Un-Flower Pots: Modern Ideas for Low Maintenance Container Gardens…

June 10th, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

Sempervivum ‘Purple Beauty’ (Hens and Chicks) and Haworthia in a Glazed Pot with River Stone Accents, Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Although I have an unabashed love of colorful, fragrant blossoms, flowering plants aren’t ideal in all garden situations and circumstances. At times, I reach for the color, texture, form and/or movement of other plants -such as ornamental grasses and succulents- when designing a garden. Container gardens, particularly in dry, windy locations, can be very high maintenance unless the right plants are chosen for these challenging locations. Often, before I plant containers for my clients, I experiment with the design’s durability in my own garden first. This is an outrageously fun process of course, and a fine excuse to purchase annual plants for the steel deck outside my studio…

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass), Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Ucinia egmontiana (Orange Hook Sedge), Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ and Stipa tenuissima in a Modern Deck Arrangement, Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

The hot, dry, windy conditions on this sunny deck make it the perfect test-lab for low-maintenance container garden experiments. Over the years, two of the more successful annual combinations on my deck have been ornamental grass arrangements, and the succulent containers pictured here. This year, after reviewing Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens for Barnes and Noble’s Garden Variety blog (“Sweet Succulent Sensation – Ready for Some Outrageously Beautiful Container Inspiration”) I was inspired to take my easy-care succulent containers to a whole new level. But do I miss the flowers? Hardly. I find the jewel-like colors and textures so fascinating that I think adding flowering plants to these dramatic containers would be gilding the lily. Many succulent plants do in fact blossom, of course, and an number, such as Sempervivum and Echeveria, produce sensationally beautiful flower-like rosettes. Their shocking beauty is more than enough for me…

Sempervivum hybrid ‘Kalinda’. Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Sempervivum in a Pot with Stone Accents, (this frost-proof container is left outdoors year round). Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Close up of Sempervivum hybrid ‘Kalinda’. Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Sempervivum – The Rock Rose – Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Sempervivum in a permanent, frost-proof outdoor container. Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Sempervivum and Stone-Accent Mulch. Garden Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE

Over the winter, you may recall my experiments with indoor container gardening, including dry-terraria arrangements, such as the one pictured below, (featuring three different plant forms: tall and spiked, mounded and trailing), and cactus bowls. Now that the warmer months have arrived, I have relocated these plants to larger-scale pots -accented with natural river stone- to my rusty steel deck. So far, the transition has been quite successful, with only one minor loss due to the well-known, ‘rambunctious labrador retriever effect’. If you too have a hot, sunny deck or terrace to landscape, and little time for maintenance, consider adding some easy-care pots to your seasonal arrangement. A large vessel, filled with tall ornamental grass works well as a backdrop for smaller containers filled with herbs or flowers. And small clusters of pots in a uniform color, such as the oxblood containers shown here, combine beautifully when grouped on terraces or arranged along the edges of steps. I will feature more container gardening ideas in the coming weeks, but if you are serious about creating a succulent oasis of your own, I suggest checking out the two fantastic books linked below…

Plants from an indoor succulent bowl, (read article here), can be moved outdoors to fill containers in warmer months. Pictured here: Echeveria ‘Pearl’, Sanseveria trifasiata ‘Laurentii’ and Portulacaria afra variegata from The Old School House Plantery. Container Design and Photograph © Michaela at TGE…

In summer, the indoor cactus bowl goes on summer-deck-ation…

Order Thomas Hobbs’  The Jewel Box Garden from Amazon online…

Order Succulent Container Gardens from B&N or Amazon online.

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Article and photographs © 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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A Garden for Cutting – Part One: Planning for Fresh Cut Flowers in the Kitchen Garden…

April 14th, 2010 § 16 comments § permalink

Zinnia and Dahlia © 2009 Tim Geiss

Some of my gardening friends never cut flowers. I have one friend who grows very few blooming plants, and she prefers to keep her limited flowers on display in the landscape. Other friends have told me that the constant snipping of stems and changing of water becomes a tedious chore with fresh flowers, so they have houseplants instead. Me? Oh, I am a hopeless romantic with an unabashed love of cut flowers. I grow as many blossoming plants as possible; everything from Queen Anne’s Lace and sweet peas, to heady Damask Roses and French lilacs. In fact I grow some flowers exclusively for cutting. My house is always decorated with something harvested fresh from the garden, even if it’s only dried grass, bare branches and pinecones in the coldest months. Now that spring has arrived my home is filled with flowers; in the kitchen, on the dining table and beside my bed and in my studio. I can not imagine living in a home without bringing a bit of nature inside with me, and I simply love big, bold blossoms.

But to be honest, some of my favorite cut flowers, such as dinnerplate dahlias and bold colored sunflowers, can be a bit over-the-top in a landscape. I love fuchsia gladiolas in a simple vase on my kitchen table, but I prefer not to look at them screaming at me from the perennial border. So my solution is to grow flowers for cutting along side the vegetables in my potager. This sort of arrangement is hardly new. In fact, many flowers have long been grown as beneficial companion plants for vegetables; attracting bees and other pollinators to the garden, and in some cases even repelling less desirable insect guests, (click here to read last year’s post on companion planting in the vegetable garden)

Cleome, harvested from last year’s cutting garden, on my vanity table

Sunflowers lined up against the sapling fence in my potager

Dahlia and Calendula bouquet, last summer on my kitchen windowsill

Climbing flowers, such as sweet peas, can be grown up a vegetable garden fence. Sunflowers, cleome, and other tall beauties can also be set against a shed wall or other garden boundary. Some lower growing flowers, including French marigold and dwarf dahlias, make good edging plants for mounded or raised beds. Of course if you have more space, an entire flower garden comprised of multiple beds can become an endless source of blossoms for summertime bouquets to give or keep. If you have pets or small children, always be sure that the flowers planted in vegetable plots are non-poisonous.

