Bavarian Purple, Spanish Roja & More: Selecting & Planting Gourmet Garlic …

October 24th, 2011 § 2

Gorgeous, Gourmet Garlic! Bulbs, Clockwise from Top of Ceramic Bowl: German White, Russian Red, Bavarian Purple & Spanish Roja. On Table: Two Heads of Doc’s German & One Each of German Red & Music. In Basket: A Combination of All Garlic Varieties, Plus Continental.

Creatures of the night, beware: I grow garlic! Garlic and onion braids hang from the wooden beams of my kitchen, and they inhabit colorful ceramic keepers on my shelves. I have garlic galore planted in my garden, squirreled away for winter use upon shelves in paper bags and hanging from floor joists in my cellar. Vampires dare not kiss me, for I cook with this delightfully stinky herb most every night.

Every autumn, I plant many varieties of cold hardy, hardneck garlic in my potager (hardneck garlic is the best choice for climates with long, cold winters). It’s a good idea to purchase garlic grown close to your own home (this insures the hardiest selections for your climate and local growing conditions), and traditionally, each October, I visit the annual Garlic & Arts Festival in nearby North Orange, Massachusetts, to select a few more gourmet bulbs for my garden. One of my all-time favorite garlic varieties, which I finally found at the festival a few years ago, is Spanish Roja (a rocambole hardneck garlic). This beautifully colored, hot and spicy selection possesses a true garlic flavor and easy-to-peel cloves, making it one of the most popular —and sometimes hard to find— bulbs at market. This zesty variety and others —including German Red, Bavarian Purple and Russian Red—-  tend  to be my favorite types for roasting and cooking. But I also love the milder varieties of garlic —including smokey, medium heat Continental— for salad dressing, salsa, cold pasta and other recipes calling for raw cloves, and for use in subtler dishes.

Garlic Bulbs are Harvested in Late Summer, When the Tops Yellow, Wither and Flop (Also True for Onions). Once Lifted from the Earth with a Garden Fork, Excess Soil is Shaken from the Bulbs as They ‘Cure’ for Two Weeks in a Warm, Dry Place.

Many hard neck garlic varieties (including rocambole, porcelain and striped) store beautifully in cool, dark, dry conditions. Porcelain garlic bulbs, such as German White and Music, are exceptionally good selections for long-term (up to 9 months under optimal conditions) storage. Russian Red, another good-sized porcelain hardneck variety, is also a top-notch keeper. I hang garlic braids in my kitchen and always have a few bulbs on hand in ceramic keepers, but most of my garlic is stored on shelves in a cool (approximately 55 degrees) part of my dark, dry cellar. After harvest and curing (for more detail, see previous post by clicking here) I like to store my garlic bulbs in braids (click here for my popular onion/garlic braiding tutorial with step-by-step photos) and in loosely folded, brown paper bags (this provides ample air circulation). I mark the name of the variety on the outside for quick reference. Some bulbs return to the garden every autumn, and the rest remain in stock on my shelves for winter and springtime use.

Preparing to Plant Garlic: Breaking a Basket of Large, Firm, Hard Neck Bulbs into Cloves

Mid-autumn is the best time to plant hardneck garlic in my climate. Each year I rotate my crop; preparing a new garlic bed with fresh compost in late September. Selecting large, firm bulbs from my crop, I carefully separate the cloves and prepare tags for each variety. On a cool, dry October day, I plant each clove approximately 2″ deep and 4-6″ apart (space wider for big, porcelain bulbs like Music). Mulching is very important in cold climates like Vermont. I use throughly rotted compost and clean straw or ground oak leaves for a nice thick mulch. Read more about garlic planting, and find a link back to removing and using garlic scapes, in my previous post “A Thousand Mothers Set Into Earth” by clicking here.

Of Course the Best Part of Growing Garlic is Eating It! Click Here for a Delicious Garlic and Potato Soup Recipe

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photos, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions) are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Strolling Along the Wildflower Walk …

July 6th, 2011 Comments Off

A Stroll Through the Wildflower Walk in Late Afternoon

The Wildflower Walk may have started as an accidental feature in my garden, but —second only to the Secret Garden— it always generates the most oohs and ahhs. And when the sunny drifts of Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) hit their crescendo in July, it’s easy to see what all the commotion is all about. The softening effect of randomly strewn, bold sweeps of wildflowers is truly magical in a landscape, and although my dog Oli is responsible for coming up with this design, I have not only run with the theme in my own garden, but used the idea in other designs as well (minus the method of installation, see previous post for that story). I’m sure that if he only knew how popular one of his ‘bads’ has become, Oli would be begging for bones every day when he passes through his wondrous Wildflower Walk.

Of course —not to take away from my dog’s true genius— but one of the things that makes all of this unplanned wildness work from a design standpoint, is the underlying structure of the garden. The hardscape and bones of the landscape —which includes the stonewalls, loose stone paths, and structural trees and shrubs— give shape to the space; allowing ever-changing elements to take center stage at any given time, while the constant ‘theater’ holds everything together. And though they stand in the background throughout the summer —steady and central— the structural features always take over the show in late autumn and winter…

Rudbeckia and Nepeta tumble in a colorful jumble along the Wildflower Walk. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators love Nepeta and Rudbeckia. And later in the season, finches will stop by to feast upon Rudbeckia seed (I leave many of the stalks standing for my feathered friends). Meanwhile, in the background: the spilling green Juniperus horizontalis provides bright blue berries for wildlife, as well as a pretty green foil for the wildflowers. And though it’s barely visible in high summer, Dan Snow’s retaining wall holds everything together —both figuratively and literally– throughout the year.

The walkway surface is 1″ natural round stone —slightly larger and more grey-blue than pea stone— which allows wildflower seed to germinate just beneath the surface. The walk does require some weeding, but it isn’t as labor intensive as you might think. Rounded, natural stone makes a great surface for seating areas and walkways; in both formal and informal spaces. I particularly love this look in lawn-less, Mediterranean gardens.

The main walkway —to and from my home/studio— is wider than the Secret Garden path and the rest of the Wildflower Walk. And though the Rudbeckia reigns supreme here in early summer, this wave of bloom is preceded by Lupine and succeeded by Adenophora. Other wildflowers and shrubs play supporting and cameo roles along the way… 

In reality, getting wildflowers to succeed in a garden over the long-haul usually requires a bit more planning than Oli put into his work. Many self-sown bi-annual and meadowy perennial flowers —such as Lupine, Poppies, Asters, Black-eyed Susans and the like— prefer fast-draining, thin soil in full-sun. These flowers thrive on natural, seasonal weather conditions. When it comes to sunny-meadow flowers, sites with poor soil often work better than sites with rich soil (take note of those wildflower drifts along the highway: talk about thriving on neglect!), but there are wildflowers adapted to wet, rich soil as well. Recognizing wildflower seedlings (to avoid accidental weeding or over-mulching) throughout the season, and allowing seed heads to remain standing until they mature, is absolutely critical to the maintenance of wildflower drifts (this is particularly important in true meadows, which must be mown after the flower heads have browned and are ready to release seed). All of these things tend to go against the grain of super-tidy gardeners, so in the beginning at least, a leisurely attitude toward maintenance may work to your advantage when it comes to wildflowers. However in long term, lazy Susans would not be successful here. I am the sole gardener on my property, and as ‘wild’ as this walkway may look, I can assure you that it does demand some weeding time; particularly in the early spring, after rainy periods. Clover, grass and other thin-soil-lovers germinate well between the loose stone, and rise up in competition with the wildflowers along the path. I simply keep them in check (often in the early morning hours while talking on the phone with a client or contractor, or late, late in the afternoon with a glass of cold lemonade or chilled wine).

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ will reach its summertime crescendo this month in the Wildflower Walk

A different perspective: looking down the Secret Garden path from the main walkway. This shot was taken on an overcast morning, when the bright yellow and orange of the just-opening Rudbeckia really stood out.That’s Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ on the right, backed up by Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’ (that dynamic duo really lights up in the autumn, see this post for photos).

Looking Through the Wildflower Walk and Into the Secret Garden Beyond (Foreground: Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’).

Tempted to give wildflower drifts a try in your own garden? Want to replace your front lawn with something less water/chemical dependent and more colorful? Would you like to support pollinator and bird populations with a natural food source? Well, you could ask a rambunctious dog like Oli to install a Wildflower Walk for you, or you could consult some inspirational books on the subject of Meadow Gardens. The one I am currently ogling, and constantly praising, is The American Meadow Garden, pictured and linked below. Beyond its obvious beauty, this book is also genuinely useful; offering meadow/wildflower planting suggestions by region, soil type and exposure. Self-sown wildflower drifts are lovely both in meadows and within designed gardens. Isn’t it amazing what your dog can teach you?

