Sunday, October 13, 2013

Book Review - Flower Confidential

Where have our desires led us? Are we, in fact, gilding the lily?
~Amy Stewart
We want a cut flower to be perfect, unique, extraordinary, fragrant, long lasting and inexpensive don’t we? But all those demands are the reason most store bought cut flowers have no fragrance. In the breeding efforts to get sturdiness suitable for freight handling and a long vase life, flowers fragrance and delicacy has been lost.

Amy Stewart's book, Flower Confidential is a fascinating look into the very real, at times ugly industry that provides us with the beauty of cut flowers for our homes. Travelling with the cut flower from greenhouse to retailer, it is an exposé of the sordid realities of the industry.  In it she tells us how flowers are being created in laboratories, bred in test tubes, grown in factories, machine harvested and packed, auctioned, sold and transported by air across oceans and continents. Stewart also details histories of growers, both domestic and international, their relationships to each other, histories of hybridizing, plant profiles and genetic plant facts, the Dutch Auction and much more.

Sadly for us, 80% of all cut flowers purchased in the USA are imported, grown by many countries using chemicals banned for use in the US and heavy chemical use of fungicide dips after the flowers have been harvested but before they get packed for shipment. Growers are highly motivated to keep shipments from being rejected due to pests or disease so they use what ever chemical it takes to ship a ‘clean’ product. Since this is not an edible product, little attention is paid from this end of the line as to what chemicals are being used. Stewart notes that California grown flowers do have less chemical residue than those grown in Latin American countries.

Next to the hazardous chemical issue is the fact that many countries are growing and shipping flowers that are handled by workers not paid by fair wage practices nor are they properly protected from the daily chemical use. Stewart brings light to the fact that many of the policies are exploitive, using child labor and women report rampant sexual harassment.

Stewart goes on to outline a little known dilemma of whose flowers to buy. Ecuadorian roses are priced low that keeps buyers going back to Ecuador. Buying from them supports local jobs, keeping families together but comes with low wages. Ecuador’s flower industry provides jobs for both men and women which empowers women in an abusive industry but also uses child labor. Without the flower industry many Ecuadorians, Kenyans, and those from many other nations across the equator would not have much hope of making an independent, steady living.

On the other hand American grown roses encourages migrant labor which separates the Mexican worker from family who are left behind in Mexico and may contribute to our illegal border crossing problem. All this because we want low prices for cut flowers.

Much of the coffee, chocolate, and hand goods industries have already implemented fair trade certification programs as an industry standard. What about the cut flower industry? Stewart's research shows that while the US has been slow to jump on the bandwagon, much of Europe has already implemented certifiable standards for social and environmental responsibly grown flowers. In the US, Veriflora and a few others are making efforts to make that a standard here. She mentions Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as two outlets that have made the commitment to buy flowers certified by green labeling programs. A green label certification may include:

  • Least toxic chemicals chosen for use
  • Less overall chemicals use
  • Healthier work environment for workers
  • Less crowded growing conditions for the plants whereby improving the plants overall strength, which helps the plant to resist diseases and pests on it’s own
  • Better working conditions and wages for the workers
  • In some cases higher price to the consumer
Sad? A little depressing? Certainly not visions of Miss Marple lovingly tending and cutting roses from her bushes to sell from a little cart in front of her cottage. Today’s cut flowers are a commodity market in which they are forced into unnatural growing conditions and packed and shipped for market quickly so you can pay as little as possible.

Overall a very informative book, difficult to put down. I must say I am a tad disillusioned after reading it but definitely better informed and appreciative of knowing more of the reality of what goes into the cut flowers I buy. I will think twice now about chemical residues as I handle store bought cut flowers, knowing that they have likely been chemically sprayed and dipped several times over their growing life and on the production line. And if they are from Peru, they have been fumigated at the Miami Int'l Airport before they will be allowed in. Since this is a blog for organic gardening, as a side note I'll include another unsettling fact Stewart uncovered. According to Miami Int'l Airport's cargo division's marketing specialist, "asparagus from Peru is fumigated as a matter of course", yep even if it was grown for the organic market. By the time it reaches your organic store and is labeled as organic, it's been fumigated in Miami if it comes from Peru.

