and rarities in your garden it is well worth the effort.

In Bloom in my Garden Today: Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alpine Strawberries, Alyssum, Astilbe, ‘Begonia ‘bonfire’, Bletilla pink, Borage, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Daphne caucasica, Digitalis grandiflora, Echinacea, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Geum, Geranium ‘mavis simpson’, Green Beans, Heuchera, Hosta, Kniphofia ‘echo mango, ’Lavender, Lilium tigrinum ‘splendens’, Lily, Lobelia, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Purple poppies, Rose, Salvia, Scheherazade oriental lily, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Sedum, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Thyme ‘foxley’, Tigridia (Mexican Shell Flower), Tomato, Zucchini, Veronica,

Authors photos

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lighting in the Garden

Almost any garden, if you see it at just the right moment, can be confused with paradise.
~ Henry Mitchell, 1924-1993, American garden writer and humanist

Night lighting in the garden adds another dimension of beauty.  Ground lights aimed up tree trunks add elegance.  Strings of lights and Tiki torches add a party spirit.  Walkway lights entice you to look for what’s around the next bend in the path without stubbing your toe or trampling a treasured plant.  Do you think adding lights to your garden would be too costly both in fixture and continual energy usage?  I may have a solution for you.

I can find these solar path lights at big box hardware stores occasionally on sale for $2 each.  Make sure the stake is removable.  And know the smaller the light is often the dimmer the glow.

On just about any given day at a large chain thrift store I can find replacement glass shades for $1-$3 dollars each.  The trick is to find enough of the same style that will fit your solar light.  Finding 3 or 4 matching shades in one visit is easy, though finding 12 will probably require multiple visits.  But we’re talking about affordability today, not a quick finish to a project.  And they don’t need to be matching if that is your style.  They can be all different, making it easier to find the quantity you want in one visit.  Take your solar light with you to try out in the glass shades you find to get a good fit and look.  Make sure the store management knows your bringing it in with you.  Or you could buy the glass shades first then take one into the hardware store to find a solar light that will fit in it.  If cost is not an issue for you, the hardware store has several styles of these replacement glass shades and you can buy them new in the quantity you need and the solar lights in the same store. 

I’ve used these jelly jar style glass shades for several years in the garden with votive candles.  I have put them on ledges or hung them from tree limbs and hung them on my front porch.  Lovely but you can go through a lot of votives over the years.

By putting the top of a solar path light (stake removed) into the jar I now have much longer and brighter lighting when the sun goes down.  I think I’d prefer a glass shade that will allow the solar light to be completely hidden below the top rim; the jelly jars seem a tad too small for the solar lights I’ve chosen.  And since I live in a rainy climate I’ll be looking for 6 shades with a hole in the top and bottom that will allow the rain to pass through and drip out.  The bottom hole will need to be small so as to hold the solar light in.  The only problem I can foresee in the rain is if your solar light fits in snugly below the glass rim with no way for rain to pass over and off, water could pool on top and short out the solar panel electrical components.  While they are made to be used in the rain, they are not designed to sit in water.  If the inside of your glass shade is ribbed vertically or bumpy, that would allow water to pass. 

With that in mind I’ve got a new search ahead of me but sometimes that’s half the fun isn’t it?  Though for now it’s sunny, warm and fairly dry and these jelly jar garden lights are just great.  When we get a brief passing shower no water is getting in so they may be fine in the rainy season too.  Alternatively, I could try ‘sealing’ the rim with a canning jar rubber seal or a bead of silicone. 

If you want to hang them you need to make a wire ring around the rim of the shade, and then fit on a handle.

Here’s two other ways I use these solar lights. 

They can be tucked anywhere.

You could even simply drop one into an opaque vase on your patio table at your next dinner party. Once the sun goes down your table and guests will be lit with a warm glow. 

They work by solar recharging of a battery inside the top of the light.  Over the years the battery will weaken and the glow dims a little.  I think the batteries are replaceable but it will probably cost less to replace the whole solar path light when you next find them on sale.  I’ve had one on my fence for 3 or 4 years so far and it still works well albeit a little dimmer than the newest ones.

The jelly jar glass shades cost me .99 each so my total cost for each solar/shade combo light is $3 (plus tax) plus a little wire so I can hang them. Not bad if you are on a tight budget or just penny-pinching love a bargain like me.  The uses for these lights are limited only by your imagination…and some sun for recharging.