The American Meadow Garden (John Greenlee/Saxon Holt) from Timber Press

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photographs, articles and content on this site, (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Spring Brunch from the Kitchen Garden: Shirred Eggs with Shiitake & Arugula …

April 30th, 2011 § 6

Shirred Eggs with Homegrown Shiitake Mushrooms & Garden-Fresh Arugula

I’ve always been a breakfast person. French toast, waffles, eggs, potatoes, pancakes; I enjoy them all. Sometimes, in fact, I would like them all at once. Because of my love affair with breakfast foods, I have developed some pretty liberal ideas about when they should be served. Brunch is a great idea of course, but I also happen to think huevos rancheros make a fine dinner. And those restaurants with the round-the-clock breakfast menus? Those are some of my favorite places.

During the growing season, my work day usually starts before sunrise. I love the early hours, but they seem to go by too fast. Often, I’m juggling a couple of different jobs, scrambling to get things done here in the office or out in my garden, and running off to appointments with landscape design clients. I don’t have time to sit down for a leisurely morning meal. So when I have a free weekend or morning off,  I treasure the opportunity to create an old fashioned breakfast or relaxing brunch. And at this time of year, I especially enjoy cooking with fresh, early-spring produce —mushrooms, arugula and fiddleheads— from the garden and surrounding forest.

Shiitake Mushrooms Emerging in the Woodland Garden at Ferncliff

The woodland mushroom garden began as a small experiment here, but has since blossomed into a full-blown production. There are so many mushrooms popping up right now, that it’s probably time to start selling them. Shiitake mushrooms are surprisingly easy to grow, and early-spring or autumn is the best time to begin a mushroom garden of your own. Wonderful when harvested fresh in spring and fall, shiitake can also be air-dried and stored for later use (soaked in water or wine they are easily reconstituted for use in myriad recipes; including soups, sauces, pasta and rice dishes). If you are interested in how shiitake are grown, travel back to last year’s post —by clicking here— for a step-by-step tutorial on the process. Of course, I have plenty of space for full-sized mushroom logs here. But if you enjoy cooking and eating mushrooms, growing them is within the realm of possibility for any gardener; even one with very little, or no outdoor space. Small, pre-inoculated mushroom logs can even be purchased online (in season) from retailers like Gardener’s Supply Company and Terrain. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh mushrooms, and with the cost gourmet food items like shiitake, it’s really worth your while to start growing your own!

After Great Success with the First Dozen Shiitake Logs – The Mushroom Garden Grew Again Last Fall

This Morning’s Crop

Another Favorite, Seasonal Crop: Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads (learn more about fiddleheads, and find a recipe for a fiddlehead omelette, by clicking here)

With a basket full of fresh shiitake and fiddleheads from the forest –and of course baby arugula from the kitchen garden— I had plenty of delicious produce for my late-morning breakfast today. I decided to save the fiddleheads for tomorrow’s omelette, and made shirred eggs with shiitake, arugula, cheddar cheese and cream. Shirred eggs —baked in ramekins or muffin tins— make a delicious meal; perfect for entertaining a crowd at brunch. And with Mother’s Day coming up next weekend, I thought I’d share this recipe and give you a chance to practice before you making it for company (once you taste this delicious combination of flavors, you will definitely want to share). Earthy shiitake have a wonderful, rich flavor that works well with the fresh zing of baby arugula. But if you don’t have access to your own or locally grown shiitake (yet) you can substitute a different mushroom or vegetable of choice . Have access to freshly foraged fiddleheads? Perhaps you’d like to try the Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette, which I featured last spring in this post ( click here ).

Shirred Eggs with Shiitake Mushrooms, Arugula, Cheese & Cream

An original recipe from my own kitchen

Ingredients (Makes 12, average muffin-tin sized baked eggs):

12          Fresh, medium-sized, organic eggs

3            Cups baby arugula leaves, freshly washed

3/4        Cup shiitake mushrooms washed & chopped into bite size pieces

3/4        Cup heavy cream (optional)

3/4        Cup cheddar cheese, grated

Softened butter for tins or ramekins

Fresh ground black pepper & salt to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325°  Fahrenheit

Generously butter 12 ramekins or 12 regular size muffin tins. At bottom of each container, add one tablespoon chopped shiitake mushrooms, approximately one tablespoon baby arugula leaves (torn into bits if necessary) and 1/2 tablespoon of cheddar cheese. Pat ingredients to settle them in, and (optional) add one tablespoon of heavy cream. Carefully crack each egg over the top of the other ingredients. Place ramekins or muffin tins into the hot oven.

 

Bake at 325 F for 10 minutes or until the eggs are just starting to set. Remove from oven and sprinkle each egg with 1/2 tablespoon of cheese. Return to the heat for approximately 2 – 3 more minutes or until cheese is melted.

Meanwhile, arrange a nest of arugula greens on each plate.

Remove tins/ramekins from the oven and gently scoop each shirred egg from its container with a rubber spatula or large spoon (it helps to loosen each container around the edge with the tip of a rubber spatula or butter knife).  Settle each egg atop a bed of greens and garnish with a few arugula leaves, freshly ground black pepper & salt to taste. Serve warm.

These shirred eggs are wonderful with a fresh-squeezed minneola mimosa (click here or on the photo below for recipe)

Minneola Mimosa

You may also enjoy the Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette (click here or on photo below for the recipe and more about fiddleheads)

Ferncliff Fiddlehead Omelette

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Article and all photographs are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent. Do you enjoy The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through affiliate links here. A small percentage of each sale will be paid to this site, helping to cover web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you so much for your support!

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Dusting Off, Cleaning Out, Taking Stock & Getting Ready for Gardening Season… Plus Another Giveaway!

April 18th, 2011 § 33

The bright gold of Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is a cheerful welcome in a chair beside my front door. I like using natural baskets as decorative covers for inexpensive, recycled plastic flower pots. I do a similar thing with plants placed outside in summer, using everything from wooden crates and baskets to tin cans and flea market finds to add color, texture and interest to plants with less-than-attractive interior containers.

Ah, fog, mist, sunshine and April showers. What a mixed jumble the forecast is this week! My schedule seems to be at the mercy of the elements lately. But, undaunted by the moody weather, I’ve decided to take advantage of the unpredictable situation and use any rainy days or hours this week to sort through and give a spring cleaning to the growing collection of baskets and pots in my Secret Garden Room.

I love accenting my garden with colorful pots and overflowing baskets, but moving containers in and out every season results in a bit of wear and tear. Each year a few woven baskets are retired to the compost pile, and I lose one or two clay pots to a ‘whoopsie’. For the most part, I’ll replace those containers with new ones found at flea markets, tag sales, curb-side freebies and recycling centers. But sometimes a special handmade vessel catches my eye and I will add to my collection of beautiful clay pots, ceramic urns and stoneware containers. Right now I am admiring a few gorgeous pots I spotted at the lovely online garden store, Terrain, and last fall I also spied a bunch of fabulous pieces at Virginia Wyoming’s pottery studio in Westminster, Vermont. There are so many wonderful handmade pots on Etsy and local craft fairs. I like supporting independent artists when I can, and I always encourage others to do so as well…

Sometimes an Empty Vessel is as Lovely as a Container Filled with Plants. Here, a Cracked, Old, Clay Pot Adds Character to a Shady Nook Filled with Perennials (Including Kiregeshoma palmata and Astilbe) in My Garden

I Like to Create New Container Garden Vignettes Every Year. Here in Front of My Painting Studio, a Collection of Pots, Urns and Vessels Brings Color and Life to the Stone Terrace and Tobacco-Stained Barn Siding. All of these pots came from local, Vermont sources like Walker Farm and A Candle in the Night

Here’s Another Empty Vessel in the Walled Garden. I Love Contrasting a Smooth Surfaced Pot with Intricately Textured Foliage. Here, Indian Rhubarb (Darmera peltata) Provides a Lacy Skirt on this Beautiful Piece of Pottery.