Armed with this new information, the next time I went to Trader Joe’s I looked at their cut flowers. Sure enough, the protective, plastic wrap is stamped not only with the Trader Joe’s logo but also Veriflora

and Rainforest Alliance certifications.
Boy, I sure did feel better about buying and handling (without gloves) these lovely lime green chrysanthemums.
There is so much more to her book than what I've mentioned here.
Do you buy flowers from your local grocer or florist? If so I hope you find this review informative and I highly recommend reading Flower Confidential. Please note, this book may be titled Gilding the Lily for the European market.

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Canna, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, crocus, Cyclamen hederifolium), Shasta Daisy(white double) Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Echinacea purpurea magnus, Eupatorium rugosum ‘chocolate’ (joe pye weed), Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Gladiolus callianthus (formerly Acidanthera), Hosta, Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Lavender, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rhododendron, Rose, Salvia

Author’s photos

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Apiary Update

For bees, the flower is the fountain of life. For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love.
~Kahlil Gibran
I am sad to report that my bees have all died this year. We did our utmost to keep the hive alive this spring. I could see that it was failing and that the queen had disappeared so we inserted a few frames with new eggs and some brood from a strong hive so they could make their own queen, which they did, but within a few months it had completely died. Not sure why but such is the way of beekeeping in these difficult and troubling times for the bees.

Happily there are several beekeepers within blocks of my urban home and their bees are going to town these sunny days on my Silver Vein Creeper (Parthenocissus henryana), packing full the pollen sacks on their legs.

I planted this vine years ago to camouflage an otherwise boring fence and I’ve been so happy with it. It grows to 10 feet long (3 meters) so it nicely covers a 6 foot (1.8m) fence, draping gracefully over the other side as seen above.

The leaves are a silver-veined green turning a lovely apricot in the fall. A perfect backdrop to the fall blooming and fragrant Gladiolus callianthus (formerly Acidanthera). While in the photo above the background of these leaves is in fuzzy focus, you can get an idea of the colors.

The vine's flowers are considered ‘insignificant’ in the gardening world, which just means they are so small they are hardly visible, but for the bees they pack a wallop in the pollen department. In the above photo is an opened flower, pollen exposed. Below you can see the vines are covered with flower buds, just a tad bigger than a pinhead.

This is neither a messy vine nor a thug by any means. It is deciduous, so the leaves drop off for the winter, making great mulch and providing easy access to the vines to prune and control as you please in late winter, early spring. This is when I thin it out and corral its growth. It can take sun to part shade and is hardy to USDA zone 4. It is self attaching, meaning it puts out little tendrils which find a flat surface then stick to it with little round pads, like frogs ‘toes’, if you will. These tendrils will also curl around a wire support if you choose to use a trellis.

Overall a very easy and versatile vine. I highly recommend it, especially for the bees!

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Cyclamen, Daisy(white double), Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea purpurea magnus, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Gladiolus callianthus (formerly Acidanthera), Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rose, Salvia, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Tomato

Authors photos

Monday, September 9, 2013

Junipers - What's Not to Love?

A gardener learns more in the mistakes than in the successes.
~Barbara Dodge Borland, 1904-1991, American author

Actually there’s a lot not to love about Junipers in my opinion but then I had an unpleasant domestic relationship with them years ago and still shudder at the remembrance.
Junipers can grow in a wide variety of situations and locations. This is not the reason to plant one. They can also be indestructible. This is not a reason to plant one either.

With all due respect…..Junipers are not meant to be planted at sidewalks

or next to stairs where you have to carve out a corridor.

or at the edge of lawns.

Junipers are not meant to be hedging material, carved into hard blocks...

or soft undulating waves. If you have to prune any plant this severely in order to keep it within boundaries then you have the wrong plant in that spot.

Junipers need room to spread and breathe...

allowing them to take on their natural sprawling habit with graceful branches reaching luxuriously in freedom.
All of the above can be applied to Heathers and Heaths too.
Exposed, woody stems due to over pruning is just plain ugly.
Now that’s what I’m talking about! No ugly stems showing, just a blooming delight! Gorgeous.

The moral of the story is…if you are going to plant something, always choose the right plant for the right place and you will be rewarded with beauty and less work.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Cyclamen, Daisy(white double), Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea purpurea magnus, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Gladiolus callianthus (formerly Acidanthera), Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rose, Salvia, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Tomato
Authors photos

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tagro - Organic By Who's Standard?

