Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How to select the perfect Christmas Tree

By The Gardening Guru
(feel free to print this out and pass on to your friends)
As the holidays approach, I am always asked “How do I pick the perfect Christmas tree?”. Since I have sold Christmas trees for over 15 years, I am the best person to ask. Let’s begin with some of the easy stuff to get past before we get into the different types of trees.
1). As every newscaster will tell you the Friday after Thanksgiving, check the tree for freshness. Run your hands lightly gripping the branch from the inside of the tree to the outside. You will have needles dropping, but there should not be a handful. You have to keep in mind that most Christmas trees, unless purchased at a cut-your-own farm, will have been cut in the beginning to middle of November. They are then kept in cold storage until delivery time to the garden center or corner lot. So when someone tells you that they were cut a week ago, don’t believe them unless it is the Friday after Thanksgiving. Also “bounce” the tree on the ground and see how many needles fall. There will be some, because even evergreens lose their older needles which are located towards the inside of the tree. A good example of this is the members of the pine family, such as white and scotch pine. A tree lot will spend a good deal of time bouncing these trees to remove the dead needles from the inside of the tree to help sell it quicker. No one likes a tree that is full of dead needles! Once you have determined that the tree is fresh, you can move onto the next step.
2). Tree types - Now you may be asking why we started with freshness instead of the type of tree. It is more important to get a fresh tree than a particular tree. Also, some trees do have the tendency to dry out quicker than others. Below is a listing of trees that are grown for Christmas trees, including pines, spruces and firs, including their best qualities and their drawbacks.
a). The Pines - Pines are the Christmas tree grower’s best plant; they grow rapidly, are ready for sale in a short period of time, and can grow in a wide range of climates and soil types. On the other hand, they do need a heavy annual shearing for them to attain that”Christmas Tree” look. With all of this shearing, the stem can be quite thick compared to the size of the tree, so check your tree stand for diameter size before purchasing. 1). Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra) - These trees make good “living” trees, or trees that come with a root ball. They can withstand the conditions inside and will do quite nicely outside in your landscape. Unlike most pines, the Austrian pine keeps its lower branches even after reaching a large size. 2). Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) - This pine has very short needles (1”), but tends to have a yellow tinge to the needles for the winter, so the tree only enjoys a limited popularity. 3). Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) - These trees were originally imported from Europe for fast reforestation of cut-over areas. It proved to be a disappointment because it tended to be short-lived and it grew crooked. Resourceful growers began shearing it as a Christmas tree, especially since it can grow in milder climates where spruces and firs will not. There is a wide variety of Scotch pines (French, Spanish and Greek) and they vary greatly. Most Scotch pines tend to yellow for the winter, and to compensate the growers will spray a colorant on these trees to make them look better, with limited success. Scotch pines also suffer from crooked stems, so always look at the bottom of the tree as well as the top on this type. With it being sheared, this tree is good for a “lights only” display as well as most pines. There are no real spaces for ornaments. 4). White pine (Pinus strobus) - This tree is very important to the lumber industry as well as the Christmas tree industry. It is mostly grown in the mid-Atlantic states, and buyers admire it for the soft green color and woodsy fragrance. Again it is a lights only tree.
b). The Firs - Firs are the most popular type of tree grown for Christmas. They have an attractive, deep green color and conical shape and have needles that are flatter and softer in texture. In general, they are the longest lasting tree in terms of needle retention and have the most fragrance, a citrus-orange scent. 1). Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) - This tree is grown in the colder climate where winters are cold and summers are cool. To many on the east coast, a balsam fir is the only Christmas tree. It is naturally cone shaped, needles that are rich green on top and silvery white underneath. Most only need three to four shearings before sale and are relatively quick growing. Of the firs, this is the mid-priced model. 2). Douglas fir (Psuedotsuga Menziessii) - It is not a true fir, but does resemble the fir family, especially with its citrus fragrance. In the Northwest, British Columbia and Rocky Mountains, this is the tree of choice. Douglas firs have a blue-green color, excellent needle retention, but be wary of split trunks. I have seen hundreds of Douglas firs that have a split trunk 1 foot from the bottom, which will only complicate the cutting for the stand. 3). Frasier fir (Abies fraseri) - They still don’t know whether this is a different species from the balsam fir of just a climatic variation. The needles are short and hug the stem and its growth habit is more dense than balsam. This is my personal favorite as well as the tree I have gotten for the past 15 years. 4) Noble fir (Abies procera) - This attractive tree only grows in the Northwest. This fir is the best with needle retention, but the problem arises that it is a slow grower, so not only will you pay more for this tree, but the trunk will be quite large.
c). The Spruces - Spruces have stiff square needles, rough bark, strong branches which make it perfect for heavy ornaments. On the other hand, it is often too prickly for children to decorate and can drop needles quite quickly. Spruces need to be watered frequently, and if you forget, the tree needs to have a new fresh cut on the trunk so it will be able to absorb water again. Definitely a heavy drinker of water, so get a large capacity tree stand. 1). Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) - Known for its landscape use as well as a Christmas tree, blue spruce are definitely and eye catching tree. They do not tolerate indoor conditions, so don’t bring it in until it is almost Christmas. 2). White Spruce (Picea glauca) - A nice tree for its green color, but again a heavy needle dropper when watering is not kept up.
There are many new varieties being grown today, and it is really up to your own personal choice. After selecting your tree, only give the tree a fresh cut just before you are going to bring it inside. Make sure you have a large enough stand for the tree. Sometimes it is better to have one to big than too small, for the larger one will hold more water and cut down your watering times. I have also heard to use aspirin, tree fresh and other assorted chemicals to help preserve the tree. The simple, most effective way to keep your tree fresh is to make sure to never let it run out of water...plain and simple. Good luck and have a safe and happy holiday season!

