Weeds and Winter Interest

In climates where winter sucks the garden inside itself and into quiet dormancy, it is often dead stalks and seed heads that provide the most visual interest. They also become, in some respects, a reminder of a garden that once was and what will be again.” — Gayla Trail, Grow Curious

If, like me, it is during the growing season that you really thrive, winters can be brutal. Color has practically been stripped from the landscape. Death and slumber abound. Nights are long and days are cold. It’s a lengthy wait until spring returns. Yet, my love of plants does not rest. And so, I look for beauty in a frozen landscape.

In evergreens, it is obvious. They maintain their color year-round. Large bunchgrasses, shrubs and trees with interesting bark or branching habits, dried fruits and unique seed heads – all of these things are easy to spot and visually interesting.

Beyond that, there are things that we are not accustomed to finding beauty in. Such things require a keen eye, close observation, and the cultivation of greater understanding and appreciation. For most people, weeds fall into this category. What is there to love or find beautiful?

I am of the opinion that there is plenty there to intrigue us. From their spent flowers to their seed heads and dried-up leaves, they can be just as interesting as the plants we deem more desirable. The winter-long green of winter annuals alone is evidence enough. So, here is my attempt to redeem some of these plants by nominating them as candidates for winter interest.

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

wood avens (Geum urbanum)

yellow evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

annual honesty, a.k.a. money plant (Lunaria annua)

white clover (Trifolium repens)

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A friendly reminder: Refrain from being overly ambitious with your fall cleanup and, instead, leave certain plants in place. This not only provides winter interest but can also be beneficial to the wild creatures we share space with.

 

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Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show: Fall 2014

I had every intention of documenting this year’s garden more thoroughly, but as things tend to go, the days got busy and the year got away from me. Now here we are in mid-October, still waiting for the first frost but accepting its imminence, watching reluctantly as another growing season comes to a close. We took several pictures but few notes, so what follows is a series of photos and a few reflections on what transpired this past year in, what Flora likes to call, Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show.

Abundance

Abundance

I guess I should start at the beginning. Last year I was living in an apartment. I was growing things in two small flower beds and a few containers on my patio. That had been my story for about a decade – growing what I could on porches and patios and in flower beds of various apartments in a few different parts of the country. At one point I was living in an apartment with no space at all to grow anything, and so I attempted to start a garden in the backyard of an abandoned, neighboring house – geurilla gardening style – but that didn’t go so well. At another location I had a plot at a community garden. The three years I spent there were fun, but definitely not as nice as stepping outside my door and into my garden.

Earlier this year, I moved in with Flora. She was renting a house with a yard, so when I joined her, I also joined her yard. Flora is a gardener, too; she had spent her first year here growing things in the existing garden spaces but wanted to expand. So we did. We enlarged three beds considerably and built four raised beds and two compost bins. We also got permission to grow things in the neighbor’s raised beds. And that’s how our growing season started – coalescence and expansion.

Then summer happened. It came and went, actually. Most days were spent just trying to keep everything alive – moving sprinklers around, warding off slugs and other bugs, and staking things up. Abundance was apparent pretty much immediately. We started harvesting greens (lettuce, kale, collards, mustards) en masse. Shortly after that, cucumbers appeared in concert with beets, turnips, basil, ground cherries, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. Even now – anticipating that first frost – the harvest continues. We are uncertain whether or not we will remain here for another growing season; regardless, we are considering the ways in which we might expand in case we do. Despite the amount of work that has gone into our garden so far, we still want to do more. Apparently, our love of gardening knows no bounds.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this section of the yard but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this bed but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

 

We grew several varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It's called 'Tennis Ball.' It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and used to grow in his garden at Monticello.

We grew many varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It’s called ‘Tennis Ball.’ It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and grew in his garden at Monticello.

 

'Shanghai Green' Pak Choy

‘Shanghai Green’ Pak Choy

 

'Purple Top White Globe' Turnips

‘Purple Top White Globe’ Turnips

 

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

 

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift  trellis. I can't remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift trellis. I can’t remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

 

'San Marzano' Roma Tomato. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

‘San Marzano’ Roma Tomatoes. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

 

The flower of a 'Hong Hong' sweet potato. We haven't harvested these yet, so we're not sure what we're going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we're anxious to see how they do.

The flower of a ‘Hong Hong’ sweet potato. We have not harvested these yet, so we are not sure what we are going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we are anxious to see how they do.

 

We grew lots of flowers, too. 'Black Knight' scabiosa (aka pincushion flower)was one of our favorites.

We grew lots of flowers, too. ‘Black Knight’ scabiosa (aka pincushion flower) was one of our favorites.

 

Some flower's we grew specifically for the bees, like this bee's friend (Phacelia hastate).

We grew some flowers specifically for the bees, like this bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia).

 

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

 

Even the cat loves being in the garden...