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alpine Strawberries, Alyssum, Astlbe,Begonia ‘bonfire’, Bletilla pink, Borage, Clematis alpina ‘frankie’, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Crocosmia ‘george davidson’, Daphne caucasica, Digitalis grandiflora, Echinacea Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Geum, Hardy Geranium, Heuchera, Hosta, Lavender, Lilium tigrinum ‘splendens’, Lobelia, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Peas, Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Primrose (double English), Purple poppies, Rose, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Thyme, Tomato, Veronica ‘royal candles’, Zucchini,

Authors photos

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Much Anticipated Lettuce Harvest!

Weather means more when you have a garden.  There's nothing like listening to a shower and thinking how it is soaking in around your green beans.
~Marcelene Cox

Much of my vegetable crops are still in their baby stages of a cold spring.  No way will the “corn be knee high by the 4th of July” in my yard, but already I’ve harvested some snap peas and asparagus stalks, several artichokes and finally my lettuce is ready!  I have 8 heads of an heirloom green leaf with sturdy leaves on the left, a few of the diminutive butter head Tom Thumb in center, so soft and delicate the quickest to grow in my collection with a 34 day maturity and a new one this year…Rouge d’Hiver - this beautiful red Romaine type with a 48 day maturity on the right. 

I pick a few individual large, outer leaves off each head of the Heirloom variety.  That way the plant will continue to send new leaves out from the center.  You don’t want to harvest the whole plant like you find at the market.  You will get a much longer harvest this way. But for the red Romaine here it’s way too soon for the heads to have matured and formed into what you’d recognize as a long, lean Romaine head so I’m picking out tiny whole plants early in order to thin out the bed.  That will make room for the rest to form full heads.  As you can see, I didn’t have time to grow and plant individual seedlings, I just scattered seed over the soil surface.  Kinda messy looking but successful none the less.  I could also just treat the red leaves like a Mesclun mix and snip leaves off with clean scissors, being sure to cut well above the growing point so the plant will send out new leaves again.  Known as the cut-and-come-again method, you just grasp several leaves and cut.  Or if you prefer you can individually hand pick the biggest leaves for your daily harvest like I am doing with the Heirloom.

Did you know that if you harvest your lettuce at temperatures over 65 F (18 C) degrees it will often have a bitter taste?  That’s why you will often see advice to pick your lettuce in the morning hours.  At the cooler morning temperatures the plant is hydrated, not stressed, and the sugars of the plant are at their peak.  Morning harvested vegetables are crisper, juicier and sweeter.  This is a good rule of thumb for all your vegetable harvesting…not just lettuce.

To wash fresh garden lettuce I just dunk the leaves into a sink of cold water with about a cup of plain white vinegar added.  The vinegar will kill any bugs and gnats that you don’t want to find in your salad bowl later.  They will drop to the bottom of the sink so I give the leaves a second dunking in plain cold water.  I wouldn’t want to live without a salad spinner with as much lettuce as I grow.  Getting most of the water off the leaves allows the salad dressing to coat the leaves better. 

You get the most nutrients if you eat it the day you harvest it but when I get too much I store them in the refrigerator drawer for vegetables.  I never put veggies in regular plastic bags, but rather the green plastic bags made for refrigerating fruits and vegetables.  They truly do prolong freshness in the fridge.  And the bags last a long time.  I keep using mine till a seam gives way and tears.  One box lasts me more than a year.
Happy Harvesting!

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Alpine Strawberries, Armeria, Baptesia, Bletilla pink, Chives, Columbine, Daylily, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Dianthus, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Hosta ‘sum and substance’, Huchera, Kniphofia (torch flower or red hot poker, Lavendar, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Peas, Peony, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Primrose vailii, Rose, Salvia, Saxifraga andrewsii (irish saxifrage), Sedum, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Thalictrum rochebrunianum (meadow rue), Tomato

Author’s photo

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sometimes The Garden Must Wait

In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them." 
~Aldo Leopold (American ecologist, 1887-1948)

It’s June and by now the lilacs are finished blooming here in the Pacific Northwest.  I have 3 medium sized trees and by now I would normally have been up on a ladder amongst the branches cutting off all the old bloom clusters before they form seed heads.  It makes them not only look considerably better, it also sends the plants energy into new growth sooner rather than giving it over to seed formation.