Thursday, July 30, 2009


To all of my friends in the blogger world:

This may come as a shock to all of you, but I've recently decided to step down as Executive Director of The Botanical Gardens in Buffalo. The reason is quite simple - I have a hunger, or should I say need, to be back in the field of horticulture and not behind a desk pushing papers. This became quite clear to me when I was in Buffalo. My true love is and has always been working with plants and helping you, gardeners from across the world, through my website, blogging, lecturing and articles in horticultural magazines. I will be concentrating more on improving my website, having a more up to date blog, rededicating myself to my internet podcast, and finally, writing the horticultural how-to manual that I think every gardener needs to have on their shelf or in their shed.

So be patient as I finish relocating back to New Jersey, the best is yet to come! And as always, feel free to contact me with any questions you may have - I am here to help you become a better gardener. That is why I am here!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pest and Disease Control The Organic Way

Keeping pests and diseases under control means a lot more than grabbing for a chemical spray - especially if you're an organic gardener. I've already raved on about why organic is better and why you should ditch chemical gardening practices. It's better for your soil, it's better for your little micro environment, and of course, it's better for you.

So how do you achieve this organic bliss? The answer is easy - instead of fighting nature, make nature work for you. It just requires a little planning beforehand.

Pests and diseases can be combated in the organic garden by breaking reproduction cycles, confusing pests - which keeps them away from your garden, getting good insects to eat your bad insects, getting other animals to eat your pests, and making your veggies and fruit unpalatable to pests.

Crop rotation

Cutting a long story short crop rotation is about moving your vegetables around your little patch each year. This way not only do you give your soil a rest from having specific nutrients depleted each year, you also help break the reproductive cycle of soil borne diseases and some pests (eg nematodes).

Companion planting

This is another one of those little organic miracles. By planting certain vegetables, or herbs, together you can ward away pests, plus boost your garden's growth.
One of the best known examples is planting onions and garlic with carrots (the allium's smell confuses pests, keeping them away from your carrots). Any organic vegetable gardener should make companion planting an important part of their planning.

Don't reintroduce disease back into your garden

This sounds pretty obvious but it's amazing how many gardeners slip up. Organic gardeners get fanatical about our compost - it's fantastic stuff, full of basic elements and packed with micronutrients and micro-organisms. But make sure your never put diseased plants in your compost bin or heap. All you'll end up doing is bringing the disease back into your garden. So toss diseased plants in the bin instead.

Beneficial insects

Get rid of bad insects with good insects. Confused? Don't be. There are many insects you can encourage into your garden that pray on pests, or use pests as the host for their young.
To get them into your garden try growing herbs with umbrella-style flowers like coriander, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne's Lace. Their flowers attract parasitic wasps (good wasps) that like laying their eggs into grubs, aphids and other pests in the garden. The eggs hatch, and the larvae feast on the host. Gruesome sounding stuff, but use it to your advantage.
These flowering herbs will also encourage ladybirds, which also enjoy chewing on aphids. If you sow your beneficial herb mix but still don't get any good insects, you might need to buy them in, try mail order, the Internet or even some nurseries.

