Planning a Winter Vegetable Garden

There’s nothing quite like putting those first few seeds in the ground in the spring time. But, there is something to be said for sowing in late summer, too. I look at our giant garden right now — and even though there is a blister on my thumb from snapping beans — feel sad that there will be months when I won’t be able to walk out and get a tomato or a squash for dinner. This year, we are going to have a fall/winter garden so the fresh food can go on!

The most important part of planning a winter garden is counting days. For plants like beets, which do well when it’s chilly but can’t take frost, you look at the days to maturity and the average first frost date for your area. For example, I want to grow some Chioggia Beets this fall. It takes 52 days for them to reach maturity. The average first frost date for Chattanooga is October 15. Today is August 18, so I better get the seed in the ground…immediately!

Other plants, such as spinach and kale are frost tolerant, so the counting of days is less important. We will mix together turnip green, mustard, spinach, and kale seed and broadcast them for a mixed greens patch that will provide beans right up through December or so. That’s the plan, anyway.

Lettuce matures quickly and doesn't mind cool temps, making it an excellent fall garden option.

Lettuce matures quickly and doesn’t mind cool temps, making it an excellent fall garden option.

There are plenty of vegetables for a fall/winter garden: onions, broccoli, cabbage, garlic, greens, and many root crops. It’s not exactly the same as a bounty of tomatoes and corn, but even a little bit of time in the garden and fresh produce on the table does a body good! Do you regularly grow fall and winter vegetables?

 

Mystery Plants

Do you have plants in your garden that are a mystery to you? Being a very relaxed gardener, I usually have a few mysteries in the garden: plants that I just don’t know much about. At the moment I have two. One is a seven foot tall beauty that looks like some variety of rudbeckia.

mystery yellow flower

mystery yellow flower

The other is, I think, in the mint family. I didn’t expect these beautiful flowers.

mystery purple flower

mystery purple flower

In the spring time, I wrote about a different kind of mystery — when you plant something, like an iris or a tulip and you don’t know what the bloom will look like. You do, however, know what an iris or a tulip generally looks like. In the case of these two plants, I had no idea. A friend sent them to me in early spring when they were both basically just roots in a clump of dirt. She didn’t know the name of the yellow one, and I’ve forgotten what she told me about the purple one.

Watching the foliage grow, then seeing the flower buds develop, and finally enjoying the beautiful blooms made for an entertaining summer. They are adding so much color to my late summer garden, too — which is nice because it seems like the majority of my flowers are spring bloomers.

Have you had any surprises this summer? Or, have you ever planted something having no clue what you would end up with?

 

It’s Your Garden, Grow It (or Not) If You Want To

If you hang around with gardening-types, it’s bound to happen. You’ll eventually come across someone who criticizes your garden choices. They may think you should be growing more native plants, or more edibles, or more heirloom varieties. You may encounter someone who feels that your method of weed eradication is inferior to their own. The criticism may come in the form of helpful “advice”, or it may be outright. Either way, it could well make you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t let it.

If you have put seeds in the ground, gently cared for seedlings, watched birds flutter among your blooms, or watered your plants on a hot day, you deserve kudos for cultivating life.

Gardening is a creative endeavor. It allows us to enjoy color, texture, and scent in a way that other creative pursuits cannot. People choose to garden for a million different reasons, and nearly every one is good. Maybe you grow your own food in a conventional vegetable garden; or perhaps a vase of fresh-cut flowers on your dining room table makes you happy so you have a cutting garden; some people garden in order to attract birds and butterflies; others grow herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes. The point is: it’s your garden, grow what you want to.

At Green Thumbs Galore, we love to encourage people to try new things. We are happy to share our favorite plants with you, and offer our tips and tricks. But, if you choose to do things differently, you still get a pat on the back from us!

cat walking in plants

Newman in Ice Plants

Celebrate your Garden

Last night, a lovely Friday night with a gorgeous, bright full moon shining down, my family began what is sure to be a long process: preserving the harvest. We’d picked beans several times through the week and picked even more before sitting down to string and snap them. Next came washing and canning. We managed to get 14 quarts canned by midnight; there are that many more to process today.

We expect there will be that many each week until the end of the season. In the meantime, the okra is quickly ripening. We aren’t sure yet just how productive it will be, but it could well be just as generous as the beans. Since pickled okra is a family favorite, we will be happy to have plenty of jars on our shelves. I’m not so sure how we will feel packing that 130th jar.

Canning

Canned fruit. Picture courtesy of J. Sc.

Then, there are tomatoes. We have fewer tomato plants, but there will certainly be enough that some of them will need to be preserved. So far, the squash has produced in smaller quantities, but within a month or so, it’s likely there will be quite a lot of it as well.  And the corn…barring any groundhog or crow attacks, we are expecting somewhere between 800 and 1200 ears of corn.

All of this leaves out the grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and apples. There will be much smaller quantities of those to deal with, but we do want to try some jellies. The question is: how much can people who have other jobs and other responsibilities get done? The truth is, some of our harvest is likely to feed the birds, or will add nutrients to the soil as compost.