I won’t be doing that this year though.  The pace of my schedule has ramped up this year and some tasks of the garden simply must be left undone.  Ignoring some garden jobs can cause untold disaster, like letting weeds get out of control.  That I won’t allow, but skipping the lilacs doesn’t worry me.  Leaving the seed heads will not affect the tree’s blooming performance next year.  What it will do is provide food for birds during winter’s dearth and that’s a good thing.  A neighboring garden has a beautiful double flowering white lilac tree.  It is far too big to teeter on a ladder to clean it up so it is never dead-headed.  And because of that, every winter on the bleak gray days, I smile as I watch the Chickadees feast on every last morsel offered by that tree.  This winter they’ll have more with my trees adding to their buffet. 

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Alpine Strawberries, Armeria, Baptisia, Bletilla pink, Blueberries, Chives, Columbine, Daylily, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Dianthus, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Hosta ‘sum and substance’, Huchera, Kniphofia (torch flower or red hot poker, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Peas, Peony, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Primrose vailii, Rose, Salvia, Saxifraga andrewsii (irish saxifrage), Sedum, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Thalictrum rochebrunianum (meadow rue), Tomato,

Author’s photos

Friday, April 20, 2012

Garden Tool Care

"To dig in one's own earth, with one's own spade, does life hold anything better?"
  ~Beverly Nichols, 1898-1982, British author of
Down the Garden Path

As in any endeavor or hobby, having the right equipment in good condition makes the difference between enjoying your activity or not.

The winter months are the perfect time to get your tools cleaned and sharpened for the season ahead.  In a perfect world I’d be doing this in January, not mid April but alas…such is life, isn’t it…the best laid plans and all that? 

Imagine this, a steaming cup of your favorite beverage, jazzy tunes on the radio, all in your large garden shed complete with wood burning stove to keep you warm while the winds howl and snow swirls outside and you, cleaning, oiling, and sharpening your myriad of garden tools all neatly stowed on their proper wall hooks or in their tidy drawers…yeah I wish.  Something to aspire for but my reality is this.

No room for a wood stove but I do have the jazzy tunes going.  One wall gets all my larger tools in our little drafty garage.  A few drawers get the smaller trowels and weeding forks.  All this shared with piles of pots, bags of fertilizer, bee stuff, car stuff, bikes, oh and a car, which is why we have a Mini Cooper.  Crazy tight but it all shoe-horns in somehow.

Believe it or not, gardening tools are meant to be sharp.  Just as a dull kitchen knife makes chopping and slicing more difficult, so does a dull shovel make digging more strenuous. 

Naturally digging in the dirt, rocks and grit will dull your shovel, making you work harder.  The more you dig the more you may need to sharpen the edge.  In the case of pruners (secateurs) you could sharpen them after each full day of use or more likely on a monthly basis.  Sharpening frequency depends on how often you use the tool.  Once sharpened you should feel the difference.

Mostly people ask what edge gets sharpened?  If your new tool comes with a sharpened factory bevel right out of the package, take note of which edge and the angle of the bevel and only sharpen in the same way when you sharpen it again.  The angle of bevel will determine how sharp the tool is.  The more delicate pruner will have a sharper bevel angle than a shovel.   Also the sharper the angle the more often it will require sharpening.  A shovel is typically at a 45 degree angle on the top side of the edge.  A good average bevel for a hoe is at about 30 degrees, again on the top side of the edge. 

This is my stirrup (aka wiggle) hoe, my favorite tool for the weeding of large areas or mixing in compost or fertilizer at the soil surface.  (All organic fertilizers must be lightly mixed with your soil in order for the soil organisms to break down the fertilizer, making it available to the plants).  With a push/pull motion this hoe is designed to skim across, just under the top layer of dirt, slicing the leaves off from the stem or root of weeds.  Mine was not sharp at the point of purchase but in order for ease of use they need to be sharpened on both top edges of the flat, horizontal blade.  This one actually had blunt, squared edges so I used an electric bench grinder to get it to sharp edges.  Now that I have two beveled edges, I can just use a hand file to do the job.