This year, after the last frost date here in Vermont, I will be planting shocking quantities of dahlias. I have always loved dahlias, but this year I truly don’t know what came over me. An obsession with their origami-like folded petals? Perhaps the midwinter blahs brought on an urge to fill my house with color? I can’t really explain it, maybe it was just plain old greed, but I ordered oodles of dahlia tubers. While browsing several sites this year, I stumbled upon a dahlia called ‘Ferncliff Illusion’. How could I resist such a gorgeous flower with creamy petals with lavender tips when my own garden is named Ferncliff? This discovery was just too poetic to let pass! And of course, I can’t keep this to myself. I must share it with at least one of you…

Presenting The Gardener’s Eden Anniversary Give-Away # 2

Dahlia ‘Ferncliff Illusion’ from, and image copyright to, Arrowhead Dahlias

And at the end of this month, one reader will receive a package containing four large size tubers of Dahlia ‘Ferncliff Illusion’ from The Gardener’s Eden! Today and every Wednesday thoughout the month of April, in honor of our first anniversary, The Gardener’s Eden will be giving away a special gift. In order to enter, correctly answer the question below in the comment section of this article. Be sure to post your answer prior to the 12:00 pm Eastern Time cut-off. Only one entry per reader, per give-away, please. The winner will be chosen at random from all of the correct entries received, and will be notified by email. Gift recipients will also be announced both here in the blog comments and on our Facebook Page. So now…

The question is just a wee bit harder this week: What is the name of the Japanese maple tree standing at the entrance to my Secret Garden room here at Ferncliff? You may use the latin or the very intriguing common name. Hint: The answer can be found in the photo-captions within the page marked ‘Ferncliff’, (where it is photographed in all seasons). In order to enter the contest, please post your answer in the comments here on this blog post, (not on the Facebook page). All email addresses will remain unpublished and kept in complete confidence. Your email will only be used to notify you if you have won. Good Luck!

* In order to provide each reader with an equal chance to win, your comment/ entry will not appear until 4/15*

Entry Deadline is Midnight, Eastern Time, 4/14/10

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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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Sowing the Seeds of the Future: Starting Early, In More Ways Than One…

March 2nd, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Dharma’s Sunflower Seeds, Photograph © Tim Geiss

Is it just me, or does it seem like there are babies everywhere right now? While visiting my sister last week, we stopped in at her local bakery for a quick lunch and the place was just packed with expectant mothers, infants, toddlers and little children. Everywhere I go these days, from the post office to the grocery store, when I look around, I see dozens of tiny faces staring back at me. I don’t know what’s going on in your circle, but almost all of my friends are either raising small children, pregnant or trying to get pregnant and feathering their nests. Of course my sister’s son, Morgan, is just six months old. So when I first began noticing all the little munchkins, I thought I was simply becoming more aware of babies because of my nephew. But from what I am reading, it’s not my imagination, there’s actually something of a baby boom going on…

Dharma in the Family Garden, Photograph © Tim Geiss

So why am I writing about this on The Gardener’s Eden ? Well, even though I am currently childless, I really like kids and I think about their future all the time. As a horticulturalist, I worry about the way we treat our earth today, and what we will leave for our children and the children of tomorrow. For better or worse, we are leading the generations that follow us by our own example. We reap what we sow. What kind of seeds are we planting, if we’re planting them at all ?

Dharma and the Seeds, Photograph © Tim Geiss

Do you remember starting seeds for the first time? I do. It felt like a miracle to me then, and it still feels like magic today. One afternoon in mid March, my Kindergarten teacher announced that we would be planting seeds to take home in spring. She had us save our milk cartons every day for a week, to use as starter pots. After our daily graham crackers and milk, we rinsed the red and white containers and dropped them into a large bin. I can still remember the slightly sour smell as I cut the tops off my cartons with round-tipped scissors, and filled them with potting soil. I pushed tiny holes into the dark dirt and carefully settled my little seeds – I was so excited. Although I’d helped my mother and father direct-sow vegetables and flowers in our garden at home, I’d never started plants indoors while snow still sat on the ground outside. Every day, first thing when I entered the classroom, I would rush to the wide windowsill to check on the pots marked with my big letter “M”.  Where are they, where are they ? A week seems like forever when you have lived less than a decade. Knowing this, my teacher wisely chose fast germinating plants for her little green thumbs to grow. Soon, the sunflower and zinnia seedlings began to burst forth, pushing up from the soil…

Dharma’s Sunflower Seedlings, Photograph © Tim Geiss

Do you want to encourage a love of nature and gardening in the next generation? Why not start some seed indoors with a child you know. If the gardener is very young, (like my friend Dharma, pictured here in the garden she planted with her mom and dad), choose something simple and fast germinating, like sunflower, zinnia or marigold seed. Try not to complicate matters too much. Get a bag of seed-starting mix and a few trays of pots, and/or recycle some milk cartons of your own! Remember, the idea here is process, not product. Focus on the miracle of germination, and the beauty of photosynthesis, not blue-ribbon plants. Water the seeds and watch them together; sharing the joys and rewards of effort, diligence, discipline and patience. Need some help explaining how things work? Pick up a copy of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Gardening with Children, Sharon Lovejoy’s Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, and/or Patricia Kite’s Gardening Wizardry for Kids. These books are filled with easy and inexpensive project ideas and simple scientific explanations for children. Looking for more ? I’ll be back with other kid-friendly gardening ideas soon – but for now, check out my earlier post on gardening books for children here.