Be the change you want to see in the world.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Often people ask me if I use Tagro. My short, politically correct answer is ‘No, it’s not organic’.  What I would really like to say is ‘I wouldn’t touch that stuff with a 100 foot pole.” Even better, I love it when people press me further as to why I won’t use it so I can extol the virtues of organic gardening to yet another person wanting to care for their little part of the earth. 

Tagro is the municipality’s solid waste division’s solution on what to do with human waste.   Some communities call it ‘sludge’ and residents fight to keep the counties from spraying a liquefied version into the forests and woodlands.  The city mixes it with sawdust and sand to give it a crumbly, compost like texture so it looks kind of like compost.  The city then advertises it with lots of tax paid advertising as a “Natural Yard Care” alternative to be used to amend your soil or raked across your lawn instead of fertilizers or natural compost.  Does your community have such a product?

The city touts it to be organic.  Understand there is more than one definition of organic.  Webster’s dictionary has several definitions of organic, two of which are “1. as relating to, or arising in a bodily organ; 2. derived from living things” which is how Tagro can claim a semblance of organic status.  Agricultural practices define organic as “a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.  To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds and other pests”.  Research shows organic practices result in regeneration of renewable resources in the soil whereas chemical practices result in dead soil, incapable of feeding plant life without further and continual chemical replenishment because the chemicals kill the living biology of the soil.

In reality, Tagro, sludge and its counterparts are all comprised of chemically treated human waste.  Organic only by a dictionary definition, not mine and certainly not the definition of healthy soil practices. Tagro has the most foul, sour acrid odor which I can smell blocks away if I have the misfortune to be down wind.  It smells nothing like the sweet, earthy smell of real compost or even composted steer manure.  Nor does it have the nutritive value or the tilth building qualities of real compost. 

What it does do is give a huge shot of nitrogen to what ever it touches, so if you rake it across your lawn you must mow your lawn twice a week to keep up with the out-of-control growth. I use a mulching mower which gives a nice shot of natural nitrogen to my lawn which I only have to mow once a week during Spring’s growth spurt.  Spring grass is naturally high in nitrogen so leaving the mulched (more finely chopped than regular mower blades chop) clippings on your lawn to decompose is all the fertilizer it needs.

Because Tagro is chemically treated human waste (along with everything else that gets flushed down the commode, for example pharmaceuticals) I believe it also kills the living organisms in your soil, and the worms.  Dead soil can’t support plant life so you have to buy and use a lot more fertilizer or Tagro. I want living soil microbes and worms in my garden soil. Living soil is what supports plant life, which supports bug life, which supports avian life and on it goes.

Recently I’ve seen Tagro’s potting soil mix experimented with in greenhouse growing operations. In pots it is very heavy in structure, not giving the plant’s roots a good air/water mix for healthy root growth. Also it is physically heavier so lifting pots is more difficult. More importantly the plants growth was stunted and the leaf’s color was off and splotchy. After planting with it for an hour, one of the staff (that would be me) complained of headache. All in all it got a bad report from the commercial growers.

If you want to support your community and utilize its in-house programs, better alternatives are Zoo Doo manure programs and community supported composting businesses. My city collects garden waste and it goes to a business that composts it, then sells it to consumers by the bag or truckload. It is always certified organic. The nearby Zoo Doo program is so popular with gardeners they always sell out quickly every spring. If your local zoo doesn’t have this program perhaps they’d be interested in your suggestion in their inbox.

There are so many healthy ways to organically amend your garden soil. Tagro should never be an option.

In Bloom in My Garden Today:  Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alyssum,Astilbe arendsii ‘Diamant’, Begonia ‘bonfire’,Borage,Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’,Daisy(white double), Daphne caucasica, Echinacea pallida,Echinacea purpurea magnus, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Geranium ‘mavis simpson’, Geum, Gladiolus ‘Boone’ (heirloom 1920’s), Green Beans, Lavender, Lobelia, Nepeta, Oregano, Perovskia ‘little spire’, Salvia, Scheherazade oriental lily, Sedum, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Thyme ‘foxley’, Zucchini, Tomato

Author’s  photo

Friday, July 5, 2013

Grilling from the Garden

And remember that monotonous work – weeding the garden, sorting beans – allows the brain time to contemplate, question, and be in awe.
~ David Bradshaw

Meals just don’t get much better in the summer and fall than those of grilled just-picked vegetables.