Other beneficial friends

You can also keep down the number of insects in your garden with other animal friends. If you've got chickens or ducks you let them loose into your garden and can just about guarantee you'll have no snails or slugs left. Plus they'll dig up and eat other insect eggs on or just under the soil. But keep on eye on your feathered friends, as they'll start into your veggies too if you're not watching!
Or try turning to your natural environment and build a frog pond. Native frogs and toads can make their way into your veggie patch where they'll feast on your insect population (indiscriminately though!) But you can't go past their croaking in summer storms, or finding an amphibian acquaintance when you're out harvesting.

Pyrethrum - the big organic gun

When you want to indiscriminately (but organically) kill bugs you can't go past pyrethrum sprays. A sweet smelling flower extract (bought from nurseries) it should only be used on pests that you know (we've used it on aphids when our ladybird population was low.
But be warned, pyrethrum residue lingers for a number of weeks, so it can also kill beneficial or neutral insects that come by.

Deter pests with organic sprays

If you don't want to kill everything organically using pyrethrum, you can always deter plant eating pests using handmade organic sprays.
These are aimed at any leaf eating insects - grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, snails, slugs, etc, for almost all plants.
The idea is to create a foliar spray that will make the plant taste so terrible, the pests will go away and annoy your neighbors, leaving your vegetable patch alone. Not nice for your neighbors, but hopefully this'll help you convert them to organic gardening!
Try mixing water with a mix of crushed garlic, chili (hot pepper) or onion. You might need to water it down a bit, otherwise it might be so strong you mightn't want to eat your homegrown vegetables either!
Other gardeners swear by a mix of kelp (to help the veggies grow strong and fast) and neem oil - which apparently tastes terrible. Neem oil is a concentrated extract from the neem tree, native to India. We're currently trialing this spray in our garden, so we'll let you know how well it goes in the coming months. The only bad thing I can say about it at the moment is that it is not cheap. I guess we'll soon find out if you get what you pay for!

Don't forget with any spray you'll need to reapply it after rain, or if you water overhead with a sprinkler.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Invite Butterflies and Hummingbirds to your Garden

Butterflies and hummingbirds can add magic to any garden, and it's easy to invite them in. Just select the right plants - butterflies like bright colors while hummingbirds and butterflies both like blooms with plenty of nectar.

Easy-to-grow plants that attract pollinators include butterfly bushes, Rose of Sharon, and Weigela.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) is a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds. The sweet fragrance and bright summer flowers are appealing to people, too. Unfortunately, traditional butterfly bush varieties have a tendency to get overgrown and leggy. Regular pruning is often needed to keep them in check.

New Lo & Behold 'Blue Chip' Buddleia is a miniature butterfly bush with all the fragrance and butterfly appeal of older varieties but in a smaller package.

It stays just 24"-30" tall and wide without any pruning, and produces abundant lavender blue flowers from midsummer to frost. This continuously blooming butterfly magnet does not need deadheading, and makes a fantastic low-maintenance mass planting. A noninvasive hybrid, Blue Chip is perfect for anyone who wants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds but doesn't have space for a big plant. It can be incorporated into container gardens.

While not as petite as Blue Chip, 'Miss Ruby' is a compact new variety with intense flower color. Its vivid magenta flowers are richer and brighter than those of other varieties. Miss Ruby matures to approximately 4'-5' tall and wide, not as small as Blue Chip but much more manageable than the 6'-8' range of many older varieties.

These new varieties are easy to grow in full sun and are hardy to USDA Zone 5. Butterfly bushes tolerate most moist, well-drained soils. Buddleia may be trimmed back in later winter or early spring, although pruning is usually not necessary with these new varieties.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is another easy-to-grow plant that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. They bloom in mid- to late summer and are available in a wide variety of colors.

The pure white of White Chiffon is especially nice in the evening, while gardeners looking for deep color will appreciate the rich violet of Violet Satin.

Check out the assortment at www.provenwinners.com to see which variety best suits your color scheme. All Rose of Sharon varieties do best in full sun.

Weigela are even more diverse in size, shape, color and foliage. Wine & Roses is popular for attracting hummingbirds. Fine Wine is a smaller version of this favorite, and dwarf Midnight Wine is smaller yet.

My Monet is another miniature Weigela. Its green and white variegated leaves often blush pink to match its pink spring flowers. The chartreuse foliage on reblooming Ghost Weigela transforms to iridescent buttercream in late summer. Weigelas are fast-growing plants that thrive in full sun.