Emerging Carrots, Photograph © Tim Geiss

Article © 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. Photographs © Tim Geiss. 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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Don’t Break My Heart: A Love Story Written in Old Fashioned Flowers…

February 13th, 2010 § 3 comments § permalink

Sweet Peas, from Johnny’s Seeds

One fine day in early spring, a ravishing young lady named Poppy was out tending her flowers when, without warning, a smooth-talking fella named Sweet William appeared at the garden gate. Poppy was immediately smitten, and she leaned toward him as he drew nearer the fence. He was charming and handsome, and as he approached, Poppy detected an old-spicy scent, reminiscent of clove. Oh my – but he was flirtatious – and before Poppy knew what was happening, Cupid’s Dart struck her heart. Both of their cheeks flushed; hers crimson red and his Cupid Pink. Sweet Peas they soon were…

Crimson Poppies, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

Sweet William Seed, from Botanical Interests Seeds

Cupid’s Dart, from Botanical Interests Seeds

Cupid Pink Sweet Pea, from Botanical Interests Seeds

Love-in-a-Mist filled the air, and Poppy began to swoon. Before she knew quite what she was doing, she whispered Kiss-me-over-the-Garden-Gate into her lover’s ear. Sweet William was more than willing, and he smiled mischeviously , tossing his Bachelor Buttons to the ground….

Love-in-a-Mist, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Blue Boy, Bachelor Buttons, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

And so Poppy and Sweet William spent many hot summer days, intertwined in the Exotic Love Vine, with the birds and the bees. It was a heady affair, filled with dew-kissing and silky petals. They swore their summer love would never end. Poppy dropped her guard, and soon she confessed to Sweet William that she was dreaming of White Bishop’s Lace and Cathedral Bells…

Exotic Love Vine, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

White Bishop’s Lace, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

Cathedral Bells, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

But as some summer love stories go, autumn neared, and Sweet William began to fade away. (Well, OK, it’s also possible that he just wasn’t that into her, and that maybe he did run off with a certain Painted Lady – but I won’t tell if you won’t).

“Oh, my Sweet William, I know you must go”, Poppy sniffed. “But please, please promise to Forget-Me-Not“. And as the bright color faded from her cheeks, Sweet William disappeared. Poppy grew pale, and shadows appeared on the horizon. Poor Poppy – sometimes things don’t work out quite the way we plan, and our Love-Lies-Bleeding on the ground…

Painted Lady, from Renee’s Garden Seeds

Forget-Me-Not, from Johnny’s Seeds

Love-Lies-Bleeding, from Johnny’s Seeds

The months of late fall soon arrived, with Poppy all alone in the withering garden. But by the holidays, Poppy realized she wouldn’t be alone for long. Come spring there was a new arrival in the garden, and Poppy found, much to her great joy, that the warmth of her delicate new Baby’s Breath made up for her heartbreak all around…

Baby’s Breath, from Baker Creek Seeds

HAPPY  VALENTINE’S  DAY    XO    MICHAELA

** All names in this story have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent** ***Please spread your seed responsibly***

Article copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All images here come via the respective links. 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? 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 comment § permalink

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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Rich, Beautiful, Dreamy Dirt…

November 6th, 2009 § 7 comments § permalink

A nice delicious bowl of…. dirt?

Has someone been making mud-pies? Sometimes I think I got into gardening because I never grew up. Yes, I know, that is a silly photo. But I couldn’t help myself. All the cooking blogs and magazines showcase gorgeous, slightly-off center bowls filled with the most mouthwatering food. So I got to thinking – what about the plants? They need to eat too! If plants could read cooking blogs, this photo would really pull them into the recipe – rich, beautiful, dreamy DIRT !

There is nothing more exciting to me than playing in a big, sun-warmed pile of dirt. I just love it. And of all the gardens I work in, it’s the vegetable plots I get really excited about – think of all those mounds and mounds of dirt! So, right now I am having a ball, because fall is when I usually plan and prep new vegetable plots. This is the best time of year to test and supplement garden soil, because it takes awhile for organic materials to decompose and for pH to change, (more on that in just a bit…). If I make adjustments now, the soil chemistry will have plenty of time to correct before next year’s planting season rolls around. So I have been playing with dirt a lot lately. Glee !

Great vegetable gardens always begin with beautiful, fertile earth. And every kitchen gardener wants a productive potager filled with healthy plants and colorful, plump, delicious vegetables. The good news is that building productive soil isn’t magic – it’s simple science. But in order to give plants what they need, a gardener needs to observe soil structure and learn a bit about chemistry…

compost, marigold, spinach

I am going to keep this as simple as possible, because most of us aren’t aiming to turn our backyards into farm-schools – we just want our little plots to produce good food! It really only takes a half an hour, a few supplies, and a little effort to get the basic answers you need about your soil’s fertility and, if need be, how to correct it.

Plants require Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus, (P) and Potassium, (K) in order to steadily grow a strong framework and create vigorous, richly colored leaves. Plants with insufficient nitrogen often look yellowish and unhealthy, and if a garden is low in phosphorus, plants will be stunted and produce poorly, (a purplish cast on tomatoes is a common sign of phosphorus deficiency). Potassium deficiency is harder to detect, but equally problematic. Plants suffering from potassium deficiency are internally weak; unable to control moisture and distribute nutrients, among other things. And perhaps most important of all, in order for a plant to absorb N, P and K, the soil needs to have the correct pH level. Nutrients will not dissolve in water that is too acid or too alkaline, and unless nutrients dissolve in water, plants can not absorb them through their roots. No one wants to starve their garden! How can a garden feed us, unless we feed it ?