Our weather here has gone from a long wet and cool spring to hot and dry almost overnight which means an abrupt end to a long and delicious snap pea crop.
Normally I grow ‘Cascadia’ snap peas which are an edible pod pea meaning you eat the whole thing, no shelling. If you do shell the peas you lose the sweetest part. These peas are best if left on the vine long enough to make a fat, juicy pod. My favorite way to eat them is to toss the freshly picked peas in some olive oil and spices and put them right into my preheated grill basket with other veggies.

Last year I discovered this grilling basket.  It is made of stainless steel without non-stick coating and the sides are high enough so when stirring and turning the veggies don’t jump out over the sides. I find it best to toss the raw veggies in a bowl with olive oil and spices while the basket is heating up on the grill rather than oiling the basket directly. Tossing the oiled veggies into the hot basket is less messy and I don’t have any problem with food sticking. I use this basket for quick cooking veggies like zucchini, snap peas, asparagus, chopped kale leaves, mushrooms, and chopped tomato. Toss on a few oiled, raw, shelled and cleaned prawns in the last minutes…ummm delish!

I buy a dark green olive oil and cook on low temps. Even on med/low I haven’t had any problem with the oil burning and I do get a good sizzle. My go to spice mixture has been freshly ground fenugreek seed, garlic powder, dried rosemary, dried basil, dried thyme, sea salt and pepper but lately I’ve been adding anise seed. I love the aroma and flavor anise gives. I tried chopping fresh garlic but it falls through the holes of this basket and burns on the flame so garlic powder is best. Whole garlic cloves don’t cook enough for my tastes by the time these quick cooking veggies are done.

Hot weather stops the pea plants from flowering so with this onset of summer heat the plants are pretty much done for. When it’s time to remove the vines, don’t pull them out. Cut them off at the soil level as the roots have nitrogen rich nodules attached. Leaving them in the ground is enriching for both the soil and crops to follow. In my case I’ll be planting my kale seedlings in that spot soon. It is generally not recommended to compost your pea vines in your own compost pile unless you know it gets really hot. There could be undetected viruses or fungi on the old vines. I just cut all the vines off and toss the whole tangled lot into the city pick up bin.

For a few years I grew purple potatoes and paired them with carrots for a beautiful dish, steaming them on the grill in parchment/foil packets. I just can’t get over how gorgeous the two colors are together, the color in the photo doesn’t do justice. I drizzle olive oil over the top then for the spices here I used freshly ground fenugreek seed, whole garlic cloves and freshly ground rosemary. It all cooks in about 30 minutes on low. Looks like I was out of parchment paper that day as I usually I put it between the food and the foil.

Next carrots are paired with red chard stems and my fresh garden leeks.

I was having problems with the bottom burning so I now put loosely crumpled foil ‘pillows’ under the food/foil packets. Problem solved.

And then there is our corn steamed in its jacket. Follow this link to a previous post. Yum, can’t wait for this year’s corn to be ready for the picking. I’ve got 6 stalks growing, one of which is just beginning to tassel!

What have you got growing in your garden for grilling season?

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Alyssum, Asiatic lily, Astilbe,  Begonia ‘bonfire’, blueberries, Daisy(white double), Daphne caucasica, Digitalis grandiflora, Echinacea, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Green Beans, Hardy Geranium, Heuchera, Hosta, Kniphofia, Lavender, Lobelia, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Purple poppies, Rose, Salvia, Sedum, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Thyme, Tomato, Veronica ‘royal candles’, Zucchini

Authors photos

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Another Peat Free Alternative

"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."
~ Margaret Atwood

I’ve been experimenting again. And since it is time for many of us to get seeds started for some fall vegetable crops I thought I’d give you another peat free option for indoor seed starting.