Like many gardeners, I’ve recently become enamored with succulent container gardening. And why not? Succulents –and their close relatives, cacti– are so easy to care for. Last year, my studio’s steel balcony was filled with all sorts of dramatic pots (including the one pictured below), crammed with outlandish, colorful beauties and textural curiosities. Like ornamental grasses, succulents make great container plants for hot, dry spaces; think stone terraces, decks and windy balconies. Of course not all succulents are cold-climate hardy, so they must come inside if you live in a wintry region. But some cacti and succulents –including many sedum, sempervivum and others– are quite tough, and can be overwintered outdoors. Most of these fleshy, shallow-rooted plants are easy to propagate, and in cold climates, cuttings can be taken indoors before the frost in autumn and saved for next year’s container display. If you live in New England, I recommend signing up for Walker Farm’s free, succulent container gardening seminar on May 7th (click here for details). Daisy Unsicker, who will be leading the seminar with owner Karen Manix, propagates some incredible succulents at Walker Farm. Daisy creates gorgeous and inspirational succulent containers. Click here —or on the photo below— to see my previous post on “Un-Flower Pots”, for more unconventional, lower-maintenance, container gardening ideas.

A Collection of Plants (including Sempervivum and Haworthia) From Last Year’s Succulent Container Garden – Click Here for Post with More Details, Photos and Plants

A few years back, The Jewel Box Garden, one of my now-favorite container gardening books by Thomas Hobbs (author of the also gorgeous garden book, Shocking Beauty), inspired me to look at unconventional ways to use pots and vessels in my landscape. And more recently, I’ve found some fabulous ideas in Debra Lee Baldwin’s book Succulent Container Gardens from Timber Press. If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you may remember that I’ve mentioned this title before; both here and over at Barnes & Noble’s now-archived Garden Variety. This is a fabulous book, and a real must-have for any cacti/succulent lover or container gardening enthusiast.

Order Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin from Amazon.com image courtesy of fabulous publisher, Timber Press

Because I love this book so much, I’ve decided to purchase one to give away as part of this blog’s second anniversary celebration. To enter, simply leave a comment on today’s post, and in your comment, tell me what you like to grow in containers: ornamental plants, vegetables/herbs, or both. Be sure to correctly enter your email address so that I can contact you if you win the giveaway (your email won’t be visible to others, nor will it be shared or sold). Your entry must be received by 11:59 pm Eastern Time, Friday, April 22nd. A winner will be randomly chosen from the entries received in comments, and announced 4/25 here, on this site’s Facebook page, and also on Twitter. Due to shipping restrictions, this giveaway is open to readers in the United States and Canada only.

Good Luck! xo Michaela

The Winner of Debra Lee Miller’s Succulent Container Gardens is Lisa N. Congratulations Lisa!

Thank you to everyone for playing. If you didn’t win, please stay tuned for another chance this month!

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Article and Photographs (with noted exception) ⓒ Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All photographs, articles and content on this site, (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced or reposted without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Fresh Starts & Colorful Patterns at Walker Farm in Dummerston,Vermont…

March 24th, 2011 § 2

Like Farm Fields Viewed from Above, Flats of New Seedlings at Walker Farm Create Brilliant Geometric Abstractions

Yesterday, I spent a few happy midday hours and an exciting lunchtime meeting with my friends Karen, Jack and Daisy at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. The 241-year-old farm has long been a popular and beloved local resource for organically grown produce and vegetable starts. But in its more recent history —having been featured by Anne Raver in The New York Times and other well-known publications—  family-owned Walker Farm has become well-known amongst horticultural connoisseurs throughout New England and New York as an insider’s source for high-quality, rare and unusual annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs.

Inside nineteen greenhouses along the Connecticut River, each year Walker Farm grows more than 1,200 varieties of annual and perennial plants from seed. Walker Farm will be open on April 8th*, and at this time of year, the farm is literally buzzing with activity; with seed starting and vegetative propagation of plants in full swing. I’ll be writing much more about Walker Farm in the coming weeks, but for today here is a sneak peek at some of the young annual and perennial seedings and colorful succulent starts growing at the farm. As my eye took in the abstract, geometric shapes, patterns and delightfully saturated colors, I couldn’t help but compare the greenhouse landscape to that of agricultural fields, viewed from above.

With much of the outside world still covered in snow, I found the fresh rush of color particularly uplifting…

Just Imagine These Beautiful Colors, Trailing from Baskets and Balconies…

Endless Spring Planting Combinations and Container Design Possibilites Spring to Mind When Gazing Upon the Gorgeous Succulent and Begonia Starts at Walker Farm

A Bird’s Eye View of the Landscape Inside the One of the Many Greenhouses at Walker Farm

* Walker Farm‘s early opening date is for sale of cold-hardy pansies, seeds and garden supplies. The sale of annual vegetable & flower starts and perennials will begin as local weather permits. Please see the farm’s website here for details, plant lists, directions and other helpful information including a free, seed germination guide.

***

Article and photographs are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent.

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through the affiliate-links here. A small percentage of each sale will be paid to The Gardener’s Eden, and will help with site maintenance and web hosting costs. Thank you!

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Here Comes the Sun, Doo’n Doo Doo: Gettin’ Started with Seed Starting…

February 10th, 2011 § 3

On your mark, get set…

Twenty degrees fahrenheit. Ow… That’s nippy! Yes, the outside temperature still says ‘winter’ loud-and-clear, but the good new is that the days are getting longer, and the sunlight is getting stronger. That means it’s just about time to get a jump on the growing season by starting seed indoors. At this time of year in Vermont, I’m already sowing chives, onions and hardy herbs indoors. Cold crops like lettuce, spinach and arugula are now growing within the spring-like climate created by the hoop houses in my vegetable garden (click here for more information on how to build your own). I’m looking forward to an even more productive potager this year, with more home-grown gourmet vegetables started from seed.

Why start seed indoors when you can just pick up vegetable six-packs in early spring at the garden center? Well, first of all, it needn’t be either/or. Even though I still buy organically-grown vegetable starts from Walker Farm (by the dozen), I have plenty of reasons to start some seed here at home. Starting seed indoors gives me a jump on the growing season; allowing me to plant certain crops outdoors, and harvest before the local garden centers even open. When I start my own seed, I also have the option of experimenting with unusual, gourmet vegetable crops. Seed catalogs (and Seed Saving exchanges) offer far more variety than any local greenhouse can possibly supply (see sidebar and links below for some sources). And if you don’t have an organic grower nearby, starting your own plants from seed insures that your produce will be raised to your own high standards: you control the quality right from the start. Although there is an initial investment in grow lights and other gardening supplies, starting your own seed indoors can save quite a bit of money over the long haul. But the best part? I get to see the entire, magnificent process of life right from the beginning. If you have children, this is a great opportunity for teaching, and a wonderful experience to share.

A fine-textured medium (growing mix) is essential for seed starting. Regular potting soil is too heavy, and won’t drain efficiently. Buy or make your own seed starting mix for best results.

Seed Starting Basics

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Start your new plants the right way: Purchase fresh seed from a reliable, organic source, near your region. Seed collected close to your own geographic area tends to perform best. Farmers in my area (New England), almost always buy their seed from New England sources. And although I do buy seed from elsewhere (some from as far away as California) I purchase the bulk of my vegetable seed packets from suppliers in nearby Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. And when choosing germinating mix, remember to always use an organic seed-starter with very fine, loose particles. Never use regular potting soil to germinate seeds. Why? It’s much heavier and it won’t drain well. Seedlings need moist, but not water-logged soil.

Select your containers and trays: Many garden centers and online suppliers have plastic or peat cell-packs available for purchase. These packs are handy, because they usually come with plastic tops to keep the starter mix moist while seeds germinate. But, you can always use plastic wrap for ths purpose if you make/recycle containers. Some of my gardening friends like to make their own biodegradable starter pots from newspaper. You can also recycle old plastic six-packs or other containers, but you must sterilize those reused pots properly with warm, soapy water and a bit of disinfectant (bleach) to prevent the spread of disease. You will also need leak-proof trays to place beneath the seeds, in order to water them from the bottom (prevents washing the tiny seeds to the side of the pots and/or disturbing delicate roots). Whatever you choose to use, get everything ready —in one place— before you start.

Set up grow lights: While it’s true that you can start seed in a brightly lit window (I do this with some windowsill herbs) you will get much better results (stronger root systems, stems and overall growth) if you use grow-lights positioned close to the seed trays. You can use regular florescent shop-lights, or you can purchase grow-lights (available at many garden centers and online suppliers). If you are serious about starting seed indoors (or growing tropical houseplants) grow lights are a great investment. If you already own grow-lights, clean them and check bulbs and timers before you start your seed. Most vegetable seeds do not require heat-pads for germination. But it’s always a good idea to check the back of seed packets before you start, to be clear on requirements. Grow lights work best when they are raised up as the seedlings develop, keeping them close to (but not touching) the leaves. Crafty gardeners can try to construct their own systems, but grow-light systems —either floor or table mounted— can be purchased at all price points. Aim for durable, quality construction – with stands built to last.

Quality grow lights (like the one above, from Gardener’s Supply Company) are a great investment if you are serious about getting a jump-start on the growing season.

