Archive for June, 2010

The New York Botanical Gardens is hosting a summer long celebration of the edible garden, filling weekends with cooking demonstrations and tips on growing your own food.  It’s a beautiful display and nice to see celebrity chefs like Mario Batali, Dan Barber, and Sara Moulton making suggestion on plants to zip up your culinary skills.

  In the raised beds there’s arugula and fava beans, sorrel and corn.  There’s even a banana tree and sugar cane, which I didn’t know could be added to a backyard garden.  But there it was, looking like the houseplant Dracaena.  New Yorkers must treasure their sweets like fine wine if they’re prepared to grow, harvest, and cook down the canes for their sugar.  I simply head to the store, but they get a chance to set fire to their crop before taking in the sweet stalks (blogger’s confession: no mention of the flame harvest was made in the information plaque at NYBG; this technique was described to me by a fellow traveler who lived by sugar cane fields in Texas).

The container display took patio crops to new heights, with beans, bitter melons and squash vining up wrought iron trellises that suited the Victorian conservatory setting.  The formal flair would please even the most discerning HOA guardians in the Denver area.  Of note was their technique for supporting the tall sunflowers that added color and whimsy to the gathered pots:  bamboo stakes held the flower stalks upright, providing an anchor in a limited rooting space. 

Seed Savers Exchange had an amazing display of heirloom plants in a garden designed by Rosalind Creasy, author of  Edible Landscaping.  Her use of flowering ornamentals, decorative trellises and kitchen plants was an education in how vegetables offer beauty and usefulness in borders and beds.

Path after path in this edible event was loaded with clues for cooks, from suggestions on daylily blossoms in hot and sour soups to Martha Stewart’s herb garden with its traditional herb hedge and topiary bay trees.  That she included roses with big, orange hips was a good thing.

In this world class place filled with millions of plants, one thought kept running through my head:  what difference water makes.

  The east must be rich with it – they leave hydrants running, faucets on, and bring glasses of it to you in restaurants without being asked.  Why, they have so much water it literally falls from the sky.

 So it should have been no surprise that the method they used to water their vegetable garden was an oscillating fan sprinkler.  Back and forth this fountain of water waved, and I was stunned to see it.  I’ve spent more than a decade begging people to use drip irrigation, warning them that Overhead Sprinklers Are Not Safe Gardening and You Could Get A Disease.

But here’s this botanical garden – one of the foremost in the world – using a fan sprinkler to demonstrate how to grow a backyard garden.  Don’t try this at home, folks, it still isn’t right for us in the arid west, but I suppose getting people into the garden is the first step, then we can worry about pesky things like fungal spores getting splashed around.  And besides, they have so much humidity I doubt they lost water to evaporation.      

Miraculously, the plants had no problems.  I know because I checked.  Perhaps the humidity provides a glossy, protective coat on the leaves and disease can’t get through.  Or possibly the plants are growing so quickly that fungus doesn’t stand a chance.  Whatever their secret is, this garden is gorgeous, so if you’re in the Bronx, check it out.

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I was recently given a garden plaque, a lovely little faux-stone square that you hang out in the garden.  The saying on it, from Alfred Austin, is short but thought provoking.  It says “show me your garden and shall tell you what you are.” 

No doubt this is meant to explore the expression of one’s Id through our choices of flowering combinations, or plumb the depths of our relationship with the world through mulch.  But I have to admit: when faced with a door into my psyche, my only thought was “thank goodness it didn’t ask me to show it the lawn.” 

 A close examination of my grass is more telling than reading tea leaves, but significance depends upon the interpreter.  To some, those small encroachments of weeds and the push and pull of buffalo and bluegrass in the back yard means I’m open minded and accepting.  Others see it as a hideous eyesore and look at me as if I had demon smut on my soul. 

It isn’t that there’s a right or wrong in the matter, it’s just a difference in opinion on what makes a perfect yard.  For us, we’re happy to keep our maintenance to a minimum and don’t mind a few weeds.  The buffalo grass in the back is xeric, and our water bills don’t go up like a rocket around the Fourth of July.