Hydroponics is the process of growing crops in water with no soil. Well known to those who grow hydroponic is rock wool. Historically rock wool has been used for decades in some European countries for housing insulation. Today it has been adapted for commercial applications around the world to grow our vegetables in greenhouses. Rock wool is a product of super heated rock until it sort of explodes into fine filaments, kind of like cotton candy (candy floss), then is formed into a usable material. At least that’s my loose translation of what it is. You can get a more detailed explanation at

Rock wool for seed germination is formed into cubes. It is all natural and chemical free. Each cube is wrapped in plastic which makes it easy to write your planting date and seed variety on the side. It is said to be a biodegradable plastic, but I prefer to remove it when I plant them into the soil, so the roots that emerge out the sides are not hampered in any way. I doubt it biodegrades very quickly. After all plastic is plastic and I don’t want it in my garden. Maybe someday they will change it to a paper wrap. In my situation I don’t need it to be wrapped at all but I suppose commercially the big growers do.

The manufacturer states that rock wool is recyclable but, I think more likely only at the commercial level of use rather than for the average home gardener. Since it is made of rock it does not decompose so as we use a few each season they are more likely to end up in our compost piles after we clean out our vegetable beds at the end of harvest. Crumbling them up into smaller pieces as you find them, they will provide a means of looser soil structure adding to your soil’s tilth, much like stones or sand provide, helping drainage and bringing air down into the soil.

Rock wool cubes are a good choice for starting seedlings because of its air/water transferability. There is little risk of rotting seeds from being too wet as long as it is not sitting in water. I also think they are not so quick to dry out like peat pellets do. I started this tomato Willamette on March 16 and today it is growing and blooming beautifully in my garden.

If you study this option on the internet, you’ll find lots of rules and do’s and don’ts. For instance there is talk of initial Ph level adjusting, lemon juice remedies, and some chat groups say you can’t transfer these into soil growth, etc. I didn’t do any of that and I did plant this tomato into the soil and had no problem at all. The only thing I did do prior to putting the seed into the cube is rinse it well in running water. If you are used to using peat pellets, I used the rock wool in the same way. I moistened it thoroughly first, inserted the seed, kept it moist but not soggy wet and waited for the seed to do its thing. I’ve used them on a heat mat or not, either way.

They cost a little more per each than peat pellets or coir pellets. I didn’t really shop around, I just went to my local hydroponics store for the sake of convenience and time so you may find better prices. If you are looking for peat free alternatives, I encourage you to experiment with rock wool cubes.


In Bloom in My Garden Today: Alyssum, Armeria pseudarmeria latifolia ‘joystick mix’, Asiatic lily, Baptisia, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Bletilla pink, blueberries, Carnation, Daisy(white double), Daphne caucasica, Digitalis grandiflora, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Heuchera, Hosta, Kniphofia ‘little maid’, Iris, Lavender, Lobelia, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Peas, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rose, Salvia, Sedum, Thyme, Tomato, Veronica ‘royal candles’

Author’s photo


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Woohoo! Landlords Again!

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment,
while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Yay! We have a resident!  This birdhouse has been unoccupied for several years. The last occupant was a Bewick Wren which was fun to have, but sadly no one’s been interested in our ‘rental’ since. I was about to take it down to see if it needed some maintenance when I noticed these Chickadees checking the place out. Now, weeks later, they are bringing in loads of live bugs so we’ve got a baby or more inside. I love that! This one is flying away after feeding baby.

I’ve seen the adults gathering bugs and larvae all over the garden. This morning they were uncurling the leaves on the lilac to find larvae in the webbing which some bug made. Off they went to the nest. And by the looks of the green worms I see going in the Chickadees are keeping up easily with what may be the cabbage moth larvae/worm that is doing this to our broccoli. If you see little white moths flitting around your vegetable garden, they are cabbage moths and they are looking for all your brassicas. They land for a second on the leaf and lay an egg. If you look underneath you’ll see tiny yellowish dots. Those are the eggs. Left undisturbed they will hatch into a worm which will do this to your leaves.


A regular spraying of BT or a peppermint soapy spray, both organic controls, will curb the problem too but putting up a few birdhouses is by far more fun. While I see eggs and the worm damage, when I go to pick off the worms…I can’t find any. No doubt they are feeding that little baby bird well. 