Even the cat loves being in the garden…

It has been an incredible year. “Abundant” is the best word that I can think of to describe it. We have learned a lot through successes and failures alike, and we are anxious to do it all again (and more) next year. Until then we are getting ready to settle in for the winter – to give ourselves and our garden a much needed rest. For more pictures and semi-regular updates on how our garden is growing, follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter, and feel free to share your gardening adventures in the comments section below.

Overwintering Lettuce

I overwintered some lettuce, and so can you. Below freezing temperatures usually mean the end of the growing season for most things, but certainly not for everything.  The truth is that salad greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, etc.) can be overwintered, especially if you grow them under a cold frame or hoop house or in an otherwise protected location. Some can even be harvested throughout the winter if the conditions are right.

Last fall I had nine lettuce seedlings that I had started indoors. I transplanted them outside in either late October or early November (memory isn’t serving me right now). I placed some straw mulch around them, and then covered them with a makeshift cold frame made out of PVC pipe and floating row cover. There they remained all winter long.

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I live in Boise, Idaho. The winters here are relatively mild (compared to the rest of Idaho), but we still have plenty of days with below freezing temperatures. Our frost-free growing season is about 160 days long. The average low temperature from December through February is around 25° F. This past winter, our lowest temperature (according to Weather Underground) was -7° F, and we had at least 30 days in which the low temperature reached 20° F or lower. Needless to say, it was a chilly winter.

But my lettuces held on…at least most of them. When I uncovered my cold frame in early March, I found that six of my nine lettuce seedlings had survived. It didn’t surprise me that a few had perished – some of the seedlings that I had transplanted were quite small, and I had serious doubts that they would make it. I was satisfied to see that the majority of them were still alive. Two-thirds ain’t all that bad.

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The varieties that I planted were “Freckles” and “Winter Density.” I chose these because the descriptions I read gave me the impression that they were ideal for overwintering. But descriptions be damned. I suggest seeing for yourself. Take any variety of lettuce or other salad green and experiment in your own garden. See what you can get to overwinter with or without protection. Seeds are fairly inexpensive, and it is worth seeing what you can get to survive through the winter. Differing climates – both macro and micro – will produce varied results, and every year things will be a little different. This is one of the many joys of gardening. Weather and climate will always be factors, but they can also be markers to help us see what we can get away with. And if one of the things you get away with is getting lettuce to survive a harsh winter, it means you will be eating garden fresh lettuce long before your neighbor.

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Winter Interest

We are well into winter in the northern hemisphere, and the plants in our landscapes have been dormant for weeks now. Trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, grasses have gone brown, and perennial forbs have died back – their roots harboring the food they will need to return to life in the spring. What little green that is left is provided mainly by evergreen trees and shrubs, but even they are resting – metabolizing slowly and putting off further growth until warmer temperatures return. The view outside may appear largely bleak and dreary, but there is still beauty in a frozen landscape, and much of that beauty is provided by the same things that brought color and interest during the warmer months.

Many plants, though appearing dead, remain attractive throughout the winter. From fruits and cones to seed heads and seed pods, there are various structures that remain on certain plants even after leaves fall that provide winter interest. Deciduous trees and shrubs show off their branches in the winter months, which when freed from the camouflage of leaves are like sculptures – art pieces in their own right. Perennial grasses can continue to provide structure to a garden bed when left in place and upright, and color is provided by evergreen foliage and colored bark, such as the red and yellow bark of some dogwoods (Cornus spp.).

Beauty surrounds us, even in unlikely places. Things are quiet and frozen now, and foggy, dismal days abound. But winter won’t last forever. Plants can remind us of that. In them we find remnants of brighter days and an assurance that there are more to come.

alnus viridis

Male and female cones on Sitka alder (Alnus viridis)

ericameria nauseosa

Seed head on rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

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Flower stalks on strict buckwheat (Eriogonum strictum)

sorbus scopulina

Cluster of berries on Cascade mountain-ash (Sorbus scopulina)

maclura pomifera

Ice crystals on the branches of young Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera)

rosa pisocarpa

Rose hips on cluster rose (Rosa pisocarpa)

sedum sp. seed head

Seed head on showy stonecrop (Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’)

All photos were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Rosemary Christmas Tree

In the spirit of the holiday season, consider this fun alternative to a conventional Christmas tree. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an herbaceous, evergreen shrub or subshrub and is commonly found in herb gardens. Its leaves are valued for their myriad culinary and medicinal uses. Futhermore, this plant takes very kindly to pruning and shaping, which makes transforming it into a miniature Christmas tree a very simple task.

It may be too late to cultivate a “tree” for this year’s holiday season, but perhaps you’d like to try for next year. To do so, find a small rosemary plant at a local garden center or plant sale in the spring. Make a few initial pruning cuts to select a leader or leaders. After about a month or two, start giving it the shape of a Christmas tree. Floral scissors work great for making these cuts, and you don’t have to worry about where on the branches you are cutting – rosemary is very forgiving – just make sure your scissors are sharp. Wait a couple more months and then do more shaping with the pruning scissors. Do some final shaping a month or so later. At this point, you should be entering the holiday season and your rosemary Christmas tree will be ready to display. It’s that simple!