But there’s little doubt in my mind why lawns are so important to people.  Historically, they’ve been a sign of wealth and prosperity – the number of sheep you could graze on your lawn showed the neighbors how rich you were.  

Nowadays homeowners take pride in their grass, secretly measuring themselves against surrounding yards.  They patrol the yard until mysterious brown spots stop them in their tracks.  Comb-overs are considered, but discarded since the grass is mowed only three inches high. 

When lawns have problems, many are left scratching their head, wondering what is wrong and how to fix it.  Fortunately we at Colorado State University Extension have a program designed to help the turf-challenged right in your own backyard:  Lawncheck.  It includes a site visit by our horticulture staff to discuss recommendations for fixing and caring for the grass.

In most cases, yard problems are due to how the lawn is cared for, and homeowners can cure problems themselves.  Occasionally, help will be needed from a professional lawn care company, so contact the folks at Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals, lawncarecolorado.org/, for their list of local experts.  The minimum cost is $75 for a one hour site visit.  Mileage costs may apply, depending on the distance of the site from the Extension office.  Lab fees for any samples collected will vary, based upon the tests to be run.  Visit the CSU Lawncheck website for a listing of participating counties, or to schedule an appointment at CSULawncheck.org. 

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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There are 162 days until Thanksgiving, so you’d better hurry if you plan on decorating this year.  For a cornucopia of color, get your seeds in the ground before the end of June, popping in everything you need to stuff that horn in November.

Start by planting two staples of fall décor – miniature gourds and tiny pumpkins.  These must-have accents nestle into centerpieces and are easy to grow in our hot, dry summer. Each vine produces enough decorative fruit to make any decorator happy, but because they like to ramble, give them room or train them up a trellis. 

Customize your plants to fit your decorator’s style, by planting a mix of orange and white mini pumpkins.  If you favor a flat pumpkin, orange Jack be Little or white Baby Boo is what you need.  But for perfectly round, miniature Jack O’ Lanterns, check out Little October at Botanical Interests .

For a striking red accent, grow Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), an amaranth with long, pendulous seed heads.  Pop in full sun, giving these three-to-four feet tall plants elbow room and a stake for support.  Water, but keep them a bit on the dry side.  Clip mature flowers and hang them in a cool, dark location to dry.  Seeds of change  has this.

Ornamental corn is available in a variety of sizes and colors, from diminutive, two-inch strawberry ears to huge, nine-inch Seneca Red Stalker whose stalks and ears delight in fall on porches, tables, and doors.  Direct sow seeds in full sun, planting at least five rows to ensure pollination.  Water often so ears get large, then wait to harvest until after the silk turns completely brown and the kernels are dry and hard. 

Pluck the ears from the stalk by pulling them down, peel back the husk to reveal the kernels, and then hang upside down in a cool, dry location that is free of mice.  Leave the husk attached to the cob for a decorative look, or peel it completely off before drying the ears.  For a large selection of colors and sizes, check out Seed Savers Exchange .

Normally seen springing up from straw mulch by accident, wheat is an unusual addition to cut flower gardens.  But its spiky, bearded seed heads are gorgeous in arrangements and bundled in sheaves on the table.  Plant it like grass seed by sowing onto a prepared bed, covering it with one-quarter-inch of soil.  Keep the ground moist but not water-logged.  Johnny’s Selected Seeds has black tipped wheat, or try Silver Tip, a wheat/rye cross with huge seed heads.

  Small to medium sized sunflowers are cheerful in dried arrangements, and keep long into the fall once prepared.  Harvest when flowers are partially open, cutting the stem off at the length you want for arranging.  Then bundle the sunflowers into groups of three, making sure the heads aren’t touching, tie with twine and hang them upside down in a cool, dark place to dry.  The flowers will unfurl as they dry.

Try the pollen-less Pro Cut sunflower series; the orange, yellow peach and bi-color blooms were developed for cut flower use. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has them.  

Make your own fall wreath or swag with broomcorn (Sorghum bicolor).  The name is misleading – this isn’t corn – but the seed sprays of this sorghum come in bronze, burgundy, black, and cream.   Harvest after the seed heads have colored up but before the stalk becomes hard and woody.  Cut the stem, then hang the sprays upside down to dry.  But if you want them to have a decorative arch once dried, stand them up in a vase for drying.  Victory seeds has an heirloom mix.