In Bloom in my Garden Today: Armeria pseudarmeria latifolia ‘joystick mix’, Baptisia, Bletilla pink, Chive, Daylily,  Daphne caucasica, Dianthus, Digitalis grandiflora, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Heuchera, Iris, Kniphofia ‘little maid’, Lavender, Lobelia, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Peas, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Pyracantha koidzumii ‘victory’, Rose, Salvia, Saxifraga andrewsii (irish saxifrage), Sedum, Tellima grandiflora (fringecup), Tomato, Vancouveria hexandra (inside out flower),

Author’s photos

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Better Way to Get Your Peas Started

I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation.  It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from and Old Manse

In years past I used to start my peas outside in late February with not so great success. Here in the Pacific Northwest our damp cool weather is great for pea germination but also heavenly for slugs that usually ate more than their fair share of my emerging seedlings. So I began sowing my peas indoors in a variety of cell trays and soils, experimenting to find the right mix.  A couple of years ago I began soaking the seed 24 hrs before planting to plump them and speed up the process of germination. I’d been doing this soaking method with corn for many years with great success. Planting the plumped peas and watering them after planting seemed to work ok but I only usually got half germination and the other half rotted, gooey seed every time. Clearly too much water. As I stated in the previous post, moisture, air and temperature is a delicate balance for good germination. I should add here that old seed does not germinate well either but I knew my seed was still viable.

 Fast forward to last year when I used to work with Sarah, a horticulturist at the greenhouse where I volunteer. She always grew her crops on the drier side of usual. A week ago while buying a new package of peas, since more than half of those I sowed on February 15 have now rotted, I talked to the proprietor about soaking pea seed. He suggested never soak the seed more than one hour and rather than watering them into the soil, use a mister to keep the soil barely moist but never dry. If you are using peat-less potting soil, it may have some moisture in it straight from the bag, mine did. Keeping what he said in mind and the success Sarah had with her drier growing methods I tried it. I sowed the seed on February 26 and now 8 days later nearly all have emerged with the few remaining beginning to push up the soil so I can already see I have 100% germination success!
 So from now on I will be keeping to this procedure:

  • I start my pea seed in plastic cell packs indoors to keep slugs from mowing over the emerging crop.

  • I soaked the peas for 1 hour or a little less, not more. This time I am planting Cascadia snap peas.

  • I used standard organic potting soil as pea seed is large enough to push through the chunkiness of potting soil, (tiny seeds like basil, lettuce and tomato will do better in a fine seedling mix which contains peat). Make sure your soil of choice is organic with no fertilizers or wetting agents added.

  • I used a mister to add moisture rather than a watering can only as needed, keeping the soil barely, slightly moist.

  • I put the planted cells in a recycled “clam shell” food container (I think it had baby croissants in it from the bakery originally) to hold in moisture so I actually didn’t have to mist much at all. If you don’t cover your cells you may need to mist a little more often. A plastic dome  like cover works like a greenhouse and recycles its own moisture which will collect on the top and drip back down to the soil.

  • I did not use a seedling heat mat this time but have in the past. Peas don’t really need it.
My peas are well on their way to being happy vines! As they get a little bigger and some leaves start to form I’ll harden them off for covered outdoor temperatures so I can put them outside under my little plastic cover on the south side of my house where they will get better light. When they are a good 6 inches (15cm) or so tall I’ll harden them off again for no protection at all, and then plant them around my bamboo teepee. I’ll be picking peas in no time, woohoo!

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Tete-a-Tete daffodil, Crocus, Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snowdrops), Heath (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hellebore, Rhododendron, Sarcococca confusa,

Author’s photo

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Quite the Leap from Campfire Girls to a Seedling Tray

Flowers and fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life and the future.
~Marion Zimmer Bradley, author 1930-1999

It’s that time of year again in the USA. Campfire Girl mints are for sale, if you can find them. I used to be a Campfire Girl (Wo He Lo to all you alumni) way back when, way before they allowed boys into the groups and when that box of mints only cost 50 cents US. As I rose through the ranks from Bluebird to Campfire Girl I’m sure I must have earned a bead or two for gardening. After all, I grew the best pumpkins in my neighborhood in sunny California…at least that’s what mom always said. And I sold my fair share of those mints too. Going door to door mind you…none of this sitting in front of the grocery store and letting customers come to you. No, I had to wheel my cart of minty boxes and go knocking on doors, hoping somebody would be home and buy my mints so I could get that blasted bead and be done with it…well at least until the next year. Bless you, each and every one that bought mints from me. Oh, the agony February brought. You have NO idea!