So instead of looking hard for butterflies and hummingbirds, choose these plants for your garden and sit back and enjoy the show!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Observant farmers and gardeners have long noted that certain crops or plants give higher yield or are stronger growing when grown with another plant as a companion. Recent research bears out some of the benefits of mixed plantings, as opposed to the practice of monoculture.
The long taproots of carrot-like herbs, such as caraway and angelica, serve to break up heavy soils for easier cultivation of fine rooted herbs or vegetables. Many herbs in the mint family repel insects by aromatic oils in the foliage or stems. Root excretions from certain plants can affect the growth of other plants.
Much research remains to be done on the symbiotic relationships among plants, both above and below the soil. However, your personal experience can be of value in learning what plant combinations can prove beneficial in your garden. Below are listed a few combinations that you can try.

Vegetable or fruit / Companion Herb / Benefit

Beans / Summer Savory / Improves flavor; deters bean beetles

Beets / Chives, Garlic / Improves growth

Broccoli / Nasturtium / Attracts aphids away from crop

Brussel Sprouts / Borage, Dill / Improves growth

Cabbage / Mints, Hyssop, Sage / Deters cabbage moth

Carrots / Sage, Chives / Sage deters carrot fly;
Chives improves growth

Cucumbers / Tansy / Deters striped cucumber beetle

Eggplant / Tarragon, Thyme / Improves growth

Fruit Trees / Chives, Southernwood / Chives protects against apple scab;
Southernwood repels fruit moth

Grapes / Hyssop / Increases yield of vines

Lettuce / Wormwood (at a distance) / Will deter animals from entering garden

Peppers / Marjoram, Lovage / Enhances flavor; improves growth

Potatoes / Horseradish / Helps crop resist disease

Radish / Chervil / Planted in alternate rows improves growth
and flavor

Raspberry / Rue / Deters Japanese beetles

Roses / Garlic, Chives / Increases fragrance

Squash, Pumpkins / Nasturtium, Tansy, Borage / Deters squash bug & striped pumpkin beetle

Strawberry / Borage / Improves flavor

Tomato / Basil / Improves growth and flavor

Combinations to avoid: Cabbage and strawberries; tomatoes and cabbage; rue and sweet basil; fennel and green beans, tomatoes; fennel hinders the germination of caraway and coriander; fennel disturbs the growth of tomatoes and green beans; wormwood inhibits the growth of fennel, sage, caraway, and anise.

Add to your compost pile: Comfrey is the ideal compost builder; Melon leaves add calcium; Stinging nettle stimulates humus formation; Tansy concentrates potassium; Valerian attracts earthworms.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


"Designer greens" are the rage for health-conscious Americans. These leafy mixes known as mesclun are not only low in calories and high in nutrition but also are very tasty.

History and Definition

A comparatively recent import from Provencal France is mesclun, the term for mixes of tender young lettuces and other greens. Purists and those from Provence might argue with our use of the word "mesclun" since our mesclun mixes are not grown in those warm southern fields of France and also because ours often go beyond the traditional greens. The Provencal tradition calls for chervil, arugula, lettuce and endive in precise proportions.
American mescluns may include lettuces, arugula, endives, mustards, purslane, chicory, cresses, parsleys, fennels, escarole and tender wild greens as well. Bibb, Romaine, oakleaf and crisphead lettuces, the four kinds of lettuce, often are all represented in popular mesclun blends. Lettuces are most common in the milder blends. Piquant, peppery mescluns include such things as sharp arugula, tangy mustards, spicy cresses and zesty chicory.
Mesclun may include varieties of greens that are comparatively unknown to American gardeners. Look for mizuna, a delicate, leafy green from Japan and tat-soi, another Asian green with sweet dark leaves. Cultivated French purslane, a succulent relative of our well-known garden weed, is a choice European salad ingredient that has tart, lemony leaves that are a rich source of Vitamin E plus Omega-3 fatty acids that are said to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Some eight to sixteen or more different plants may be used to meet our American tastes. Piquant and milder mixes are two main divisions of mesclun. The National Garden Bureau recommends planting piquant and milder mescluns in separate wide rows, then harvesting separately and mixing in proportions to suit the occasion, the meal and personal taste.
Even edible flowers or their petals--bachelor's buttons, calendulas, chive blossoms, marigolds, nasturtiums and violets--may be part of a mesclun mix. Mesclun seeds are blended to many tastes and appropriately called by such names as spring salad, stir-fry greens, Nicoise, piquant mix, Provencal, garnish mix and so forth. Rarely are seed packets simply labeled "mesclun."
Although the ingredients in mesclun are varied, all mescluns are noted for their tasty combinations of flavors, colors and textures. Mescluns include a rainbow of greens from light green to deep emerald, from deep reddish green to bronzy red to lime.