A simple and fun way to find out about your garden’s soil chemistry is to buy a home soil-testing kit. This is a great project to do with kids. Basic soil chemistry kits are inexpensive, (almost always under ten dollars for a basic kit, and under 20 for more extensive testing), and can be purchased in most garden centers and mail-order supply stores online. The kit I use most frequently requires a one to five ratio of dirt to water for testing nutrients. So I begin by scooping up a cup of soil from the garden, or if I am working in a large garden and want to do various tests, I will take a cup from several different areas, (marking the sample with a location note)…

Soil Sample for TestingSoil sample scooped from the vegetable garden. Take your sample 4-5 inches below the surface for best results…

I usually test soil pH first, since I only need a small amount of dry soil, (see photo below). This particular soil-testing kit requires that I add soil to the first line of the test-tube. I then add pH reactive powder, (it’s non-toxic and safe for kids to handle), from the color-coded kit, add water to the top line, replace the cap and shake the vial, (ideally distilled water, which you can get in most supermarkets, should be used for all of these tests). This test-tube is set aside while I continue with the rest of my experiments…

Dirt in a vile for pH testing...The first test is for pH…

Next, I take my cup of garden soil and place it in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. To the dirt, I add five cups of water and stir thoroughly. This muddy mixture needs to settle for at least ten minutes. So, while I am waiting, I investigate the results of my pH testing…

Dirt in a Bowl plus WaterNext, five cups of water are added to one cup of soil, stirred and left to settle 10 minutes or so…

Below you will see pH test-results from two different vegetable gardens. The color of the water will range from dark green to bright orange, with green indicating alkalinity and orange, acidity. It sometimes helps to put a piece of white paper in back of the tube when comparing the color-results with the pH chart. The first test, (A: directly below), indicates that the pH is just slightly more acidic than neutral. Most plants prefer a pH in this range – but it is always a good idea to know the exact preference of your crops. Soil testing kits usually come with a small pamphlet about this, but if not you can look this information up in a good gardening book, (see recommended book linked below). The third photo, (B), indicates alkaline soil. The soil in this garden will need to be amended in order for plants to properly absorb nutrients…

pH test in progressTest A: Slightly acidic soil

soil testing kit color barTesting chart

Ph test alkalineTest B: Here is an alkaline soil sample, (it actually looked darker greener than it appears in this photo). This soil will need to be amended with organic matter and/or agricultural sulfur this fall in order to bring it closer to the acid-neutral range.

Soil that is too acidic for vegetable gardening can be corrected, (or ‘sweetened’ as farmers sometimes say), with lime. Limestone and wood ash both raise pH. Organic lime can be purchased at most garden/home centers. Be sure to follow instructions and wear a mask when spreading lime on soil. Wood ash is an old-fashioned remedy for poor soil, and it is useful because ash also adds magnesium and potassium. If nutrient testing reveals low potassium, then wood ash is a good, economical supplement for an acidic vegetable garden. However, if the garden soil is alkaline, (as in test B), wood ash should not be added.

If test results reveal alkaline soil, (as in vial B, above), there are two ways to lower the pH. The best long-term solution for improving alkaline soil is to add organic matter. Composted oak leaves, pine needles, peat moss or untreated sawdust are all good supplements. However, it takes time for these additives to work. So, if you are looking for faster results, or your soil is very alkaline, (like test B, above), then adding agricultural grade sulfur makes sense. This supplement can be purchased at garden centers and it is applied in the same manner as lime. Always work additives into the soil with a garden fork after they have been applied, and then cover the bed with a good, thick layer of compost.

For the next three tests, (N,P,K), samples are drawn from the bowl containing the soil-water mix. Take care not to disturb the settled soil when obtaining the samples. There is a bit of organic matter floating in the tubes shown below. A small amount is OK, (it can be tricky to get a clean catch in super organic soil, especially for little hands), but try to keep as much as possible out. Your results won’t be skewed from a bit of floating debris, so no worries if some gets in the tube. Next add the reactive powder to each vial, replacing the color-coded cap to match the test. Be sure your caps are on tight! Then, shake the tubes and wait another 5 to 10 minutes for color-results…

soil test with some depletionsHere are some test results for K, N and P  – The Potash, (orange) content is good. Nitrogen, (purple) is very low, and the Phosphorus is depleted, in fact it’s just about non-existent !

When the color in the tubes has developed, match your results with the chart provided in the testing kit. Low and depleted levels of nutrients can be corrected with organic supplements. Low nitrogen? Good compost will raise the nitrogen in garden soil and fish emulsion or blood meal will also correct low nitrogen. During the growing season, cover crops like alfalfa can also be turned into the soil to raise nitrogen levels. How you improve soil fertility depends upon when you are correcting the situation and how depleted the soil is. In cold climates, adding a rich layer of compost to the soil in fall will often do the trick for correcting fertility in the long term. But if levels are particularly depleted, additional supplements may be needed. The phosphorus test above indicates complete depletion. To improve this situation, rock phosphate is recommended. Like the other supplements mentioned, this can be purchased at any garden center. Always follow instructions on the bag. The orange-capped test above indicates ample potassium. If potassium is low however, it can be improved by adding granite-dust, greensand or wood ashes. But remember, wood ashes will raise pH. Only add wood ashes if your pH test indicates acidic soil. And remember, you can add supplements like greensand and rock phosphate to your compost as well – they are all natural…

compost:hands

In addition to checking soil chemistry, it is important to have a look at soil structure. If a garden has particularly sandy soil, or clay soil with poor drainage, now is a good time to add organic matter to the garden. Compost, leaf-mold, clean straw and other organic matter can be worked in and raked over the garden in the autumn. This healthy mix of ingredients will continue to decompose over the winter months, building a healthy, hearty stew for next year’s plants.