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Brace yourselves for the strip show of summer, coming soon to a garden near you.  With tiny jaws and a will to chew, insects intent on turning your garden into an all-you-can-eat buffet are on their way, struggling up out of the soil as the weather warms.  First to lose leaves will be the evening primrose, then sumac, tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes.  

When flea beetles arrive, your garden will be a hot spot of trouble.  Hordes of these small, shiny bugs chew leaves to a nub, threatening the survival of fledgling plants.  Just mention them and gardeners panic, dusting and vacuuming the garden to get rid of the vermin. 

If your seedlings are going to survive, you need a plan to thwart the flea beetle attack.  But with this bug problem, there’s no quick fix.  Like swallows to Capistrano, the beetles keep returning, so several methods should be used to help your plants grow large enough to ward off harm.

What:  Wrap vegetables in floating row covers that allow sun and water, but not insects, to get through.  

Results:  These fabric tents keep insects out, as long as the bugs are not already on the plant.  If your plants are hosting the party already, clean out the buffet first.

What:  Vacuuming the seedlings.

Results:  Hand held dust busters do an excellent job and are easy to move around the foliage.  As an added bonus, the small capture bag can be quickly emptied of bugs into a plastic bag for disposal.

What:  Diatomaceous earth

Results:  This powder, made from crushed fossilized diatomes, is a good way to repel flea beetles.  The dust irritates the body of the bug and they hop off to find less grating haunts in your neighbor’s yard.  Since plants keep sending up new growth, the dust needs to be reapplied often. 

What:  Spinosad

Results:  Spinosad, a fermented by-product of microscopic actinomycetes (bacteria found in the soil), stops bugs cold.  For it to work the bugs have to eat it, which means beneficial insects that don’t eat plants are safe from harm (caution: don’t use this on plants in bloom, or it may harm honeybees).  Once the bad guys have eaten Spinosad, their nervous system gets overexcited, and they drop dead within hours. 

What:  Neem oil

Results:  As a repellent, neem, an extract of the neem tree, can slow feeding of flea beetles.  But it must be reapplied often and doesn’t affect the larvae, many of which develop in the soil.

Act early to protect your plants from attack, and practice safe gardening by reading and following directions on the label for all products. 

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

Normally, I consider myself a sane gardener, or at least one who doesn’t fall prey to cheap tricks and gimmicks.  Late night ads claiming I’ll only have to water my houseplants once a month if I use this globe or mow down an oak forest with a push behind machine don’t have me reaching for the phone, even if they promise to throw in a set of Ginsu knives if I act quickly.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that if I don’t water my houseplants, they should do what they’ve always done: curl up and die.  But recently I’ve fallen from the path of purity, and caved into a gardening fad, one that I’ve been laughing at since it first appeared in the Sunday newspaper magazines and advertising cards that litter my mailbox.  In this moment of weakness, I turned my gardening upside down.

Literally.  By planting a tomato into one of those hanging bags, I took my first step into experimenting with gravity and the forces of nature.  I did this for a demonstration video on how to plant tomatoes, including the cart wheeled container because so many people have asked me about it. 

Once the tomato was planted, my nurturing instincts took over, and I just had to keep the thing alive – after all, it’s not the plant’s fault it now hangs suspended from a soft plastic bag.  Besides, I want to see what all the hoopla is about.  So now it dangles in my backyard, more bag than plant this early in the season, a tomato in suspended animation. 

I’ve been reading about these containers since their popularity soared last year, and know that the biggest drawback is that they weigh so much; the plant, wet soil, and fruit lead to disaster if the Topsy-Turvy comes tumbling down.  Customer comments and manufacturers warn you not to place this in a windy spot for this reason, which pretty much rules out every square-inch of Colorado.

So we make do, by choosing a strong support beam to hang the plant from, and use a hook big enough for the task; small china-cup hooks don’t cut it. 