I’ve tried several different ways to sharpen tools over the years.  The electric bench grinder is good for shovels and hoes.  You can get different stone grits, depending on how dull or nicked the blade is you need to sharpen, though a flat file will work well if it’s not in too bad of shape.  

For more delicate work like pruners I prefer this pocket size Corona tool.  Taking apart pruners is good practice once a year so you can really clean all the metal surfaces with steel wool and sharpen the full length of the blade.  But for the monthly touch up, I want a quick tool like the Corona tool. This is not a paid endorsement or any kind of endorsement other than I like it for its ease and pocket size.  I discovered this little handy sharpener at the greenhouse were I volunteer.  They keep several of them around.  Sharp pruners are a must.  Dull cutting edges will tear leaves and stems.  You always want a nice clean cut, otherwise pests and/or disease can enter the plants vascular system with the potential of death.  Additionally, a dull hand pruner will put added stress on your hands and wrists.

The long file shown below is too clumsy for me to use on small pruners.  The circular stone, which is inserted into a drill like a drill bit, works great but you need to take apart the pruner to get all the blade’s edge.  It works great for grass shears and the standard flat hoe. 

Don’t forget to lubricate the moving parts of your tools to keep them working well.  My favorite lubricant is a Teflon based synthetic oil lubricant, found at bicycling stores made for bike chains.  It’s slick and doesn’t attract grit.

The wooden handles need care too.  Barehanded, I rub the wooden handles of all my tools with linseed oil.  It is a natural, non toxic oil which smells wonderful.  Once it absorbs it protects the wood from drying out and leaves a nice feeling finish that water won’t penetrate.   In the kitchen linseed oil is known as flax seed oil.  The difference being the linseed oil at the hardware store is not strained enough or processed for consumption.

I prefer wooden handles for most of my tools, but I must confess to breaking two garden forks with wooden handles so for that particular tool I keep to the fiberglass handle.  One thing to note…if you live in the USA and can get to a Sears store, they still offer the life-time guarantee on their entire line of Sears Craftsman brand tools…that includes gardening tools.  I’ve broken a few wooden handles in my work and yes, I do take advantage of that guarantee.  Buying and replacing cheap brands is not frugal when you can get free replacement and a quality product.  You don’t need to keep receipts…Sears Craftsman tools have their brand name stamped on the handles.  (No endorsement here either, just good information)

Lastly, do your best to hose the dirt off your tools and let them air dry before you stow them away after use.  Rusty tools are long-lived tools. So sharpen your tools now and have a more enjoyable time in the garden this summer!

In bloom in my garden today: Alpine Strawberries, Anemone nemerosa ‘robinsoniana’, Bergenia ‘winter glow’, Brunnera macrophylla, Clematis alpina ‘jacquelin de pre’, Daphne caucasica, Daffodils, Clematis alpina ‘frankie’, Erythronium revolutum (fawn lily, trout lily, dogtooth violet), Fritillaria pallidiflora, Geranium phaeum ‘lily lovell’ (mourning widow), Hardy Geranium, Heather(Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hellebore, Hyacinth ‘blue jacket’,Kale, Pansy, Skimmia, Primrose (double English), Tulipa ‘gavota’

Authors photos

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Snow Covered Smorgasbord

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.
~Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719), 'The Spectator'

Birds need food and water every day, just like us gardeners.
When your very own personal bird sanctuary looks like this…

…most of their natural food sources may have been covered under a blanket of snow or ice encrusted and inaccessible.

That is when I just start tossing loose seed over the snow.

In the winter months I forgo the seed feeders in favor of suet cakes. We have so much rain in winter that the seed often gets wet and molds before the birds eat it all so I put out a few of these instead. This is a flicker, a cousin of a Woodpecker.

Hummingbirds get assistance too.

The Anna’s hummingbird over winters on this side of the Cascade Mountain Range so they are year round in my garden. When the temps dip below freezing for any length of time I make a thicker sugar syrup (with NO red dye ever) and wrap the feeder with 3 or 4 layers of bubble wrap. For the most part the syrup does not freeze, unless we get prolonged temps, day and night in the teens. If that happens I bring it in for the night and put it back out for the day. For our most recent icy blast it was fine and stayed liquefied. I did notice though that the little yellow ‘bee guards’ filled with snow and iced over so I did remove them. They are really only needed in summer months anyway.