Well times were different then, it’s true. I wouldn’t let my little one go door to door alone these days so I guess grocery store staging is for the best. I do still buy the mints and as I was ready to toss out, er, I mean recycle the plastic tray sans devoured mints I noticed it looked to be perfect to hold the peat pellets that I use to germinate some of my seedlings.

 It will hold 16 and the whole lot can then be easily slid into a clear plastic bag to maintain a level of moisture. Don’t allow the plastic to rest atop the pellets though. It will deform and rot emerging seedlings.

To prepare your peat pellets, soak them in warm water for 20-30 minutes or until wetted completely through. Do not peel off the netting. There is an open top and closed bottom. Let them drain, give a little squeeze which releases extra water and gently roll it between your fingers to slightly break up the peat allowing a little air into the mass and you can create height to the pellet if you are planting larger seeds like beans. Place your seed in the top indentation and scrape some of the peat over the top to cover it. For bigger seeds, press the seed down into the center of the pellet and again, cover with some of the peat.
Peat dries quickly, so you want to keep them moist but not wet. Do check now and then to make sure there’s no mold forming. If so, they are too wet and the seed could rot so you’ll need to open the bag or poke a few holes in the bag to let in more air, it’s a delicate balance. Once seedlings emerge remove the plastic, they don’t need it and a drier environment help deter rotted stems at the soil level.

Place your seedlings in a southern sunny window. Monitor the moisture of the pellet, not too wet but moist. As you see roots escaping from the sides of the pellet, pot them up, pellet, netting and all, into a 4 inch pot (which you kept from those annuals and veggie starts you bought last year) in organic potting soil with no fertilizing or wetting agents added, and keep them moist but not wet. Keep them on that sunny sill till you can plant them outdoors. If you are the cold north like me you may need to pot them up into the next size pot again and again till temps moderate.

Timing is important for sowing your seed. The further north you are the longer into spring you must wait to transplant them into the garden. If you must keep potting them up, you risk leggy seedlings since window sill sun isn’t the same strength as true outdoor, overhead sun. Read your seed packet for germination times and know your local last frost date. If you are blessed with a greenhouse, you can move potted up seedlings into that after of period of ‘hardening off’. That simply means getting the little plantlets accustomed to the new cooler temperatures in which they will be growing. For about a week, move them into the new location during the day hours and back ‘home’ at night. Then a few more days of leaving them out 24 hours. Keep an eye on them, if they wilt, it's too cold or the sun is too strong. They may need more of an adjustment period.

Why on earth would I use peat you ask? Yes, I am familiar with the controversy over peat products for our gardens but I use it quite sparingly. I never buy large bags of compressed peat to use in the garden or on the lawn, it is too environmentally costly and I believe compost to be quite superior in every way, not to mention far more renewable. I use peat in pellet form, a few per year, and only for certain seeds that seem to germinate most reliably in them. Coir pellets have not provided consistent germination in my experience, though I have found coir pots to be comparable to peat pots so I use coir pots for starting seeds that do not want their roots to be disturbed by transplanting like those of the squash family. I have also found regular potting soil, providing it’s not too chunky, to be quite satisfactory for starting many seeds. You can find potting soils that do not contain peat. In the USA, potting soil bags usually list ingredients. If no such listing is provided, shop for another brand, preferably organic. I believe it’s important to consider what we put into our gardens and as the soil is what feeds the vegetables and fruits that we eat and the seeds, nectar and pollen that bugs, bees and birds consume.

On a final rant note. Camp Fire Girls became Camp Fire Girls and Boys and ultimately ended up Camp Fire USA in this country. While I think a certain amount of gender separate activities at certain ages is a good thing, that's a tad off subject. What I really want to know is what happened to the dark chocolate mints? When I was selling them the box contained BOTH milk chocolate and dark chocolate mints...a row of each! What happened to the dark chocolate? Clearly today’s science has proven dark chocolate to be the healthier alternative, so…any chance the duo will make a comeback? Just asking.