Choose what you plant wisely, going with compact plants with smaller tomatoes, such as cherry tomatoes or salad slicers, instead of giant beefsteaks.  Caring for it should be similar to other vegetables in containers, easy as long as you have a plan and outdoor space. 

Tomatoes need six to eight hours of sunlight daily, so put your plant in the sunniest location you have, adding supplemental light if you’re and apartment dweller whose balcony is on the north side of the building. 

Prevent problems with soil pests or salt build up by using fresh, clean potting soil; don’t reuse soil left over from last year.  Once you’ve planted your pots, remember they’re now dependent upon you to provide for their needs. Containerized plants need water more often, requiring a drink at least once or, in very hot weather, twice per day.

You need to feed them too, which means fertilizer, because they can’t access naturally occurring nutrients. Balanced fertilizers are best; if you’d like to add a timed release into your soil mix, blend it in well before planting, following the ratios for mixing on the label. 

But don’t be fooled into thinking that adding slow release fertilizer will take care of the plant all summer; warm temperatures and moist soil will exhaust that fertilizer more quickly than the package suggests.  Plan on giving it a small boost of liquid fertilizer in mid season, just as it begins to produce fruit.

Plenty of tomatoes do well in containers. Try Early Girl or Celebrity for slicers, Sweet 100 or Tomatoberry for cherries. The list for tomatoes in containers is a long one; it’s best to check out the habit of the plant before you buy it.

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Several insects have popped up in the fruit garden this week, so if you’re growing gooseberries, currants, apples or pears, take a look at what could be bugging them:

 Currant sawflies (Nematus ribesii) have reared their heads in gooseberry shrubs.  A leaf-feeding bug when young, the caterpillar-like larvae are light green with black spots, plus black head and legs – very pretty.  They’re gregarious; in other words, they live and feed in a crowd when young. 

As unsupervised youths, they can do a lot of damage before you notice anything’s amiss. They and a few hundred buddies will eat darned-near every leaf on the plant, defoliating it just when the plant needs that energy to ripen fruit.  At this time of the season they’re more likely to be located towards the interior of the shrub, so check your plants carefully by lifting and inspecting each branch.

Look at the undersides of the leaves for the white, oval eggs and on the leaf petioles (stem attaching the leaf to the plant) for the caterpillars.  Because they are nicely camouflaged by their color, the larvae can be hard to spot, so be sure to look for small holes in the leaves as a clue to their presence.

Insecticidal soaps control these critters, or you can hand pick and dispose of them.  If you choose to use soap, read and follow the label, and make sure you spray it early in the morning, late in the evening, or on a cloudy day so that harsh sun doesn’t cause it to burn leaves.

 Currant aphids (Cryptomyzus ribis) are also out in force, dining on currant sap and distorting leaves.  You can find these small, pear-shaped, soft insects on the undersides of leaves, but the real tip-off is how they make the leaves look – parts of the leaf cup downwards, leaving a distinct puckering along the top.  The bumps and lumps also take on a reddish hue, which stands out like a flag against the green foliage. 

 Fortunately the beneficial bugs are on patrol, and ladybugs can be seen crawling over leaves to snack on the aphids.  But if you’re impatient for control, insecticidal soap or a strong jet of water will knock the aphids down. 


Coddling moth (Cydia  pomonella) adults are getting caught in traps, so protect your apples and pears if you don’t want to find worms in them.  As these adults fly they’re looking for love, and once they’ve found it, will lay eggs on the young apples.  After hatching, the caterpillars gnaw into the fruit, munching on the apple insides for three to four weeks (the first flight of adults – those we’re seeing now – will lay eggs on leaves, and larvae eat those first, then worm their way into the fruit).

When it’s time to pupate, the coddling moth caterpillars leave the fruit, crawling down the trunk to find crannies in the bark to spin a cocoon.  Use this against them by wrapping the trunk with corrugated cardboard – the larvae find this a cozy place to pupate.  Take the cardboard off and replace it every two weeks, and dispose of the used cardboard as desired. 

Molasses traps are irresistible to the adults, and you can make your own out of molasses and water in a 1:10 ratio.  Pour this into a wide-mouth container, then hang it in the tree.  Check it often and replace when full of moths.


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