Time your starts: Check the back of your seed packets for the number of days to germination, and the start date. Usually the packet will list the start date by referencing the number of weeks prior to the last frost date. Do you know your last frost date? Check with your local USDA cooperative extension service (click here for interactive map) or, the awesome, easy-to-use table for common vegetable start dates on The Farmer’s Almanac website (Just enter your city and state in the pace provided – love the Farmer’s Almanac)! If you live in zone 4 or 5, February is a good time to start onions, leeks, chives, celery and hardy herbs. Later this month (or early March) you can begin cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts. Unless you are located in zone 7 or warmer, wait to start warm-season crops (like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) until mid to late March, or even early April.

Moisten the starter mix and fill containers: One the best ways to insure that your seedlings have plenty of moisture is to soak your germinating mix overnight prior to planting. I like to wet the mix in a big tub the night before planting; adding enough warm water to make it damp, but not soupy. I know the starter medium is ready to use when all of the water is absorbed and the mixture is moist like a fresh cupcake, but not wet and gloppy like mashed potatoes. If you try to form a ball it should crumble apart, but still feel moist to the touch (just like natural garden soil at planting time, remember how great that smells?)

Hello baby!

Plant your seeds in the containers: Plant two to three seeds per cell (you will thin the plants later) Not sure of how deep to plant? The back of the seed packet should list planting depth. But if it doesn’t, aim to plant the seed three times as deep as it is large (measuring by diameter).

Cover the seeds and wait for germination: Once all the seeds are planted and set in their trays, cover them with the plastic tops, or loosely with plastic wrap (to contain moisture and raise humidity) and place them in a 60-75 degree (fahrenheit) room. Be sure that the catch trays are filled with water, and check the seed starts daily to insure that the soil remains moist. A plastic spray-misting bottle can be useful in the early stages of seed starting to insure that the surface of soil remains moist. Seed trays can be placed beneath grow lights, but you won’t need to turn them on until the seeds pop out of the soil. Again, unless the seed requires warmer germination temperatures (or if you are starting plants in a cool/dark spot like a cellar) you won’t need heating pads for the trays.

Sunflowers are an exciting and easy crop for youngsters to grow in recycled milk cartons. But wait a bit longer on this crop. February is too soon to start sunflowers in New England…

Light up their life: As soon as the seeds germinate, they’ll need at least 12 hours of light per day (and for many vegetables 14-18 hours is even better) In these northern parts, this is where grow-lights come in. Remembering to turn lights on-and-off can be tricky at first, and an inexpensive timer can really be your best work-buddy!

Feed me Seymour!: Once the seedlings have a set of “true” leaves (as opposed to the tiny seed leaves, which emerge first), give them their first meal: a bit of dilute, organic fertilizer (I use a very weak fish emulsion solution, diluted in water).

Biodegradable pots allow room for root development, and can be popped right into the soil (no struggling to remove tiny plants without damage!)

Transition time: Once spring closes in, seedlings will begin to really take off. As certain young plants grow, they will need thinning and perhaps later, transplanting to larger pots before being “hardened off” (process of bringing seed outdoors for short periods of time to adjust to outside temperatures and light). We’ll talk more about this process later. In meantime, If you are starting many seeds, it’s also wise to invest in a fan for air circulation. Check with some of the seed supply sources linked here for more information, or visit your local garden center. It’s also helpful to have some larger sized pots and regular potting soil on hand for later. Peat pots (or other biodegradable containers) are particularly good for the purpose of transplanting, because they can be placed directly into the soil. This reduces root-disturbance and makes for a swifter, stress-free transition into garden soil.

And although we are all anxious to get back out in the sweet earth, resist the urge to rush tender plants into a cold garden. Unless you have hoop houses, row covers, cloches or other protection for your crops, it’s too risky to push them out before the recommended date (again refer to the links at the top of this post). I’ll be writing more about the process of seed starting over the coming weeks and months.

For more information and seed sources, please visit previous posts, linked here!

Here comes the sun! It may still be a little early for most vegetable starts, but growing windowsill herbs (like chives and cilantro) is fun and easy anytime…

Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his fantastic seed starting photos. Visit Tim’s site here.

Product images are the property of linked online retailers.

Article and noted photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent.

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Joyful New Beginnings: Bright-Green Herb Seedlings Emerging from the Soil…

February 3rd, 2011 § 1

Seedlings in the Morning Sun:  Johnny’s Herb Disks in the Windowsill Garden (Coriandrum sativum)

Lately, the weather in here in Vermont has been a bit challenging (to say the least). Even we native New Englanders start to groan when back-to-back blizzards deliver multiple feet of snow and there’s nowhere left to pile it! Three feet, four feet? With all of the blowing and drifting and snowbanks everywhere, I’ve lost track of the total accumulation here on my hilltop. Let’s just say that you now enter the house through white tunnels. Enough said…

Coriander (Cilantro) Seedlings Emerge from Johnny’s Herb Disks in the Windowsill Garden (Coriandrum sativum)

If you live in a northern climate like I do, then you are probably beginning to tire of the big storms and the endless shoveling, and you may be wondering if spring will ever come again. Yes, yes she will. I promise. And while we gardeners are waiting, there are a few things we can start to do. If you live in zone 4 or 5, you will want to start gathering your seeds and checking on start dates. Over the next couple of weeks, you can begin setting up grow lights (full spectrum), and sow onions, leeks, celery and hardy herbs indoors (for tips on starting onions & leeks visit this post here)…

Pots brushed with Primary Colors Add Life to the Kitchen Countertop

Of course, round ’bout February, most kids will be starting to get stir crazy indoors. Plus, those mid-winter vacations are coming up soon… Aren’t they? This simple project is the perfect way to introduce seed-starting to little gardeners and to help keep those tiny hands occupied. Even if you don’t have children, these seed disks make starting herbs indoors simple and quick. I love fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves in my guacamole and I use lots of fresh basil, and other herbs in my kitchen. So last year, I decided to give Johnny’s Seeds pre-prepared herb disks a try, to see how they would work in clay pots. And the results: totally fun and easy project!

Seed starting disks from Johnny’s Seeds fit perfectly inside these brightly painted, 6″ tall clay pots

All you need to do is purchase seed-starting soil (a well-drained medium with super-fine soil particles) and fill appropriately sized pots near-full with the mix. Moisten the soil thoroughly and lay a seed disk atop the soil (pots with a 4.5″ diameter at the top work perfectly for Johnny’s Seed disks). Cover the disk with soil to the recommended depth (varies depending upon the plant – check instructions of the back of each packet) and moisten again. Line your herbs up in a brightly lit window, water regularly with a fine mister and wait.

Depending upon the kind of herbs you grow, within a few day to a couple of weeks, you should begin to see bright green seedlings emerge. Be patient, though! Some herbs take quite a bit of time to germinate. Parsley seedlings, for example, can take a month to emerge. Once the seedlings have popped through the soil, keep the herbs moist, but not soggy. Be sure the pots are located in a warm spot with good light and air circulation. One the first set of true leaves appear (as opposed to the tiny seed leaves) you will want to mix up a weak solution of organic fertilizer (I use fish emulsion), and feed your herbs every-other-week. Rotate the pots once a week to keep seedlings growing straight, as opposed to leaning toward the light. For best results, you want to start your seeds beneath full-spectrum grow lights (keep the light source very close to the plants and raise it as the seedlings grow). The nice part of using prepared disks is that the seeds come pre-spaced. Of course you can always start seed without disks; planting them in trays filled with starter soil mixture. If you do this, you can thin the seedlings of herbs and vegetables later on (see photo below).

I will be writing much more about starting seeds indoors and out over the coming months, so stay tuned and think spring!

Is there anything more hopeful or uplifting than fresh green seedlings emerging from damp soil?

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Article and Photographs are copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, with noted exceptions, is the property of The Gardener’s Eden Online Journal, and my not be used or reproduced without express written permission.

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Closing the Circle: Save Your Seeds! Special Guest Post by John Miller ….. Plus Seed Saving Books & Resources

September 6th, 2010 § 2

It may only be September, but guest-blogger John Miller of the Old Schoolhouse Plantery is already thinking about next spring…

Come January, the main horticultural activity for many gardeners —myself included— is thumbing through the newly arrived seed catalogues; dreaming of warm summer days and freshly-picked produce from the garden. A trip to the supermarket in January —where almost all that is on view in the produce section is vegetables and fruits shipped from far around the globe— leaves me pining for those wonderful varieties selected for their bouquet, taste and texture, rather than varieties that will withstand —on average— a 1,200 mile trip to the display shelf. Many of the finer varieties of produce —grown primarily for epicurean qualities— are difficult to find, or completely unobtainable commercially. The supply of rare fruits and vegetables continues to be maintained by seed-saving enthusiasts, who distribute their treasures at swaps or passionately give them away.