We’ll do what we can, of course, but we probably won’t get every bit of value from this year’s harvest. And that’s okay. There won’t be any guilt for not getting that last jar of beans canned, or making that last batch of chow chow. Instead, we will celebrate the achievements of the season. We’ll count our jars and feel a bubble of pride, and look at the stacks of bags in the freezer and know we did just fine this year.

It’s easy to let the responsibility of the garden become a burden. Avoiding vacations, spending every free moment either picking or processing the harvest, and worrying about what you aren’t getting done when you are doing anything other than garden related chores can suck the pleasure right out of your garden.

Do what you can and don’t sweat the rest. Very few of us are subsisting from our gardens, so it’s unlikely you will go hungry if you miss a few beans or a tomato hits the ground. Enjoy what you do harvest, and celebrate your garden!

Raspberry Jam

Raspberry jam. Picture courtesy of S. B.

Playing Favorites

Each year, I try to choose a favorite in my garden. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks now, trying to decide which flower would be named my 2014 favorite. I wanted it to be a new plant, but instead, it’s one that has matured and become even more beautiful: my pond lily:

pond lilyA friend bought a new house and it had a small pond, but the liner leaked. It just held a small, icky puddle — and a pond lily. She asked if I’d like to have the lily in my pond, and since I have trouble saying no to any plant, I took it home.

It was sitting on the edge of the pond and  one of my dogs ran past and knocked it over. The pot floated to the top and I thought it might not survive. But it did, and this year, there are two or three blooms each day.

They are a glorious pale pink with beautiful yellow centers. The leaves are beautiful too, with shades of green and red. The frogs love them and hide among them all the time. Even though it’s a tad invasive, and I’ll probably have to pull some of it up, for now, the pond lily is the favorite flower in my garden.

What is your 2014 favorite?

Violas, Violas Everywhere

Weeding.  There no other garden chore that is so destructive and satisfying at the same time. With elbow grease, plastic, paper and heavy mulching, we’ve managed to remove many undesirable plants from our garden.  One of the plants that has been defying all our efforts to this time has been violas.  Not African Violets but those little, pesky, violet spring blooming flowers that pop up in lawns and shady areas.

This year, I am sparing them from the sharp edge of the weeding tool.
Why?  Sweet Violet Sirup.
On our walking trip along the Le Puy Way of the Camino de Santiago this summer, one of the most refreshing drinks we encountered was chilled violet water made from home-made violet (viola) sirup. It’s the French answer to Iced Tea and much tastier.

Here’s the recipe:
1 cup viola flowers, remove stems and rinse. Put into a glass (Mason) jar.
Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the flowers and let mixture sit covered for 24 hours.
Put mixture in saucepan, add 1 cup sugar and bring to a low boil, stir until all the sugar has dissolved.  Strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth, label bottle and store in a cool place for up to 12 month.

A little of the sirup goes a long way; add to plain or sparkling water, ice cream, etc.

Viola Plant

Viola Plant

Walking Onions

Generally, when people think of onions, they are thinking of the annual plant we all know and love. Vidalia, red, green, yellow, white…there are enough types of onions to keep pretty much anyone’s mouth happy! A couple of weeks ago, Belle asked if I’d like to write about “walking onions.” Since I had never heard of them before, I enthusiastically agreed — it’s always fun to learn something new.

The scientific name for these perennial onions is Allium proliferum, and they have many common names in addition to walking onion: topset onion, Egyptian onion, and tree onion. The difference between this variety and the common onion we all know and love is the fact that these onions form tiny “bulblets” at the tops of the leaves. In other words, they are “topsetting” onions.
walking onions 03 (2) (Small)walking onions 02 (Small)Eventually, as the leaves dry out and the bulblets get heavier, they fall over. When soil conditions are right, the bulblet will form a new plant. Over time, they will “walk” across the garden, as the plants fall over and reseed themselves. Topsets do not form the first year, though the plants will come back in the spring.

All parts of the walking onion plant can be eaten; however, harvesting the bulb cluster will prevent the formation of the topset. Leave a few if you want to grow them as perennials. The leaves are often used in the same way people use chives or green onions, and the bulb is similar to a common onion, though some people say they are a bit stronger-flavored.

One of the most intriguing things I read was that the topsets can be harvested and either eaten right away, or preserved by pickling. With the recent popularity of pickling on cooking websites, I thought there might be a recipe out there. Sure enough, I found this one on a website called Dave’s Garden.

Now I want to taste an onion topset — pickled or not! Plus, they are really cool looking plants. They grow year-round in mild climates, and though they can be planted any time, are best planted in the fall. I’m definitely adding these to my (ever-growing) fall planting list!

Do you grow onions? What varieties are your favorites? Have you ever pickled onions? 

Bringing in the Birds

My garden expands and changes each season, as most people’s probably do. It began as a small flower bed at the end of the sidewalk. It was about three feet in diameter. The next year,  I extended it down the sidewalk, changed its shape, and added a border. Then, the third year, I decided to triple the area the garden occupied, and the year after that, we added a small pond and expanded the planting area yet again.