Building a vegetable garden, testing and building soil can be fun and rewarding for kids. This soil testing process is a great way to teach young gardeners about practical science. For less than $20, a real-life skill can be acquired while having a great time. For more information about creating great vegetable gardens, I highly recommend Edward C. Smith’s book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible , linked below. This book is easy to read and follow, and it makes a great gift for beginning vegetable gardeners, (and even the more experienced, for reference!)…

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Article and photographs copyright 2009, 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 express written permission. Inspired by something you see here? It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Gardening Beyond the Harvest Moon: Extending the Growing Season with Hoop-House Cold Frames…

September 8th, 2009 § 25 comments § permalink

September’s Harvest Moon

It may seem a little premature to be writing about cold frames and frost on a beautiful late summer day, (sunny with daytime temps in the 70’s here in Vermont). But the gorgeous Harvest Moon this past weekend served as a reminder that we are nearing the end of the growing season in the northeast. Nights are getting cooler now, warning us that fall is coming and frost will soon be on the way. Although I am excited about the coming autumn, I am definitely not ready to give up my homegrown produce. So I won’t – at least not until December. I don’t have a greenhouse yet, but there are plenty of late-season, cool-weather crops to plant now and enjoy later. In order to extend my growing season last year, I began using hoop-house style cold frames in my kitchen garden to protect a few beds from frost. Unheated cold frames can save many vegetables from killing frosts, including tender herbs such as basil and rosemary, and mature warm-weather crops such as cherry tomatoes and peppers. Later, my spinach, chard, and broccoli will be protected inside the hoop-houses from harder freezes in late November and early December. By using hoop-houses to protect my crops, I was able to extend my growing season by more than two months last year.

Constructing a basic cold frame is a great two-person weekend project for early September. Cold frames are nothing more than unheated miniature greenhouses, and they are useful at both ends of the growing season. By protecting crops from frost with hoop-houses, cold-climate gardeners can still enjoy some vegetables into early December or longer. I now keep four hoop-houses installed in my potager throughout the winter. Although I am not able to make use of the garden in January and February, come spring the soil in these 4′ x 8′ beds will be warm and ready for planting weeks before the rest of the garden is clear of snow. Baby salad greens, spinach, broccoli and other cool-season crops can get a protected jump-start beneath the warm plastic of the mini-greenhouses. Hoop-houses are also a great way to protect and warm plants requiring extra heat, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in the early part of the growing season.

Hoop house with baby greens and chardBasic hoop-house cold frame protecting baby greens and chard

For someone with a few basic carpentry skills, a hoop-house is a simple project. If you can operate a skill saw and a screw gun, the assembly will be relatively easy. If not, maybe you can offer to share some produce with a handy friend or neighbor in exchange for a bit of help. Although the tasks involved in building a cold frame aren’t complex, this is definitely a two-person job. The simple design of the frame takes advantage of standard sized lumber, (8′ length), and only one cut is necessary to create the base. The ends of the wood are butted and screwed together with coated deck screws. Plastic tubing is cut to length with a hack saw and attached to the inside of the frame with pipe clamps. Then, ( to build an open-ended house), plastic is stretched over the tubes, folded beneath the rectangle frame and stapled to the inside edge of the wood. I keep the plastic ends on my un-sided hoop-houses folded closed with metal clamps. A plywood back and vent can be added on one side of the hoop-house for greater function and durability. I use both styles. Cold frames are inexpensive to build, and when cared for properly, they can be used for years. With longevity in mind, it makes sense to seal the wood parts with oil to protect them from moisture. Maintenance is simple; occasionally, if you use your hoop-house throughout the winter in a snowy climate, the plastic may tear and need to be replaced. The cost of materials to create two simple cold frames in 2008 was about $74.50, (adding plywood and a vent to the back added an additional $25 per unit for a total of $62.25 each). Your costs may be higher or lower, depending upon where you live, where you shop, and what kind of bargain-hunter you are.

If you have some experience building things, and would like to make  a cold frame of your own, review the materials list below and read the instructions carefully before you get started. The series of photos here were taken at various points during the construction of two hoop-house sets; one set was made with a vented ply-wood end, and one set was constructed without. I would recommend starting with the basic hoop house first. If you feel comfortable with the building process you can always add a plywood back later. The photos below can be enlarged by clicking for a closer view of the frame. Keep in mind that these structures are very simply designed. They are only intended to protect your crops from frost and they do not need to be perfect. Go slow and, as they say, measure twice and cut once.

hoop house frame constructionBasic hoop-house cold frame

hoop house stage 1Simple hoop-house cold frame ready for plastic

hoop house plywood with vent, before installationOptional plywood back with vent for greater protection and temperature control

hoop house frame with vent installedVented plywood back installed on basic frame

Hoop house stage 2Covering ventless hoop-house with plastic; pulled and stapled to one end of the wood frame

hoop house with vent:plastic installedVented hoop-house with plastic, ready to set in the garden

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Materials List for ONE  4′ x 8′ size hoop-house cold-frame

Tools:

skill saw

hack saw

jig saw (for vent-back model)

screw gun

hardware staple gun

tape measure

Materials from lumber dept.

3  2”x4”x8′  spruce or pine boards

1  full size sheet 1/2″ plywood (for vented-back model)

2  1”x3″strapping (optional, prolongs life of plastic by protecting the stapled inside edge)

Materials from hardware dept.

4 PVC pipe, 1/2″ cut to 6′ lengths, (or slightly larger for a bigger cold frame design)

pipe clamps 1/2″ (can be found in electrical dept)

1/2″ screws for clamps

3″ coated screws for all-weather use, (one small box), for the frame

2″ coated screws (optional for installing vented plywood-back model and for optional strapping at base)

hardware staples

heavy weight 06 mil plastic (we purchased ours online from a greenhouse company)

1 foundation vent, ( optional : for vented back hoop-house, *automatic opening is best)

thermometer (optional, for monitoring temps inside hoop houses)

Instructions:

To construct one cold frame you will need three  2” x 4” x 8′ spruce or pine boards. Cut one board in half to create two 4′ length pieces. Set the short boards inside the two long boards to form a box, as shown in the photos above. Screw the pieces together well, using at least two, (3″ coated), screws at each join. This rectangle forms the base of your hoop house. Sealing the wood base with linseed, (or other), sealer is a good idea to preserve the wood. If you do this, you will need to wait about 24 hours dry-time before continuing with the next steps of the project. If you are planning on adding a vented plywood back, this would also be a good time to seal the plywood with oil or stain.