Heirloom ‘Red’ Cucumber (brought to the US with the diaspora of the Hmong people from Laos. It proved to be very popular at the Farmers Market. Note to self  is so that I would not inadvertently pick it!)

With this in mind, I always save seed from some of the vegetables I grow. Most of my collected seeds will be for personal use. Why pay a seed company 65 cents a seed for a tomato seed —yes, I did pay that price for a rare tomato seed this year— when I can save 100s for myself with just a few minutels work, and the excess I can perhaps swap with someone who has another rare variety which I would like to grow? There is also the huge satisfaction —with no fiduciary benefit— of completing the circle from seed to harvest and back to seed again. If providing an entire meal at this time of year with vegetables grown less than 100 feet from my back door, then how much more local —my passion for 30 years— it is to use vegetables where the seed never came from more than 100 feet away! My definition of an ideal summer is to make ratatouille with completely home grown vegetables, adding only Cabot cheese and olive oil from afar.

The 60 cent seed tomato: Chinese Heirloom Qiyanai Huang, and below, its seeds…

In western society, there exists almost a mystique about promulgating life; whether it be human, other animal or plant. With plants, the work is almost unquestioningly left to ‘experts’, even though the processes are natural and have gone on since time immemorial. I would be the first to admit that experts do indeed serve purpose: I use F1 hybrids to suit (see my previous post on semi-leafless peas) and I know I am alive thanks to the National Health Service in the UK. But when it comes to indulging in the incredible diversity of vegetables available, backyard seed-savers also deserve due recognition. When I look at my slowly ripening ‘Evergreen’ tomatoes —with all the splits and cat-facing— I know I will never see them on shelves of even the most taste-discriminating store. But what flavor I would miss if I didn’t grow them just for myself and save some seed, just in case they become unavailable.

Saving the seed from any heirloom vegetable is easy. If you have a favorite variety, or even just want to try seed saving for the fun of it, take a few minutes to learn about the process and give it a go. You may even want to take the procedure a step further and develop a totally new variety!

Heirloom Radish ‘Il Candela di Fuoco’. Above photo showing immature pod, mature pod and a split pod with seed.

Article and noted photos by John Miller 

Thank you John, for your contributions to The Gardener’s Eden! In addition to operating The Old School House Plantery, the Millers also grow and sell gourmet produce, including many heirloom vegetables. The Miller’s produce may be found in Vermont at The Brattleboro Farmers Market.

Save Your Seeds, Part Two – Useful Notes & Resources from The Gardener’s Eden

Many of us learn about the basic principles of seed saving in grade school. Kids are usually taught how to collect seed by drying and picking apart enormous sunflowers, shiny cobs of corn, or by threshing pods filled with colorful beans. These are all wonderful, hands-on projects for children, which teach practical, sustainable, real-world lessons. But as adults with busy lives, we often lose touch with many of the simple processes of nature. There’s nothing complicated about saving seed, but if you’ve never tried it —or if it’s been two or more decades since your last experiments— you may want to read up on the subject, or refresh your memory a bit before starting. Many seeds can be saved by simply drying, threshing, separating and storing them in a sealed jar in a freezer or refrigerator, or in a dry, cool and dark place in envelopes, bags or jars. Some easy seeds to begin with include all of those mentioned above, plus squash, pumpkin, melon, pepper and peas. Other seeds, such as tomato and cucumber, are most successfully saved using a wet-method (seeds are scraped with a spoon into loosely covered jars, where they are stirred for a few days – then rinsed of pulp, strained and dried for several more days on paper towels).

Dried Peas and Beans

Curious to learn more about the process of saving seed? There are some excellent resources for gardeners both in print and online. Two of my favorite books on the subject, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, by Suzanne Ashworth & Kent Whealy and The New Seed Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel (both pictured and linked below) cover the basics for those just starting to learn about seed collecting. Great online resources include the fantastic Seed Savers Exchange, which in addition to providing information about how and when to collect and save seed, also publishes wonderful blog-articles like this one on planning your garden for seed saving (click here). The Seed Saver’s Exchange is a non-profit which began in 1975, collecting and selling an enormous variety of heirloom seed through their wonderful catalogue (which you can download from the site). Another good resource is the non-profit Organic Seed Alliance, which has an abundance of free and useful information, including downloadable seed-saving publications and instructions, available online. I also enjoy the useful and free International Seed Saving Institute, which has a handy, detailed list of how to save seeds organized by plant. A very useful chart for seed saving is available online, free of charge, from Fedco Seeds here.

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable GardenersBy Suzanne Ashworth & Kent Whealy

The New Seed Starter’s HandbookBy Nancy Bubel

Seed Saving Notes & Resources and photos as noted are ⓒ Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Ruby-Red, Fragrant Fraises des Bois: Life’s Sweetest Little Luxuries…

July 2nd, 2010 § 5

Fraises des Bois, or alpine strawberries, offer a continuous supply of summertime fruit – Photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

Oh the magic of Fraises des Bois! To me, they look as if they belong at the center of a tiny table in an enchanted forest; one set just for leprechauns, fairies, nymphs and elves. Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) are fragrant, delicious and easy to grow. Sometimes called ‘the wood strawberry’, this rose-relative is a separate species from the common garden strawberry, (Fragaria x ananassa), and is native to North America, Europe, northern Africa and some parts of Asia. Unlike their runner-forming cousins, these lovely mounded plants produce fruit throughout the growing season – spring to fall. Many cultivars are available, including the delightful red ‘Alexandra’ and ‘Mignonette’, and for the more kaleidoscopic plate, there are even white and yellow alpine strawberries! Strawberries of all kinds are best planted out to the garden in early spring – but it is important to prepare the site well in advance (unless you are growing in containers). So if you would like to grow alpines in your potager next year – read on….

Alpine strawberries are herbaceous perennials (the foliage dies back in fall and then returns from hardy roots in spring). Many cultivars are very cold hardy (some to -30 degrees fahrenheit) and they can be grown directly in the garden, or in containers – especially strawberry planters – on decks, patios, steps and terraces (if grown in containers, the berry plants are best moved indoors for overwintering in cold climates). Alpine strawberries are easy-care perennials, and they are usually propagated from seed (collected or purchased),  or easier yet, by division of plants. All strawberries prefer slightly acidic (pH 6-6.5), hummus-rich, well-drained soil. Growing strawberries on a slight slope  –raised bed or in containers– helps to provide both drainage and air-circulation. When grown directly in the garden (as I grow mine), spacing plants at least 16″ apart will result in best fruit production. Mulch is important both to protect the shallow roots from dehydration and temperature fluctuations. In winter, I heap mounds of clean straw over alpine and common strawberry plants, and I try to protect them from late spring frosts with removable row covers (though as patches increase in size, this becomes much less feasible). Alpine strawberry plants can and should be divided every few years – in cold climates this is best done in early spring so that the root systems will have time to establish. Early fall division is also possible, though much riskier in zones north of USDA 6. When the task is undertaken early in the season, the easiest way to make more alpine strawberries is through division of the underground stolons (though collecting and drying seed for germinating indoors works too, if you are patient). I fertilize all strawberry plants with good compost, and I regularly test the soil in all of my garden beds to assure a proper balance of key nutrients (particularly phosphorus)…

The jewel-like color of the fruit, sensational fragrance and sweet flavor more than compensate for the tiny size of alpine strawberries. Photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

Alpine strawberry blossoms ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

Frais des Bois at harvest ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

Competition for alpine strawberries comes in many forms; from weeds and insects to chipmunks, mice and birds. In my garden, the boisterous mocking bird clan living in the adjacent scrub seems particularly interested my strawberry crop this year. I do love their singing and bug catching, but I wish the mocking birds, robins and other winged-robbers would stay away from my strawberries! Now, don’t you feel too bad for my feathered friends – they have plenty of wild elderberries (Samubus canadensis), bramble berries and bugs to feast upon. If birds are snagging your berries, you can always cover them with safe Bird Netting, which allows air flow and pollinating bees to fly in and out. Alternately you could use insect pop-ups (such as those linked below) set in place when berries are close to harvest, and then removed at intervals for critical wind and bee pollination. Slugs can be a real problem during rainy periods (copper edged raised beds, beer traps and diatomaceous earth are some commonly used deterrents), and insects –particularly sap beetles, tarnished plant bugs and bud weevils — are always an issue with strawberries of all kinds. Never apply an insecticide, even an organic insecticide, during bloom periods, as you will kill beneficial insects (including our precious honeybees) along with the less desirable, ‘bad bugs’.  For backyard berry growers, I advise hand-picking insects and the limited use of row covers (see below) when berries are close to ripe.