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Initial pruning: selecting the leaders

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Second pruning: giving it shape

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Third pruning: keeping in shape

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Final pruning: clean it up and present it  

One major downside to growing rosemary if you live in a cold climate is that it is only hardy to about USDA zone 7. However, if you select the right cultivar, place it in a protected location (near the south facing wall of a building perhaps), give it some mulch and maybe a blanket for the winter, you might be able to get it to survive in colder zones. Rosemary can also be difficult to overwinter indoors because the air in homes is typically dry and warm and there is little direct sunlight. If you are determined to keep one alive despite your odds, awaytogarden.com provides an excellent tutorial about overwintering rosemary both indoors and out.

Overwintering Carnivorous Plants

I once assumed that all carnivorous plants were tropical. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it’s because they are so bizarre (both in their appearance and behavior), nothing like the plants that I was accustomed to seeing growing up in the Intermountain West. Or maybe it’s because the one carnivorous plant that I was most familiar with, the Venus flytrap, is commonly sold in the houseplant section of department stores. If it’s a houseplant, it must be tropical, right?

Eventually I learned the truth. Much to my surprise, there are numerous carnivorous plants that are native to temperate regions – in fact, carnivorous plants can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Even more surprising, Venus flytraps are temperate plants! It’s true. They are native to a small region in North Carolina, within about a 100-mile radius from Wilmington.

Plant species native to temperate regions require a dormant period. In the winter, the temperature drops, day length decreases, and, in some cases, drought ensues. During this time plants go dormant – they hibernate – and wait for the warmer, brighter days of spring to continue on with their metabolic and reproductive processes. It’s a period of rest.

Carnivorous plants native to temperate regions fall into this category – they require a period of dormancy in order to stay healthy and productive. In his book, The Savage Garden, Peter D’Amato asserts that, “Dormancy in carnivorous plants that require it must be respected and permitted to occur. Otherwise, the plant may die.” He goes on to say that a Venus flytrap grown year-round in a warm environment exposed to grow lights for the majority of the day “will eventually get sickly and die.” In short, these plants need a rest, and so it’s best to grow them outdoors where they will be exposed to the elements, thereby entering a period of dormancy as nature intended.

Venus flytraps (Dionaea spp.), North American pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.), and serveral species of sundews (Drosera spp.) can all be grown outdoors year-round in temperate climates. In order to ensure their survival, it’s best to give them a little protection during the winter months – especially when temperatures are projected to reach below 20 degrees for several consecutive nights.

Recently, I helped put the carnivorous plant display at Idaho Botanical Garden to bed for the winter. The carnivorous plants are being grown in an old stock water trough. First we cut back the plants, reducing their size by at least a third and being especially careful to remove dead or rotting plant material. Next, we placed several straw bales around the sides of the trough. Then we covered the plants with three layers of material: black plastic, evergreen boughs, and dead leaves. Dave Nelson, of killergarden.com, suggests a similar winterizing treatment: “the plants can be placed on the ground, covered with a tarp, and then covered with six inches or so of dead leaves, pine needles, straw, or other mulch.”

After the threat of freezing temperatures has passed, the plants can be uncovered. As temperatures continue to warm, the plants will awake from their dormant state and prepare themselves for another spectacular season of devouring bugs and looking awesome.

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Carnivorous Plant Display at Idaho Botanical Garden

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Winterized Carnivorous Plant Display

A final word from Paul D’Amato: “You should never force a carnivorous plant into growth during a season when it should be resting.”

Microgreens!

Microgreens are quite popular these days. They are larger than sprouts and smaller than baby greens, and new research has verified that they are packed with nutrients. Microgreens are easily grown year-round on a countertop or windowsill, even if the lighting situation is less than ideal for growing other plants. I am growing some now in clear, plastic, salad mix containers. I punched a few holes in the bottoms of the containers for drainage, filled them with moist potting soil, scattered seeds on top of the soil, covered the seeds with a bit more potting soil, and placed them outside in a small cold frame. I planted two with lettuce mix and one with radishes and arugula. The plants are ready to cut in a week or two and can be eaten in salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, etc.

To be considered true microgreens, the plants should be harvested very young (up to 14 days old and about an inch tall). After they are harvested, they will need to be replanted – unlike baby greens and typical salad mix which will produce multiple harvests – because they will not be large to enough to recover from being chopped down.

A wide variety of seeds can be grown as microgreens, including lettuces and other salad greens, brassicas (radishes, mustards, arugulas, etc.), and herbs. You can select a pre-packaged lettuce mix, or you can make a special mix of your own. Microgreens are great for people who want to grow some of their own food but have little or no space for a traditional garden because they are easily grown in containers indoors. They can also be grown throughout the winter when outdoor gardens have been put to bed for the season.

Learn more about growing microgreens at You Grow Girl and Organic Gardening.

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