Also, when the night temps start to dip below freezing I always put a heater in the birdbath. It has a thermostat so if the temps go above 40 F degrees (4 C) it shuts off. Other wise it keeps the water thawed so they can drink. There are many styles out there but the best I’ve used is the Nelson Blue Devil 200 watt heater. I’ve had it for many years.

Be sure to watch your water levels, as you don’t want the warm steam evaporation to leave your heater high and dry.

These simple measures keep the birds coming all winter to my garden, where they also eat lots of bugs and grubs year round, helping to keep down the pest population. Most of us know that hummingbirds consume nectar, but did you know insects provide the protein in their diet? That’s IPM folks, one of the many simple things that can be done for Integrated Pest Management that can greatly reduce and even eliminate chemical pesticide use and keep our gardens organic.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Helleborus, Sarcococca confuse, Heather (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), winter pansies

Author’s photos

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rutless in 2012

A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.
~Welsh proverb

Ruts are easy to fall into.
I don’t mean the kind along the road but the kind that keeps you from trying new things.

Today as I am watching the snow fall on my Tuscan kale and Brussels Sprouts, I am deciding which new and which old favorite varieties of vegetables to grow this year. So far I’ve got 3 new to try.

With our Pacific Northwest growing season, there are many things to consider when selecting what to grow. For one thing, we have a short growing season so varieties needing over 100 days to mature are not necessarily going to make it before the season changes and the plant begins to decline.

Another, being only a mile from the water, the temps in my garden don’t necessarily get hot enough to ripen many vegetables like in those gardens more inland. With both those factors, melons, peppers and many others just will never produce and ripen for me. Some veggies need a certain number of heat units for full maturity. Some summers that isn’t a problem but for the last two it has been.

All that to say we are unpredictable in the weather department so tried and true varieties take much of the frustration out of gardening. Not a bad idea, as a matter of fact I’ve said many times on this blog that learning what works and what doesn’t from the more experienced gardeners around you is a great way to go.

However, experimentation can lead you to find something you’d never have found otherwise. For instance I’ve settled into only growing Stupice tomatoes for several years now. Stupice, with 65 days to maturity, is an heirloom variety that grows and ripens consistently in both sunny, warm conditions as well as in our often wet, cloudy and cool summers. That’s early for a mid size tomato so I’m getting ripe fruit sooner than most. While perusing my Nichols Garden Nursery catalog this year I’ve decided to try Willamette, a hybrid developed by Oregon State University for short season areas like ours. A medium size tomato with a 70 day maturation, it claims “good production in spite of false springs, late chills, damp or dry summers”. How can it fail I wonder, so I’m going to plant it instead of Stupice this year and see what I think of it.

Over this past winter I also have been preparing more squash for our meals. I’ve never been a fan of squash, with the exception of zucchini (courgettes) but Shari’s blog has peaked my interest in cooking with squash since she writes about how healthy it is. I’ve found I like acorn squash more than delicata and butternut, so I thought I’d try growing Sweet Reba, an acorn bush variety with a 90 day maturation.

I’m also going to try cucumber Rocky which I found in Territorial Seed catalog. At 48 days this hybrid is a tad earlier than my old standby Marketmore at 55 days. Rocky is a one bite size seedless variety.

Last but not least…the bees. This year I wrapped the beehive against the coldest of winter temps. The only warming efforts I’ve taken in winters past is to strap on a plywood wind break and plug in 2 strands of Christmas lights (the old style that heat up) under the box for some bottom warmth. It’s not a lot but it can add a few degrees to keep a tender perennial alive so I do it for the bees too. Beware if you try this, you may get laughed at by some beekeepers but I didn’t care when they laughed at me. Mine survived that winter when many of theirs didn’t. Dale, my beekeeping friend down the street convinced me to try a wrap this year. He found 4’ x 8’ (1.21 x 2.43 m) sheet polystyrene at the hardware store that cut down would be perfect to use. I opted for the 1 ½ inch thickness. Hive wrapping is a common practice in the upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S. but not so much here. In our temperate climate with mild winters, depending on who you ask, some beeks will wrap and some adamantly will not, believing a wrap gives the bees a false sense of warmth with detrimental results. I’ve never done it, even told new beekeepers not to do it because of the death stories I’d heard. That said, I have given it much thought over the years. If you consider the natural cavity of a dead, hollow tree is probably inches thick and that is a natural cavity honeybees will use in the wild. The standard Langstroth hive body box is ¾ of an inch (1.78cm) thick. The BeeMax polystyrene hive bodies available from Dadant claim better insulation in both summer and winter, and are thicker than a wood hive box but I can’t find the actual dimension in the catalog. Sooo… I decided to give a wrap a try. I may only leave the wrap on in the most frigid of temps…that is yet to be determined.