Next, measure and cut your PVC tubing with a hack saw, to approximately 6′ length pieces. Space the tubes evenly on the inside of the frame and affix to the frame with pipe clamps screwed, (1/2″ screws), into the wood. I prefer to measure and mark before attaching for even spacing, setting all the clamps in place first with one screw on each side. When assembling the hoops, it is easiest to affix all pipes to one side of the frame first and then affix the opposite side.

* Note: If you are adding a plywood-vent end, draw a semi-circle outline on your plywood slightly larger than the shape of the hoops, (you can measure out the 4′ bottom edge end and then use one of the cut hoops as an outline for your circle). Cut the plywood semi-circle with a jig saw. Trace the interior shape of your vent in the upper middle of the plywood, and cut with a jig-saw. You may want to err on the tight side and test your vent fit in the opening. You can always make additional cuts with your jig-saw to fit the vent as you go. Finally, install your vent according to manufacturer instructions. Once set, slip the plywood wall inside one end of the hoop house frame, and then screw the plywood in place to the base,(using 2″ coated screws), as shown in the photo above. Clamp the plywood to the end hoops, (at least three points), and screw in place with 1/2″ screws. You are ready for the next steps below.

Once the hoops are evenly in place, lay out the plastic. Do a dry-run and stretch the plastic over the hoop house, checking to be sure that your length of plastic will fit evenly around the hoops with a few inches remaining to fold under the frame and staple. You also want to be sure the plastic is long enough on the open-ends to fold shut on both sides, (and to staple/fold and close the ends of a vented-style house). Be sure to allow some slack to spare before cutting. Once you have completed the dry run, lay out and cut the plastic and set the edge of one long-side, (8′ side), of the hoop house toward the end of the plastic with the remainder of the plastic trailing away from the structure. Be sure to leave a few inches to fold up under the wood frame. It is easier if one person holds the plastic in place while the other staples. Once the first side is secure, pull the plastic up and over the hoop house from the outside, and bring it around, lifting the other edge and setting down, once again with a few inches to spare for folding. This time you will be working from inside the enclosed hoop-house, so it may be helpful for the second person to hold up the finished end slightly for ease of stapling the other side. (Optional: For extra durability, it is useful to add strapping to cover the stapled plastic edge. To do this, cut a 3 1/2′ piece of strapping and lay it over the stapled plastic edge, and screw it in place with 2″ coated screws. This will help protect the plastic edge from tearing at the staple points).

If you have installed a plywood back with vent, at this point you will need to tightly fold or roll the extra plastic at the end and staple it to the plywood exterior. You can protect the edges with strapping, (wood, or recycled plastic as shown in the photos above).

The hoop house cold frame is ready to install!

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oli with bug sprayThough Oli is invariably involved in these projects, he can not be counted as a helper.

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Article and photos copyright 2009, 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 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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Bringing Nature’s Beauty Indoors: Flowers Just for Cutting…

August 11th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

a bouquet of annual dahlias and calendula Walker Farm

~ A bouquet of dahlia and calendula brightens my windowsill ~

One of the great pleasures of successful flower gardening is, of course, the access to seasonal, fresh cut flowers for the dinner table, desk and elsewhere in the home. I also really enjoy bringing an exotic bouquet to my host or hostess when I am invited to a dinner party, or to a friend as a surprise. Earlier this summer, in my posts about designing a potager and companion planting in the vegetable garden, I mentioned the horticultural benefits of growing flowers in a kitchen garden. But as an artist, I have many reasons, way beyond the practical, for a cutting garden. Flowers are a great inspiration; the extraordinary colors and amazing geometric forms can shift a mood, spark a creative impulse, or simply add a touch of beauty to the day. Know someone with a bland office cubicle, or sterile waiting room? Imagine what a few colorful zinnias would do to change the atmosphere. It’s amazing really. That old 1960’s slogan “Flower Power” couldn’t be more accurate.

zinnia and dahlia, c. Tim Geiss 2009

Zinnia and Dahlia ~ copyright 2009 ~ Tim Geiss

Growing annuals for cutting can be as simple as sowing seed or planting six packs in the vegetable garden in spring. I grow my cutting garden in well drained soil enriched with compost, and I fertilize with Neptune’s Harvest or whatever fish emulsion I have on hand. My own cutting garden varies in size each year depending upon my available time, space and budget. This year, I purchased common annuals in six packs from Walker Farm and a few of the specialty annuals they are known for. I chose dahlia, zinnia, cleome, cosmos, verbena bonariensis, specialty calendula, (French marigold), and moluccella laevis, (Bells of Ireland), among others. I also grow some perennials in and around my vegetable garden, including early bloomers like bulbs and peonies and late-season favorites such as coreopsis tripteris, physostegia virginiana, liatris ‘Kobold’, veronica ‘Goodness grows’, rudbeckia, echinacea and solidago, (golden rod), to name but a few. Native goldenrod is a great addition to flower arrangements. Sadly, although solidago is a prized perennial in much of Europe, this native flower is shunned by many North American gardeners who mistakenly believe it to be a cause of hay fever, (ambrosia artmisiifolia, or common ragweed, is usually the culprit). I always buy my annuals locally in spring. But you can also find bulbs and plants through online retailers, including my two of my favorite sources for summer bulbs, Swan Island Dahlias and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

Combining perennials and annuals in casual arrangements is one of my favorite ways to bring the garden indoors, (see photo below). I like to play with contrasting colors like orangey-yellow and purple, or bright blue and reddish-orange to enliven my kitchen table. When creating bouquets for the bedroom or bath, I often soften the mood a bit, and combine flowers in more complimentary hues; using tones of blue and green, or shades of lavender and rose. Whatever I create with flowers from my garden, the arrangements have a way of making the whole house look brighter.