This year, rather than digging up more grass, we began adding structures. I had a hummingbird feeder sitting on a shelf in the house (where no bird would ever find it!) and bought a bird feeder on clearance last winter, so one of the structures had to be something to hang two feeders from.

Using old tent poles, I made a structure for a vine to climb and the bird feeders to hang.

The first feeder, freshly filled.

The first feeder, freshly filled.

The structure went up in March, and I filled one feeder with seed, and watched for birds. A week later, the feeder was still completely full. Two weeks later, no seeds were gone. The third week, I said, “LOOK! Some seeds are gone!” My dad admitted to shaking some out for the chickens.

A month. Two months! It got to the point that I’d just shake my head every time I saw the feeder and feel bad about the money I spent on it and the bird seed. (Not much, but it was so disappointing!)

Then, one day, I saw a cardinal at the bird feeder. Within a week, two inches of bird food were gone. On the day I filled the bird feeder with seeds for the second time, I also filled the hummingbird feeder. It took a little while for the hummingbirds to find it, but I see them occasionally.

birdfeeders, field 6:18:14

There are more birds in my yard now than there have been in the eight years we have lived here. I’ve seen bluebirds, mockingbirds, robins, hummingbirds, LOTS of cardinals, and a few days ago, two tiny, bright, gorgeous gold finches. The bird feeder empties regularly, and birds sit on top of my grape arbor most of the time. I suspect they bathe in the pond but haven’t spotted them at it yet!

Birdsong is cheerful. The birds themselves are beautiful. Having them in the garden makes me happy. If you don’t have as many birds as you’d like, try putting out a feeder. Then, wait patiently!

Gardening at the Home Place

Belle and I both write mostly about growing flowers and fruits, so this post is a bit of a departure because it is about a more traditional kind of vegetable garden. My family owns a small farm collectively, and this year we are growing a garden together. My grandparents always grew a huge garden and we all share fond memories of working in it — but especially of eating up the proceeds from it — zealously and with great enjoyment.

Last year, one of my uncles planted a dozen blueberry plants and some grapes. Over the winter, I added four apple trees to keep the one already there company. In the spring, we built a small raised bed for perennial herbs, and got going on the big vegetable garden. Here’s what it looks like now:

FarmgardenJune1We have several varieties of tomatoes, two lettuce beds, onions, spaghetti squash, yellow squash, LOTS of radishes, beans, beans, and more beans, parsley, rosemary, sage, watermelons, bell peppers, okra and a few cucumbers. We still plan to put in some carrots and some corn, and maybe one or two more things if we find the time. In late July or August we’ll add several types of greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and maybe potatoes for a fall/winter crop.

It’s difficult to describe the joy that working in this garden brings. It’s in a beautiful place, with a stunning view. Combine the natural beauty with a couple of lifetimes’ worth of happy memories, and you can see why it’s such a pleasant place to work.

The last weekend in May, several people showed up to work, and we had dinner together, including fresh-from-the-garden lettuce, onion, and radishes. Each week, there will be a little more on our plates straight from the garden and we’ll be sustained in body, spirit, and mind. A garden can be so much more than rows of plants!

The Final Toll of the Killing Winter in Dava’s Garden

It was a rough winter. I didn’t realize just exactly how bad it was for my garden until the last couple of weeks. Here’s the final list of victims:

  • rosemary (this one hurts the most)
  • brugmansia
  • ALL of the strawberries
  • 2 varieties of canna lilies

Canna Carnival - purchased at the Green Thumbs Galore Driveway sale in spring 2013.

Canna Carnival – purchased at the Green Thumbs Galore Driveway sale in spring 2013.

  • a fancy orange coneflower
  • a cream and pink colored rose

I bought it at a grocery store for $2.

I bought it at a grocery store for $2.

  • columbine

A gift from Belle, 3-4 years ago.

A gift from Belle, 3-4 years ago.

  • 2 succulents

Of those, I didn’t fully expect the brugmansia or one of the succulents to make it. The columbine, rosemary, rose, and about half the strawberry plants were very well established, so it was surprising they didn’t make it. From what I understand rosemary plants across the region were hit hard.

Plants come and go — I’ve had some that survived for several years, then suddenly, inexplicably died, so I’m not mourning the loss of these too terribly much. This is the first year I’ve lost quite so many to cold weather, though.

Next year, if conditions are brutal again, I may have to implement Belle’s leaf blankets!

Along with the many garden losses, there were some surprising survivors, too:

  • hostas, even though there was a late-season frost
  • all of the daylilies
  • a gorgeous penstamon, which is about twice or three times bigger than last year!

penstammon

  • all of the native purple coneflowers, which are about to explode into bloom!

coneflower buds

  • the English wallflower, which smells so nice
  • a baby hydrangea
  • some tender, newly planted sage

sage

  • the grapes, which were moved in the very early spring

grapesThere were many other survivors as well, but these (especially the sage!) surprised me partly because they all seemed to really take off this spring. Another survivor was my peony, which didn’t bloom, but does have healthy, strong-looking foliage.

Did you suffer losses due to the cold? Were there any super-tough survivors?