It’s a new year. What will you try new in your garden?

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Sarcococca confuse, Heather (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), winter pansies

Authors photos

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rose Hips. Winter's Gems

"Another fresh new year is here . . .
Another year to live!
To banish worry, doubt, and fear,
To love and laugh and give!

This bright new year is given me
To live each day with zest . . .
To daily grow and try to be
My highest and my best!

I have the opportunity
Once more to right some wrongs,
To pray for peace, to plant a tree,
And sing more joyful songs!"  ~ William Arthur Ward

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day were a stellar days here in the Pacific Northwest! They were crisp, cold and gloriously sunny with just a few wispy clouds overhead. The blue skies gave promise of joy in the New Year.

As we started on a long, hilly walk Saturday I noticed a squirrel in my rose bush in the front yard. It was eating the rose hips. I’d noticed some birds doing the same thing last week but I can’t say I’d ever seen a squirrel eating them. It stayed for quite a while before moving on to the seeds of my neighbors lilac tree.

When I started gardening I was told you must keep rose hips from forming or they would take strength from the rose, weakening it year after year. Now I believe quite the opposite. Rose hips are simply the seed pods that form once the flower is finished. For the plant it is one method of survival to form seeds to drop and grow more of itself. In fall when the day length shortens and temperatures drop it is also a signal to the plant that it’s time for it to power down for a dormancy period…like winter. A dormant plant will not succumb to winter’s damaging temperatures, or at least will have a better chance of survival.

The key is to know when to cut the faded flowers off and when to leave them to form hips. Keeping your roses deadheaded does indeed keep the blooms coming. I deadhead my roses all spring and summer, but once fall is well underway I stop deadheading. Let the flower whither on the stem, let the petals fall and in time you’ll see the rose hips forming.

Not all rose varieties have showy hips. Some are very small and not colorful. As you peruse the catalogs and nurseries, look specifically for reference to hips in the plants information tag if you want the lovely winter jewels for your garden. Some are as big as cherry tomatoes as seen in this picture. This is not my rose but I believe it is a Rugosa variety.

These are the lovely orangey hips from Bonica.

These are the hips the squirrel and birds were feasting on. I often tuck stems of these tiny bright red hips into my Christmas decorations.

You may have heard of how high rose hips are in Vitamin C. They are often used as the main source of Vitamin C in commercial supplements. I’ve eaten one once and found it bitter. My friend found it rather tasty. Now I know we picked it too early, as they sweeten after the first frost. Rose hips are used in many recipes of jellies, jams, tea, purees, sauces and syrups. Culinary rose water is made from the flower petals however. Harvest your rose hips after the first frost and prepare them by trimming off the stem and blossom ends, cutting them in half and removing the seeds then washing them well. I must stress how important it is to grow your roses organically whether they are used for your food or allowed as food for wild life. Chemicals are not needed to grow great disease free roses and many pesticide chemicals are systemic, traveling through the plant’s tissues. They cannot be washed off.

Minimal fall garden cleanup such as this gives a bounty of seeds and berries and hips in my garden for the wildlife to feed on during the winter months. And it provides endless hours of entertainment for me. Bird watching aside, I’m also getting ready to start some seeds on the window sill for spring planting. Oh and by the way, thus far the bees are faring well.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am unable to post as often as I had previously or would like to but I plan to keep this blog active and someday hope to pick up the pace again. Sorry for the long lapses in posts, I hope you’ll stick with me. You can receive new posts via email if that’s more convenient for you by using the email button in the right hand column.

Thanks for reading! Looking forward to a new year of gardening with you.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Heather (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Geum, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’, winter pansies, Alyssum, Sarcococca confusa

Author’s photos