In order to get the most life from cut flower arrangements, I try to harvest the blooms in early morning, before the heat of the day, or in the cool of the evening after the sun has set. I choose flowers with swollen buds or petals just opening. With sharp scissors, I cut the stems long and at a slight angle. Immediately, I place them in a bucket of lukewarm water kept in the shade while I make my other selections. Certain flowers, such as poppies, will need to have their stalks seared with a match in order to seal the stem. And most early bulbs, such as daffodils, prefer cool vase water. Cut flowers will stay fresh longer when you add a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice, about a tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of bleach to each quart of vase-water. Changing the vase-water every couple of days will extend the life of your bouquet and keep the flowers looking fresh longer. Bacteria is responsible for that nasty flower-water slime and smell when you forget to change the water for a week. I try to avoid that olfactory experience at all costs!

Bouquet of cosmos candy stripe, calendula pacific beauty mix, echinacea purpurea, physostegia, goldenrod, liatris and veronica goodness grows

Annual Cosmos ‘Candy Stripe’, Calendula ‘Pacific Beauty Mix’, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ here with perennial Veronica ‘Goodness Grows, Liatris ‘Kobold’, Echinacea purpurea and Solidago Canadensis Gunmetal Glazed Pitcher by artist Aletha Soule

double rudbeckia "Goldilocks" (small), cutting garden

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Goldilocks’ produces 18″-24″ stems with 4″ double orange blossoms… perfect for late summer bouquets

To add a little something extra to my bouquets, I often add ornamental grasses, (such as miscanthus), foliage plants, (including ferns and perennial plant leaves), vines, (such as bittersweet), and branches from trees and shrubs. Shrubs with darker foliage, including physocarpus ‘Diablo’ or ‘Summer Wine’, and weigela ‘Java Red’, among the many choices, add a nice contrast to floral arrangements in complimentary hues. When adding woody plants like these, as well as flowering hydrangea and lilac to an arrangement, it ‘s important to “smash” the woody stems with a mallet in order for the cut branch to absorb water, (see center photo below).  In addition to beautiful color and texture, woody plants add structure to a vase, and can help support both delicate flowers and heavy blooms, especially those with a tendency to flop.

cleome, zebra grass and weigela java red foliage

White cleome, zebra grass and weigela florida ‘Java Red’ foliage in a vase by  Aletha Soule

pounding woody stems

Flowers harvested from shrubs with woody stems must be ‘smashed’ as shown, to help them absorb water

Ninebark,(Physocarpus) 'Diablo', False Indigo, (Baptisia foliage) Foxglove, (Digitalis davisiana),Queen Anne's Lace'(Anthriscus sylvestris Bells of Ireland, (Moluccella laevis)

~ A beautiful raku vase by Vermont artist Richard Foye ~

And from the garden: Ninebark, (Physocarpus), ‘Diablo’, False indigo foliage, (Baptisia), Foxglove, (Digitalis davisiana), Queen Anne’s Lace, (Anthriscus sylvestris), and Bells of Ireland, (Moluccella laevis)

Hydrangea paniculata 'limelight'

~ Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ in a small vase by artist Aletha Soule ~

When it comes to choosing vases, I am a big believer in experimentation. Although I have a nice collection of vases from Vermont artisan Richard Foye and California’s Aletha Soule, I do not limit myself to traditional vessels for holding fresh flowers. I am just as likely to stick a bouquet into a rusty tin can when the orange-brown contrast strikes my fancy. Old mason jars, drinking glasses, perfume and liquor bottles, beach buckets, cookie tins, soda bottles and milk cartons have all served as vases in my household. In fact, pretty much anything that holds water is fair game. Floating flowers in a shallow bowl with candles makes for a memorable center piece at a dinner party, and the low display draws attention to the structure of larger flowers such as dahlia and sunflower. I also like the look of one spectacular blossom filling the top of a thick glass, as photographed by artist Tim Geiss below.

floating dahlia copyright 2009 tim geiss

As the seasons change, I like to bring autumn leaves and bare branches into the house for my larger urns. And early autumn vegetables, such as kale and cabbage, make dramatic additions to flower arrangements as well. When November and December come ’round, I will bring in winterberry, (Ilex verticillata), and dried grasses from the garden by the armful. Do you have any favorite additions to your floral arrangements? I will be featuring more articles like this one in the future, but for now, please feel free to share your ideas and add comments for others here on the forum. In a world filled with chaos, stress, uncertainty and pressure, we could all use a little beauty to brighten our day. Sometimes, even a milk carton of roadside daisies will do!

zinnia on a table copyright 2009 Tim Geiss

~ Freshly cut Zinnia, copyright 2009, Tim Geiss ~

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~ Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his beautiful flower photographs as noted ~

~ Article and other photos copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden ~

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Companion Planting in the Organic Vegetable Garden

