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Archive for July, 2012

With record temperatures and much of the United States in drought, garden care can become a little more complicated. Soil dries out faster and sensitive plants may wilt in the heat of the afternoon. Enduring an abnormally hot summer can put a lot of stress on plants as well as the unprepared gardener. There are some simple precautions that can be taken to ensure any garden withstands the heat.

Keeping Cool

The heat will quickly rid pots of precious moisture. I recommend checking plants twice daily and watering as needed. Plants that are root bound will need to be watered more often, up to twice a day. Be careful not to overwater; soil should dry 2” down between watering to prevent root rot. Protect plants from direct sunlight damage by watering in the early morning or evening. Be cautious when watering in the evening, some plants are prone to fungal diseases if they stay wet.

Avoid evening watering:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Orchids
  • Beebalm
  • Cucurbitacae: cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons
  • Solanaceae: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers

Dryer than a Desert

Soil that is too dry will be reluctant to retain moisture. The best way to combat this is to water the plant and then let the pot sit in a tray of water until it has soaked up the moisture. If the soil dries out completely, the plant will need to soak in a tray of water until it will retain moisture again.

A Solid Watering Idea: Ice cubes!

Need to keep plants cool and watered throughout the day during the summer? Try placing a layer of ice cubes on top of the soil. As the cubes melt, they will not only provide a steady water source but can also cool the soil down. Any plants that are root bound and dry out quickly during the day will appreciate the steady water source. A steady water source will help prevent having to water multiple times throughout the day.

Take a Second Look: Pot Color

If temperatures are high and plants are in direct sun, avoid using black containers. Black attracts the heat from the sun and can overheat sensitive plants. Notice a plant wilting in the middle of the day despite being well-watered? Try moving it to an area that is shaded from the afternoon sun. Ensuring plants are protected from the heat of the day will give delicate plants a much needed break.

Staying in the Shade

Any plants that are found wilting in the blazing afternoon sun should be relocated to a more protected area. Many of these plants are either not hardened to the direct sunlight or are intolerant of full sunlight and require morning sunlight or shade. Being aware of a plant’s light requirements can help eliminate unnecessary stress that may slow or kill growth.  If the plant simply needs hardening off, place the plant in the direct sunlight and gradually increase the amount of time. For example, start with 15 minute increments and increase the time daily

Being able to help a garden endure these unrelenting, scorching temperatures will ensure it’s survival. The now prepared gardener can beat the heat without breaking a sweat.

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Every gardener or farmer knows that weeds can be a scourge. In large numbers, they can choke out flowers, vegetables, or other crops. Even in smaller numbers, they can grow where they are undesirable or unsightly. Dealing with weeds is often a season-long battle, fought with hands, gloves, hoes, or cultivators. Some even choose to use chemical means to eradicate them, but weeds can become more resistant to even this, not even considering the other issues/concerns this brings with it.

While ripping out offending weeds is totally understandable, and I do it all the time, many people do not know of the value of some of these plants.  While it is true that some weeds are too fiddly to mess with (such as the delicious – but tiny – nuts of Nutsedge), inedibly tough or bitter, or even poisonous (such as the Nightshades), others are edible, even tasty (some have good medicinal value, too, though this is often not for beginners). I have selected and will elaborate on a few of the most common, easily identified ones I find in my plantings.

A very exceptional purslane growing among my onions. Normally they are not this large or thick – I guess it likes its spot!

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

  • – Low growing, creeping-type plant. Thick, smooth, computer-cable like stems, usually with a strong reddish color or tinge. Succulent, thick leaves shaped like little paddles or spatulas. Small yellow flowers give way to tiny green seed pods
  • – Contains more Omega-3 than any other leafy vegetable. Mucilaginous quality lends it well to soups/stews, or very good just as a salad herb or snack. Can have a tangy or salty flavor. Stems are good for pickling
  • – Does not grow tall or very competitive; tolerates poor soil and drought. Good companion plant – crops such as corn will even let their roots ‘follow’ paths broken in the soil by purslane, and its deep roots and ground-covering nature bring up and stabilize moisture that might otherwise be unavailable
  • – Used historically; still widely used in Europe, the middle east, and others