For more on berry growing, check out my review of Barbara Bowlings excellent Berry Grower’s Companion (linked here) available through Barnes & Noble online. And say tuned… More berry growing tips will be coming soon!

Containers with pockets, like the one pictured from Amazon above, are a great way to grow alpine strawberries.

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Article and photographs, (excepting last four by affiliates), © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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I Know They Are In There Somewhere! Companion Planting in the Vegetable Garden: Guest Post by John Miller of The Old School House Plantery…

June 2nd, 2010 § 2

Radishes and Carrots Together Again at the Market, (photo © Michaela TGE)

“They”, in this instance, being carrots and parsnips. In my previous post I mentioned how farmers use plug sown onion transplants to overcome the problems associated with the slow germination time of onions. Onions are not the only vegetables that exhibit long germination times, raw (naked or unpelleted) parsnips and carrots can also take six weeks to germinate. Unfortunately neither of these crops readily lend themselves to transplanting as the desired part, the root, can be easily damaged and result in misshapen or stunted growth. Transplanting can be done on a small scale but requires care and attention to precise handling to avoid damaging the root (in spring it also requires even more space in one’s probably already strained propagating area!).

Italian heirloom radish ‘Candela di Fuoco’ and Rainbow Mix carrot seedlings, (photo © John Miller)

Hoed row, (photo © John Miller)

Unless you have a sterile seedbed (a technique requiring foresight and a flame gun, clear plastic and sunshine or a herbicide) then your direct sown carrots or parsnips will be competing against weeds in your garden while they are germinating and emerging. However these same weeds are not concerned with your desire for that sweet first home grown carrot of the season or that wonderful roast parsnip with your Thanksgiving dinner- they want the space and the nutrients! In six weeks weeds can romp away in the race to germinate and establish themselves and leave you, the custodian of the crop, the time consuming task, usually on hands and knees, of delicately moving rampant weed foliage, probably covering the entire bed, trying to spot the still minute seedlings of that hoped for crop.

There they are! Parsnip and radish seedlings (photo © John Miller)

But wait! There is hope. No, it won’t stop the weeds germinating but it could make spotting the row a lot easier. It involves sowing either carrots or parsnips with a faster growing crop, such as radish, together in the same row. Radish are one of the faster growing crops, maturing in as little as 35 days, and will keep pace with even the most vigourous weeds, in my case Fat Hen and Galinsoga (I often hear that mis-pronounced as Gallant Soldier). The radishes are sown relatively thinly. I aim for one every foot, as you may pull the main crop by accident if the density is too great. The radish makes spotting the row quite easy, and I can quickly hoe in between the rows before the weeds get too big and require hand pulling. Hoeing all but a narrow row then makes hand weeding the crop itself a quick -dare I say it- almost enjoyable, task. Then I will reward myself with a freshly pulled radish, or two! Any fast growing crop that you prefer, arugula or Broccoli raab for instance, could be used instead of radish.

Radish and Carrot Bunches at Market (photo © Michaela TGE)

Article and photographs as noted in this post, © 2009/2010 John Miller

John Miller and his wife Diane Miller own and operate The Old School House Plantery in Brattleboro Vermont

Visit the Miller’s Etsy shop, Eclecticasia, for a selection of rare and beautiful plants.

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Market photos as noted are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Gourmet Gardening: Springtime Adventures in Shiitake Growing…

May 28th, 2010 § 2

Shiitake and spinach fresh from my garden at Ferncliff…

Oh the delicious flavor of fresh shiitake mushrooms. I enjoy most fungi, but I have a particular fondness for the earthy, rich taste and firm texture of the shiitake mushroom. Early spring crops, such as snow peas, sprouts and bok choy combine wonderfully with shiitake in healthy stir fry dishes and soups. However until recently, limited supply made shiitake mushrooms a pricey gourmet delicacy. In the winter of 2008-9, I became curious about growing shiitake mushrooms after experimenting with a few wonderful Asian dishes in David Thompson’s Thai Food cookbook, and I decided to do a bit of research.

Originally discovered in China, the shiitake, (Lentinula edodes), has been consumed in Asia since the beginning of recorded time. Although these delicious fungi were initially harvested from the wild, the Chinese soon began cultivating shiitake, for both medicinal and food use, approximately 1,000 years ago. At first, shiitake were eaten raw, but soon they were steamed and simmered, finding their way into a variety of Asian dishes including Chinese stir fry, Japanese miso soup and dozens of Thai, Korean and Vietnamese dishes. Eventually, as European explorers discovered the delights of Asian cuisine, the shiitake made its way across the globe, and into the ‘New World’.

Fascinated by the history  and  seduced by the flavor of this freshly harvested, gourmet delight, I quickly developed “mushroom growing fever”. Late one February night -curled beside a fire on my blustery hilltop and connected to a world of information and commerce via satellite- with the click of a button, a kit was ordered, and my mushroom gardening experiment began. In the spring of 2009, the first crop of shiitake were planted, (hardwood logs inoculated with spawn-plugs -see details below), and with a rainy season ahead, nature simply took its course. Shiitake require one season to maturity, so there is a bit of a wait for the first crop, but after this delayed start the logs will produce mushrooms for many years – until the logs completely deteriorate. Fast forward to spring 2010, and I am now enjoying and sharing the fruits of my first shiitake harvest…

The first Shiitake – Spring 2010…

The Shitake Garden at Ferncliff

How Shiitake are Grown

After doing a bit of research, I ordered my shiitake-spawn-plugs from a company called Mushroom People online. The shiitake spawn arrived in an express package from the USPS in the early spring of 2009. Looking at the tiny packet for the first time, it was hard to imagine delicious shiitake mushrooms resulting from such humble beginnings. When the weather moderated -above freezing- it was time to get started!


Hardwood logs with a diameter of 4-8″ were gathered from storm-damaged trees on the property -oak and beech work well- and cut to 40″ lengths with a chainsaw. After collecting the logs and assembling them in a production line on saw-horses, holes were drilled with a 5/16″ bit to a depth of 1″ to accommodate the size of the plugs. A grid pattern was used to maintain proper spacing -roughly 6-8″ between the holes- for the shiitake.


Next, all of the shiitake-spawn-plugs were set into the pre-drilled holes and gently tapped into place with a hammer.


When set, the top of each plug is flush with the surface of the log, ready to be coated with a warm wax seal …


Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the cheese wax was melted in a recycled tin can set in a double boiler. Once liquified, the wax is stirred with a clean, natural-bristle paint bush and brought out to the logs to seal the shiitake-spawn-plugs…


Here, as you can see, the tiny plugs are sealed and the logs are ready to be moved to the shiitake garden in the forest…


As a final step, each log is tagged and dated. Here, a photograph of tags placed on the second set of logs, inoculated this spring..

 

The shiitake garden at Ferncliff, 2010

The first shiitake mushroom emerging in Spring 2010

My inspiration: David Thompson’s Thai Food

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Article/photos copyright 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All Rights Reserved.

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Growing Great Leeks and Onions the British Way: Guest Post by John Miller of the Old School House Plantery

May 20th, 2010 § 4

Triple Planted Lincoln Leeks and Savoy Cabbage,(with Garden Fork for Scale)

Triple Planted Onions

It’s the middle of May in New England and winter seems to be finally releasing its grip on the climate! Late last week I was planting onions and leeks and I invited Michaela to stop by as I knew what a leek aficionado she is and I knew she wanted some leek seedlings for her potager. I asked her if she knew about the hill or station planting method of planting leeks. She didn’t, so I promised an explaination. Here it is.

Traditionally, onions were ‘direct’ (sowing where they are to grow, in contrast to seed bed grown and transplanted) sown early in the gardening year, mid-March if possible. The grower then had to patiently wait for the onions to emerge to see what sort of crop he could expect. Patience was necessary as onions can take up to six weeks to germinate in open fields and in that time they were subject to the vagaries of the U.K. weather.  Despite its moist reputation, maintaining constantly damp soil for six weeks in the U.K. can be a problem!

Coincidental with me being in college, plug production, basically plants already growing in small pots such as those sold in six packs, for field crops was just being introduced. Using plugs a farmer could eliminate the wait time between sowing and emergence and start cultivating the crop as soon as the weeds emerged.