June 2nd, 2009 § 13 comments § permalink

chives-thyme-rosemary-savoryChives and thyme in the potager

Companion planting is a very old-world, organic gardening method. Unfortunately, much companion planting knowledge has fallen out of use and favor in modern times due to a focus on efficiency. Of course on large farms efficiency is very important, but in a home garden I prefer to concentrate as much on process as I do on product. Instead of rotor-tilled planting strips, I have raised beds of mounded earth in my potager. My vegetable garden is organized in wide planting groups, not narrow rows. This sort of arrangement is not practical for commercial growers, but in a back yard vegetable garden, it works beautifully. From a design stand-point, I like this method of vegetable gardening because it maximizes my space, and allows me to create whimsical-looking arrangements of flowering and fruiting plants. There are also more practical and scientific benefits to this shared-space arrangement as well. Mixed-vegetable beds with herbs and flowers create many opportunities for synergistic relationships between plants. Utilizing natural plant relationships is one of the oldest organic gardening methods for vegetable growing success.

marigold-close-upCalendula, (marigold)

Herbs and flowers make attractive companions to vegetables, and many decorative potager plants lure beneficial insects. Blooming, fragrant herbs and flowers appeal to insects such as bees, green lacewings, hover flies, and lady bugs, among other helpful creatures. Yarrow is a pretty garden flower, and morning glory vines look beautiful growing up a garden fence. More importantly, and worth noting: these plants attract lady bugs and other insect-carnivores. Wild flowers, such as golden rod, are often mown down or uprooted by gardeners as ‘weeds’, but these flowers attract parasitic wasps, assasin bugs and lady bugs as well. Keeping native wild flowers around is a good idea for the organic gardener, as these plants are natural magnets for beneficial insects. Many insect-helpers eat pollen, and they are attracted to blooming plants during their adult stages. Later their off-spring, in the larval stage, will devour aphids, thrips, white flies, mealybugs, and many more pests. For useful information on how to identify friend from foe, visit sites in the entomology -links section to the right of this post on the blog-roll.

Attractive potager plants make the vegetable garden a beautiful and pleasant place to work and many are flavorful additions to recipes. However not all living things enjoy the presence of pungent herbs and flowers. These plants can also serve to repel insects and to mask the odors of more attractive plants, confusing or distracting pests. Onions, chives and garlic tend to deter aphids, ants and flea beetles. Rosemary may be flavorful to humans, but it is an unattractive, powerful scent to carrot flies and cabbage moths. Calendula, (marigold), is a traditional French potager plant used ward-off aphids, white flies and potato beetles. French marigold is also a deterent to nematodes and tomato hornworm. Basil and borage are also unappealing to tomato hornworm, and basil in particular makes a great edging plant for tomatoes. Surrounding tomatoes with basil may fool insect pests by masking the attractive odor of the tomatoes. Sage deters carrot fly and it also is unappealing to cabbage moth, as is thyme, hyssop and artemesia.

Companion planting also utilizes the harmonious and beneficial relationships between the plants themselves. Some crops, when grown near one another, may grow and yield better, and also protect one another from insect pests. Native Americans developed companion planting schemes based on such experiences; growing pole beans with corn for support, and surrounding corn with squash to deter raccoons, (apparently they dislike climbing over the leafy plants). Clearly it is important to plant taller or larger-growing crops, (like corn, pole beans and pumpkins for example), in beds where they can spread out and up without blocking sun, or smothering smaller crops near-by.

Most gardeners love to grow tomatoes. Herbs like parsley, basil, mint and chives are all good companions for tomatoes.  Flowers, such as nasturtium, marigold, and bee-balm also make good neighbors for tomatoes of all kinds. Lettuce grows well at the foot of tomato plants, and cucumbers, celery and chili peppers are happy near-by, (with proper spacing of course). Keep in mind that tomatoes, eggplant, bell pepper and potatoes should not be grown directly next to one another, as they all attract Colorado potato beetle. When planting these plants, mix them up with other plant groups, like herbs and lettuce. Another planting combination to avoid is tomatoes and corn, as they both attract a pest known by two names: corn ear worm/tomato fruit worm. Try planting tomatoes and corn at opposite corners of the garden to deter these pests.

Pole beans are also popular potager plants, and in general they will do best planted away from members of the cabbage family, (broccoli, cauliflower, cress, kale, mizuna, arugula, radish, turnip, brussel sprouts). However most bush-beans are not so picky. All beans do well mingled with rosemary and celery, but should not be next-door-neighbors with fennel, basil and onion.

Cucumbers, another back-yard favorite, are a rewarding, fast-producing crop. They grow well near bush beans, eggplant, cabbages, peas, tomatoes lettuce and all herbs except sage.  It is wise to avoid planting cucumbers near potatoes, and also provide separation between this plant and squash, pumpkin and melon, as they are all host to the stem and fruit boring pickle worm.

Summer squash and zucchini are also popular garden crops, and they make great companions for onions, radishes, and corn and celery.  But as mentioned above, this plant is best grown away from cucumber and potatoes, to deter pests.

Head lettuce grows well beside most vegetable plants, and it does particularly well in mid-summer near taller plants, as they give the lettuce a bit of shade. Pole beans or peas provide an excellent opportunity to test this synergistic relationship. Because lettuce is a fast growing crop, benefitting from cool conditions, it can be sown at the feet of many vegetables through out the growing season.

These planting suggestions are best viewed as guides, not hard and fast rules. There are many, many more plant relationships to explore.  Research companion planting online, and in some of the books mentioned on this site in the ‘Bookstore / Library’ (page left), under the ‘vegetable garden’,(last section). Try keeping a journal of your garden to note your experiences with companion planting, and to help you plan your garden next year. Remember that synergistic plant relationships can help reduce the need for insecticidal soaps and other pesticides. Above all, keep in mind that vegetable gardening is good for you in many ways. Experimenting with the beauty and benefits of herbs and flowers can only help you to enjoy companion planting as part of your overall garden experience.

flower-baskets-in-potagerNewly planted flower baskets in this year’s potager will attract beneficial insects

herbs-in-the-gardenThyme, rosemary, savory and chives at the vegetable garden entry

Article copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved.

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