Young lambsquarters – great as a fresh salad at this stage

Lambsquarters/Goosefoot (Chenopodium album)

  • – Cultivated in some countries as a food crop, but usually considered a weed in the US
  • – Tall growing, to several feet or even a few meters high, with stiff stems. Alternate, spade-blade shaped, well toothed leaves; leaves at the top and bottom are more diamond shaped and less toothed. Leaves repel water, and top ones are often mealy, with a white powdery look
  • – Is competitive – can cause crop losses if not pulled out
  • – Edible raw or cooked, but probably best cooked if eaten regularly (it contains some oxalic acid and saponins – probably not enough to do any harm anyway – but these are reduced by cooking). Good spinach substitute, and nutritious. Seeds can also be eaten, or the flowerheads used as a broccoli substitute

Galinsoga with the corn

Galinsoga/Gallant Soldier (Galinsoga ciliata)

  • – Grows to about 2 feet in height
  • – Opposite leaves triangular with rounded back, coarsely toothed along edges, quite hairy on stems and leaves alike. Flowers like a tiny, underdeveloped daisy, with a yellow center surrounded by 5 very small, white, 3-toothed petals
  • – Flowers, leaves, or stems edible raw or cooked, added to soups, or used as a salad
  • – Not as tall and tough as Lambsquarter, but very tenacious – can grow in huge numbers, choking out other plants, and if you break its stems off instead of uprooting it, it will grow two new stems at the place it broke

Yellow wood sorrel

Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)

  • – Often confused with or called a ‘clover’
  • – Starts out erect, but as it grows it lays down and branches. Leaves with 3 leaflet segments, each shaped like a heart. Small yellow, 5-petaled flowers
  • – All parts are edible, with a very tangy/lemony flavor. Good accent in salads, or can be crushed and made into a lemonade-like drink. The tanginess is from its oxalate content – it is perfectly safe in small quantities, but should not be eaten in huge quantities constantly because this can bind up the body’s calcium

Mallow cheeses

Mallow Cheeses/Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta)

  • – Grows from a central point/in a rosette, branching from the base. Prostrate/stems lay along the ground.  Alternate leaves on long stems are circular or kidney-shaped and irregularly shallow-toothed or crinkly-lobed. Short hairs are present on the surfaces. Flowers 5-petaled and usually pink or pinkish-white, with noticeable darker pink or purple stripes upon close inspection
  • – Flowers replaced by disc-shaped seed pods that appear like a button or a cheese wheel in shape – this is where it gets its name. These are very crunchy and  tasty, although small. Leaves and shoots edible raw or cooked as salad or pot greens. They also have mucilaginous properties and are good for thickening soups or stews
  • – Taproot makes it hard to uproot, and it can grow quite large and sprawlingly competitive in the right environment

The domestic carrot’s mommy

Queen Anne’s Lace/Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

  • – Tall growing, to a meter in height. Large clusters of tiny white flowers on tops of stems, often with a single maroon flower in the center. Foliage is lacy, like the familiar leaves of domestic carrots
  • – Root is edible like a carrot, or flower heads can be fried and eaten. Seeds can be used to flavor soup. The root can also be dried, roasted, and ground into a coffee substitute
  • – To avoid confusion with poison hemlock, look for the strong carrot smell and the very hairy stems – they should also lack purple spots
  • – Some people are photosensitive after handling the foliage, so treat with care if you are uncertain

Very immature Velvet-leaf, this youngster will grow many times this size if I let it

Velvet-leaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

  • – Grows several feet tall on stout, stiff stems, with large, heart-shaped, long-stemmed leaves covered with velvety, fine hairs. These are very soft to the touch. Yellow or orange flowers give way to segmented seedpod clusters with an overall ‘crown-like’ appearance, each segment having a pointed ‘horn’ on top. Entire plant has an odd, distinct odor about it
  • – Extremely competitive, stealing nutrients and water from other crops. A damaging and invasive species
  • – Seeds are edible and tasty (in my opinion). Although a bit small, they are easy to get to, and eating them stops the plant from reseeding. Leaves are reportedly eaten stir-fried or in omelettes in China. The plant also provides strong, jute-like fiber, which is what it was originally grown for.