Multi-Sown Onion Plugs

Onions, and their cousins leeks, have very poor root systems so that a single seedling couldn’t hold together a plug very well. To overcome this onions, initially, but quickly followed by leeks, were multi-seeded into plugs and then the whole plug was planted out into the field. Initially 1 inch plug cubes were used and sown with five seeds so that the plug wouldn’t disintegrate during handling. I have slightly modified this system to suit my conditions. I use 1 inch round plugs, each 2 inches deep, sown with three seeds and then I plant the whole plug as a hill. The suggested planting density for onions is one plant every 4 inches so I put each hill out 12 inches apart in rows 16 inches apart. I just make a small hole in the soil and drop in a plug. This saves me time, fewer holes to make, and causes far fewer broken fingernails! This system also works really well if you are growing through mulch as you don’t have to tease the mulch apart quite as often.

Growing onions like this doesn’t give you as many big onions (how big is big? Last winter I did have Farmers Market customers asking me for smaller onions as some were too big for their needs) as you can get when they are grown individually. What will surprise most people though is that this system actually increases total yields compared to planting onions individually. Also, you won’t end up with misshapen onions, due to their being grown so close together, as the swelling bulbs push each other apart as they grow whilst still maintaining their shape.

Leek roots are adventitious – poorly branched

Single Leek Seedling Roots

Poorly Branched Onion Seedling Roots

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John Miller and his wife Diane Miller own and operate The Old School House Plantery in Brattleboro Vermont

Visit the Miller’s Etsy shop, Eclecticasia, for a selection of rare and beautiful plants.

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Article and photographs this post, © 2009/2010 John Miller

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Love Me Two Times Baby: Extend Springtime Crops with Repeat Sowing in Timed Intervals – One for Tomorrow, and One Just for Today…

May 16th, 2010 § 2

My Second Spinach Crop…

Vegetable gardening tips from Jim Morrison? Well why not? When it comes to hedonistic behavior, I am all for taking his lusty advice in the garden: love me two times baby – one for tomorrow and one just for today! Actually, why not love over, and over, and over? After all, repeat sowing is key to extending the pleasure of springtime crops such as spinach, peas, lettuce and other leafy delights – including my favorite potager-hotties arugula and mustard greens. Love me three, four, five times I say!

With frost-hardy crops like peas, spinach, arugula and others, direct-sowing can begin as soon as the ground can be worked. And for continual harvest, repeat seed every 10 days or so until the last expected frost date, (in VT, that’s somewhere around Memorial Day weekend). As the cool season crops peter out, you can re-use that garden space for warm weather produce, such as cherry tomatoes or green beans. Then, when temps cool back down toward the end of summer, get ready for another love-fest by sowing cold weather crops again in empty garden spaces.

Who knew a long-gone, leather clad rock star could hand out such great gardening advice? Thanks Jim.

A Second Sowing of Snow Peas in the Springtime Potager at Ferncliff…

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I Welcome the Morrison Spirit of Hedonism in My Garden!

Article and photographs,(except the fab Jim Morrison photo, uncredited, via AP), © 2010  Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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Welcome, Soft Harbinger of Spring: Oh Come to Me, My Sweet Willow…

March 19th, 2010 § 4

Salix discolor: North American native pussy willow © 2010 Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow – Pitcher by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela TGE

Welcome! Oh welcome sweet, silver-tipped harbinger of springtime. Is there anything that makes a heart race faster than the sight of the first pussy willow catkins in March? I should probably install a blinking sign on the back of my vehicle; “Warning: I break for pussy willow”. Yes, it’s true. I am quite the springtime roadside hazard. Fortunately, the mud-slicked trails I travel in search of Salix discolor, (as our North American native pussywillow is formally called), are usually avoided by traffic at this time of year. Yesterday afternoon, after a bit of swampy adventure, I returned home with a flush in my cheeks and armfuls of downy-budded branches. I love the beautiful, soft texture and the sculptural quality of pussy willow arrangements.

Salix discolor is a North American native shrub or small, understory tree, (5-15′ tall and perhaps 8′ wide). Often found beside brooks and forest streams, or in low-lying thickets and swamps from Canada to Georgia, the pussy willow is hardy to USDA zones 4-7. Stands of Salix discolor form important wetland habitat for nesting birds and other creatures. Mindful of this, I have been carefully harvesting where shrubs are plentiful, and making clean cuts with my Felco pruners.

Pussy willow are easy to propagate from springtime cuttings, (this is a good project to try with kids!). Simply harvest pliant, year-old branches, (approximately 18-24″ long), and keep stems in a vase of water in a sunny spot. Plant whips outside when roots have formed, right after the last frost date in your area. This year I harvested some branches to use in everlasting arrangements, and some to propagate for my garden. Pussy willow make wonderful, textural-interst shrubs for wetland transition areas in the naturalized landscape. I hope to propagate enough for future cutting as well as for enjoying in the permanent landscape. Remember, these native shrubs are fantastic cover for small birds in the garden too. If you harvest pussy willow for arrangements, and would like the catkins to remain in their silvery, bud-like state, place them in a vase without water to halt development. The preserved twigs and branches can be used in wreaths or other decorations, and will remain beautiful throughout the year. If placed in water, the catkins will slowly develop a greenish cast or “bloom” and eventually, alternate, oval-shaped leaves will spout along the branches. Plant Salix discolor in a garden low spot, where it will catch spring run-off and moisture throughout the seasons…

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow © Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor – vase by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela at TGE

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Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Think Spring: It’s Time to Start Sowing Early Kitchen Garden Seeds …

February 5th, 2010 § 1

The kitchen garden at Ferncliff, late May 2009 …

It’s always exciting when the first boxes of vegetable, herb and flower seed begin to arrive in the mail. I know, I know. I am a bit like a little kid – but I have to check the mail every day to see if there is something waiting for me in that big metal box at the foot of the hill. The Johnny’s package from Maine always arrives first, then Botanical Interests from Colorado, and then Renee’s Garden Seeds way out in California, (hello California, I miss you!).  The first thing I do is open the box and just pour over all the pretty envelopes. I have to get that part out of my system. Then I begin grouping the seeds in order of sowing. Since I will start the onions, leeks and herbs in a week or so, those will be bundled together in the front. The cabbage, broccoli and other cold-hardy crops will be started in waves. Some will go into the hoop houses and some will be started indoors this year beneath grow lights. Oh, so much potential. I can’t wait.

First seed packets arriving …

There will be much to do and talk about in the coming weeks. For now, I just want to go over some very basic information for new gardeners, especially for those starting their own seeds for the first time. Many seed companies also have tutorials on their sites, and I recommend you visit those pages as well. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith is an excellent resource for new gardeners, and a good reference book for more experienced green-thumbs…

Photo © Tim Geiss

1. Sort through your seeds: Check the back of the packets for planting information. Some seeds are best started indoors, (such as onions, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, etc), especially in cold climates, and some seeds are best direct-sown, (such as peas, beets, carrots, radish, etc). If you have left over seed from last fall, you can use those seed this spring. I have left over spinach and broccoli raab to use before I open the new packs later this year. Check expiration dates. You can and should try older seeds if you have them, but be aware that if your seeds haven’t been stored properly, (cool, dry, dark location), you may not have as much success with germination.

2. Gather free-draining containers and trays: You can buy starter cells, peat-pots or plastic cells online or at your local garden center if you like, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. Seeds can be started in empty milk and egg cartons, sliced up paper towel and toilet paper rolls, homemade newspaper pots, (more on this later), and recycled, (sterilized), six packs from garden centers. Starting seed need not be expensive or difficult. The most important thing is good drainage, so be sure to poke holes in whatever ‘pots’ you create from recycled materials. I absolutely encourage you to experiment with containers! I like to set my free draining pots in plastic or metal trays to catch water and provide moisture.

3. Purchase good quality, organic seed starting mix: It’s possible to make your own mix, of course, but if you are just starting out, I am going to suggest that you buy a good quality, well-drained  seed starting medium from a local garden center. This isn’t expensive, and starter soil is very important. Do not use regular potting soil, as it is too heavy, (doesn’t drain well), and will reduce your germination and success rate.

4. Time your starting: Look at the last frost date for your area and count the weeks back. If you live in New England, you will be starting things like onions, leeks and cabbage this month. If you live in a slightly warmer climate, you may be starting tomatoes and peppers this month. I like to use the Farmer’s Almanac online as a resource for last-frost date.

5. Get started with planting:  Begin by filling your cells with moist starter mix. I like to moisten the mix first and then put it into the starter pots. This way, I won’t be washing the delicate seeds out when I add water. Read the seed packet to get the proper planting depth, especially if this is your first time starting seeds. I like to plant 2-3 seeds per cell, filling all the cells in my flats, and then I cover them, (but don’t smother, loosely cover above the soil), with clear plastic. You needn’t purchase special covers to do this, but it can be helpful. In cold, drafty homes a heating pad is very helpful to maintain the 70 degree temperature recommended for most seed germination.  Some seeds will germinate in a matter of days, and some will take weeks, (again, check the back of your packets). Be sure to keep those cells moist, but not soggy.