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Crocus, Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snowdrops), Heath (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hellebore, Rhododendron, Sarcococca confusa, viola

Author’s photos

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Worth The Effort

"An addiction to gardening is not all bad when you consider all the other choices in life."
 ~Cora Lea Bell

It’s a gray, cool day today with a mist ever so slight that it moistens the face but is gone before it hits the ground. The birds are loving it as they are in full force today singing and foraging in the garden. It’s warm enough for the bees to fly too. That’s great news to a Pacific Northwestern beekeeper in February.

I came across this whilst I was out and about today.

Don’t you just love it when you see people taking responsibility for their actions and care for those around them who share the world with them?

I do.

Here are the links

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snowdrops), Heath (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hellebore, Rhododendron, Sarcococca confusa,
Authors photo

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter's Blooming Heath

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm.
~Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I’ve never walked the heather moors of the UK but after years of reading the likes of Daphne du Maurier, Helen MacInnes, and Mary Stewart I do believe I would very much like to. The suspenseful pens of these authors paint the moors as somewhat forsaken places extending for miles and miles with gripping hints of evil foreboding nearly everywhere and blanketed with a heavy, low, grey, cold, wet fog that chills your bones thru and thru. At other times the moors become a blustery, wind swept landscape rife with danger. Or yet another heroine in trouble will flee to the moors as a place of beauty and peaceful tranquility stretching for miles and miles with the sound of surf somewhere off in the far distance and the promise of romance in the air. One day I must visit them, I simply must!

How gorgeous it must be to see the rolling hills of blooming heather in all its unspoilt glory. Picture if you will the lovely low mounds of heather that you see in the gardens in your neighborhood. They bloom in white or various shades of pinks or purples. Now imagine scores of these colorful, blossoming mounds, huge, each one melding into another, blanketing the hills and extending on as far as the eye can see into the distance. That must be what the heather moors are like when in bloom.

Heather (Calluna) and Heath (Erica) are closely related in the family Ericaceae and easily confused even among professionals. If you want to find a specific heath or heather you simply must get the Latin name and take it with you to the nursery. Using the common name of heath or heather at nurseries online or on land can only be a study in confusion. Just look at the many common names given to the same plant that I am talking about here today…Erica carnea (winter heath, winter flowering heather, spring heath, alpine heath). They are using both heath and heather in the common name for the same plant.

In the case of today’s topic, what you want is an Erica carnea. Specifically Erica carnea ‘springwood white’.

 It is a heath. E. carnea is native to central and southern Europe. The evergreen leaves are needle-like in form but quite soft and pleasant to the touch. As a low growing shrub it grows to a compact height of 4–10 in (10–25 cm) but can carpet an area 3 times that in width after several years of growth. When properly spaced several plants can form a weed crowding carpet of color. It is one of the hardiest of all heaths and has been known to poke its blooms through a blanket of snow. It is very easy to grow in almost any soil, needing little care once established. A light annual shearing just after flowers fade make for a leafier plant that does not form a bare, woody center with age. Be sure to keep the pruning timed with flower fade. Any later jeopardizes next years bloom as future flower buds are formed during the summer. Any winter damaged branches should be pruned out in spring. It is hardy to USDA zone 4-7 with some protection. If you want a taller, rounder, bushier shaped heath look for Erica x darleyensis, USDA zones 5 and warmer.

Keep heath plantings away from the reach of a dog’s lifted leg. I planted one a few feet (approx 1 m) from my public sidewalk and dogs decided it was a fine place to leave their scent, time and again. I nearly lost it, whole branches dying off one by one. I moved it further from the sidewalk and it recovered nicely.  Presumably these dogs were being walked by their owners on leashes and now could no longer reach it.
You +1'd this publicly. Undo
Winter heath is not only lovely for flower color in late winter when little else is blooming but also very important to honeybees. In late winter, reportedly triggered by the winter solstice, the queen is ready to begin laying eggs again to rebuild the colony. By late winter if you are in a cold winter area the bees will have eaten through much if not all of their food stores and in order survive and raise brood (eggs, larvae, pupae) they need to have blooms from which to forage. If there is no food available, the queen will not lay and a colony that survived winter will soon starve. Blooming heath at this time of year provides much needed nectar and pollen. When weather permits, winter flowering heaths are heavily worked by bees.

Now, if we could just get the temps up and a bit of sun here in the Pacific Northwest the bees would fly and I’d be one happy beekeeping gardener!

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Heather (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Sarcococca confusa, double white daisy

Author’s photo