and last, but never least…

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

  • – The familar dandelion almost everyone knows needs no photo – it grows in rosettes of deeply toothed, dark green leaves, with prominent yellow composite flowers on long, often reddish-tinged stems
  • – Entire plant is edible. Leaves are better when young, and get bitter as they age. Root is edible raw or cooked, or can be dried and roasted as a coffee substitute. Flowers are edible, fried into fritters or plucked of petals and mixed into anything (I like to put them inside a veggie burger of sorts). They can also be used to make wine, or pickled and used like capers. The milky sap is a folk remedy for warts
  • – A number of other medicinal uses as well!

Looking up the wild plants you find around you can be an addictive pursuit. So many of the plants we treat as weeds or ignore actually have beneficial qualities. Whether you decide to eat them or not, maybe this posting will give you a little curiosity about the leafy neighbors of your prized plants. After all, they’re just plants too – they just don’t often benefit from the help of a human hand, so they come up with other strategies to succeed, strategies that can invoke our ire at times.

Happy growing/harvesting season 2012!

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Starting your garden from seed may sound like a great, thrifty way to save some cash. However, there are several herbs that will give a variety of disastrous results when grown from seed. I strongly recommend propagating the following by cuttings or plant division.

Tarragon

When looking to grow Tarragon, never buy seeds. It is very important to be aware of what you’re buying because incorrect labeling does occur. Many times, when you see seed or plants for sale, they will either be Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) or Mexican Tarragon (Tageteslucida). Look for French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa). Taste a leaf before purchase to ensure the plant is labeled correctly—look for a numbing effect on the tongue when purchasing French Tarragon.

The Differences

French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)

  • Superior flavor
  • Preferred in culinary
  • Numbing effect on tongue
  • Rarely flowers, seeds are typically sterile
  • Can be finicky to grow

Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.)

  • Belongs to same family as French Tarragon
  • Lacks flavor, may be bitter
  • Readily flowers and sets seed
  • Hardier and more tolerant than French Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon (Tageteslucida)

  • Actually a variety of Marigold
  • Closest in flavor to French Tarragon, so may be used as a substitute

Rosemary

I recommend everybody interested in growing rosemary to buy an already established plant or start with a cutting from an established plant. The seed germination rate is incredibly low—I had only one germinate last year. If you’re lucky enough to get the seeds to germinate, the seedlings can be fussy and difficult to keep alive. The seedlings seem to prefer a moist, well-draining soil and will quickly die if the soil remains dry too long. Rosemary is also slow growing and will take at least a year to establish.

Mint

Mint plants should be incredibly easy to find and are even easier to propagate from cuttings or division. Due to hybridization, mint should not be started from seeds. This causes the mint to have a rank odor and taste. If possible, I strongly recommend finding a good wild or heirloom variety to start with. I have purchased mint varieties from stores that turn rank after a couple years of growth. Since mint tends to readily take over where it’s grown, I encourage everybody interested in growing mint to check with friends and family for a clipping or plant division.

Lavender

If absolutely insistent upon starting from seed, Lavender would be the safest from this list. The biggest problem with Lavender seed is that it can take up to three months to sprout. From there, it may take one year for the plant to become established and bloom. There are also many varieties of Lavender to choose from, just make sure to choose an edible variety.

These plants may sound discouraging to grow, but with a little attention a garden can be saved from imposters. Starting plants from seeds may sound like a cost-efficient method to acquiring a garden, but it may have the hidden cost of replacing poor quality varieties with the proper plant. If looking to save money, cutting and plant division are the keys to success with these four plants.

Looking to start from seeds? Try reading “Seed Sowing: Timely, Thrifty, Universal Methods”

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