6. Provide light: Once you see seeds germinating, you want to immediately place the trays beneath fluorescent/full-spectrum light bulbs. The light will need to be within a couple of inches of the seedlings, or the seedlings will grow long and spindly as they reach for the light. The grow-lights should be raised as the plants grow, keeping the light source very close. Many gardeners purchase special grow lights, but once again, this isn’t necessary. I know very successful home gardeners using shop lights or other home-built contraptions, but please be safe. Lights can be left on 24 hours, and because many fires start electrically, I encourage you to use caution.

7. Water: Again, keep the seedlings moist, but not soggy. By placing your seed containers in trays, as I mentioned above, you can water from the bottom by adding water to the tray, reducing the risk of water-logging and wash-outs as the seedlings grow.

8. Fertilize: When seedlings develop their first real leaves, as opposed to the little, itty bitty leaves you see when the plants emerge from the soil, you can begin giving the seedlings an organic starter fertilizer or weak fish-emulsion mix. Look for either of these products in a local garden center.

9. Provide air circulation: Two things will be necessary as plants grow. First, thin your seedlings. Look for the strongest seedling in each cell and then with clean, sharp scissors, cut off the one or two other seedlings right down to the soil line. Be careful, but be ruthless! This thinning will reduce competition and improve air-flow. And speaking of airflow, it may help to have a small fan nearby and run this for at least a few hours every day. Air circulation is very important for reducing the spread of fungus.

Whew. Well, that ought to get you started! I will continue with tips for transplanting and hardening off in another week or so. But for now… enjoy looking over and reading those beautiful packets and all the promise they hold. Get familiar with your seeds – it will make you a better gardener !

Some of my favorites from last fall: Renee’s Garden Seeds – Long Standing Spinach and Broccoli Raab…

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All content in this article, (with noted exceptions), is © 2010 The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved.

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Sowing the Seeds of a Gardening Future: Great Holiday Gift Books to Nurture the Little Green Thumbs in Your Life…

December 7th, 2009 § 4

miss-rumphius

Late this fall, I was helping my client and friend Leah design and install a perennial garden at her home, (if you read this blog regularly you will recall that Leah loaned me a copy of The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan, turning me on to the author’s book). Leah has a beautiful son named Sam and she is also expecting another child very soon – any day in fact. My own sister brought a little boy named Morgan into the world this past August. You may have read a post I wrote about him earlier during the fall bulb planting season, “I Believe in the Promise of Tomorrow“. Morgan was a newborn when I began working with Leah, and as result she and I spent quite a bit of time talking about children and gardening. Leah is quite keen on creating a space that is both attractive and child-friendly for her youngsters, (little Sam displayed quite an interest in helping his mom dig while I was visiting!). I delighted in everything about Leah’s philosophy, from her interest in native plants and wildlife, to her unabashed love of botanical beauty. Often my clients become friends, and they almost always give me as much as I give them. This is very much the case with Leah.

A few weeks after we finished planting the last of her perennials, a package arrived in my mailbox. When I opened it, I was surprised at the beautiful book that slipped into my hands. Leah sent a copy of Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius as a gift for my nephew Morgan, but the book immediately captured my own interest and touched me very deeply. Is it possible that the young Miss Rumphius bears more than a passing resemblance to yours truly? It could be. Perhaps that is why I found the book so moving. But more apropos to this blog, the story touches upon all of our deep-rooted need for connection to the natural world and our universal desire for beauty. Although the book is recommended for children aged 3 – 8, I clearly enjoyed it myself !

Leah and Barbara Cooney’s fictional character, Miss Rumphius, got me thinking about the importance of inspirational and educational gardening books for children. After all, many of us develop our life-long interests at a young age. If this generation of parents, (or grandparents or friends or relatives), wishes to nurture a love of nature and gardening in the next generation, there is no better way to begin than with great stories and hands-on educational books. I hope you will consider a garden-inspired gift for the children in your life this holiday season. Together with a packet or two of seed, (and perhaps a terrarium or even a worm farm for older children), these books can truly become gifts that keep on giving. Gardening often becomes not only a skill, but a passion that lasts a lifetime.

So as we move into the gift-giving season, I thought I should pass along some personal recommendations for the youngest gardeners in your life. I am quite familiar with all of these titles – in fact some are dog-eared favorites from my own childhood. These books are a delight to read as well as to behold, both for children and the adults guiding them…

Ruth Krauss 'The Carrot Seed'

One of my favorite stories, Ruth Krauss‘s poetic book The Carrot Seed Board Book is a children’s classic written more than 60 years ago. The simple lessons of gardening and life contained within these pages are as timeless and beautiful today as they were when this book was written, so many years ago. I have ordered a copy to give to my 4 month old nephew, Morgan. This book is appropriate for reading to babies and toddlers, and as a beginning book for children learning to read…

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

I have also, always loved Eric Carle’s books. When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to go to school with a little girl whose family actually knew this celebrated author. This lucky girl’s parents had Mr. Carle come to their house for her birthday one year, to draw pictures and read from his books. I am so glad I was invited to the party, for I will never forget the experience of watching this artist work his storytelling magic with a group of my seven-year-old friends. Now there are people who dislike Eric Carle’s books, (what could they be thinking?). Some critics insist that Carle takes liberties with scientific facts, and claim that he can sometimes be ‘dark’. Well – bah. As and artist and a gardener, I happen to adore Mr. Carle’s books, and I don’t care a whit about his botanical or entomological inaccuracies. We read Eric Carle for creative inspiration, not for scientific study; and for the imaginative child, his books are a delight beyond description. If you are looking for science, scroll to the titles below. And if you think your young child might be scared when reading about gobbled-up seeds, then wait a few years. But, I can not imagine sheltering a child from Eric Carle’s delightful stories forever, (disclaimer: I grew up reading and loving Edward Gorey – now that is dark). The Tiny Seed (World of Eric Carle) is a wonderful book about nature, as are many of Carle’s other titles, including my all time favorites, The Very Hungry Caterpillar: board book & CD, and The Very Busy Spider. They are all appropriate for kids 5 – 8…

roots shoot buckets and boots sharon lovejoy

Sharon Lovejoy is another inspirational and popular author of gardening books for children and adults. Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children, is my favorite. This wonderful hands-on book is great fun for children and grown-ups alike. A perfect gift for a slightly older child, (aged 4-8), combining this title with a few packets of seed and perhaps some indoor seed-starting trays, would make a great introductory gardening kit for any child in elementary school…

jacksgarden

Of course a children’s garden book written and illustrated by a science teacher is bound to be a fabulous teaching tool, but in the case of Jack’s Garden, author Henry Cole manages to do far more than educate – his book is truly magical inspiration. From the gorgeous drawings to the delightfully well-chosen words, this book will quickly enchant both children and adults. Henry has a rare gift, and if you would like to spark horticultural interest an elementary school children aged 4 – 8, this is a book is a great choice…

gardening_wizardry_for_kids

Gardening Wizardry for Kids by Patricia Kite is another excellent activity book, especially for restless kids looking for something to do with their hands over the winter months. Kite teaches children many indoor gardening skills through hands-on projects. Geared toward slightly older kids, (grades 4 – 6), it includes fun windowsill and kitchen experiments, including a few squiggly, wormy ones…

Gardening with Children

The last book on my list for today is the work of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, (see link in side bar at right under public gardens). The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is home to the oldest public garden for children in the United States, and this wonderful place is worth a visiting if you are anywhere in the Northeast. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Gardening with Children (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide) is an excellent guide for young families learning how to garden. Even more experienced green thumbs will enjoy the beautiful illustrations in this book, while learning more about how to introduce botanical concepts to curious kids. I highly recommend this title as a gift for families with young children, especially if they are looking to explore gardening and science.

Enjoy your seasonal shopping, and Happy Holidays !

Michaela

All of these titles should be easy to find at a local book store, or through the links provided to Amazon.com. As a matter of personal integrity, I review all books and products from an strictly unbiased view-point, (I do not receive payment or product for review, of any kind). However, The Gardener’s Eden is an Amazon.com affiliate, and this site will receive a small percentage of any purchases you choose to make through the Amazon.com links here. With your help, these commission will help to pay for this site’s maintenance. Thank you for your support!

This article is copyright 2009, Michaela at the Gardener’s Eden. All content on this site is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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