Lettuce (Lactuca sativa), cultivars of which are major components of mesclun seed mixes, is an annual or biennial member of the Chicorium tribe of the Compositae or daisy family. Lettuce is thought to have originated in central Asia. Lettuce has been cultivated and used as an herbal medicine as well as an edible since as early as 500 BC when it was known to be cultivated in the royal gardens of Persian monarchs. Thus, it is one of the oldest of our vegetables.
The four types of lettuce are looseleaf, cos (romaine), butterhead and crisphead. Easiest of all to grow are the looseleaf varieties which are the backbone of most mescluns. An old variety that is quite heat resistant is 'Oakleaf,' a handsome green lettuce with leaves that are distinctly like those of oaks. 'Prizehead' is a reddish-green variety known best for its crisp sweetness. 'Black Seeded Simpson' is a fast growing green leaf lettuce particularly suited to spring and fall crops.
A number of modern cultivars are descendants of the old-fashioned oakleaf variety. Red Oakleaf, a class of red leaf lettuces, will be as red as possible when grown in full sun. 'Red Sails' is a compact looseleaf lettuce known for its mild flavor and handsome reddish leaves. Another good red-green variety is 'Red Salad Bowl,' an oakleaf type that is bolt-resistant. These are a few of the better known looseleaf lettuces you may find in mesclun mixes.
Other composites commonly blended in mescluns are chicory (Chicorium intybus), which probably was originally native to Europe, and its close relative, endive (Chicorium endivia), which is thought to come from India. Best known of the chicories is the elegant radicchio with its red foliage swirled with pale green and white. Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) are another likely addition to mescluns.
The family Cruciferae, also known as the mustard family, is often well represented in mescluns by watercress (Nasturtium), arugula (Eruca), kale (Brassica) and mustards (Brassica). Other well-known members of this family include cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and turnips.
The herbs, parsley and fennel, also may be components of mesclun seed mixes. Both are representatives of the Unbelliferae or carrot family that also includes a number of other important herbs--dill, anise, caraway, chervil, lovage, coriander and angelica. The ubiquitous wildflower, Queen Anne's lace, or wild carrot, also is a member of this family. You can recognize members of this family by their umbrella-like flowers.
These are the major participants of modern American mesclun mixes. The National Garden Bureau also suggests other greens with more than a little mesclun potential. The young leaves of spinach (Spinacia oleracea) and chard (Beta vulgaris), both members of the Chenopodiaceae or goosefoot family, would bring special qualities to mescluns. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a member of the Portulacaceae family and best known as a garden weed, is available as refined garden cultivars and is another good addition to the mesclun mix.

Growing From Seeds, Site Planning and Preparation

Mesclun, like lettuce and its other leafy components, will grow best in soil that is rich, loamy and of good loose structure. Soils should be well draining and with a pH that is slightly acid to neutral. If the soil is heavy and loaded with clay, plant in slightly raised beds to improve drainage. Salad greens prefer a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Although some mesclun mixes include greens that are tolerant of heat, most are crops of cool mild weather and will grow in sun to partial shade. When growing mesclun during hot weather, choose a site that is shaded from hot afternoon sun for best results, or use shade cloth to provide shade.
The lettuces and other leafy greens of mesclun are shallow rooted and so will benefit from an inch or so of fine organic fertilizer or compost worked into the top few inches of garden soil before planting. When the seeds have germinated and the true leaves are growing, an additional top or side dressing of finely textured compost or organic fertilizer will encourage vigorous growth.
An area in the vegetable garden is not the only place to grow mesclun--not by a long shot. Mesclun is not only a nutritious addition to the kitchen garden, it also is a pretty crop and so can be used in ornamental gardens as well. The leaves are in a range of green shades and the textures are varied as well.
The National Garden Bureau notes that mesclun makes a handsome addition to an herb garden either as a border or when broadcast in a well-defined area. Mesclun also grows well in containers, making the leafy blends ideal for patio or terrace plantings in tubs and other containers. Once you have grown mesclun, you will quickly appreciate its ornamental assets--let your imagination be your guide in site selection. Care for this simple but elegant short-lived crop is just as easy in ornamental beds or containers as it is in vegetable gardens.

Timing To Grow

Mesclun is certainly one of the easiest of all garden crops to grow. Sow the seeds and then begin to harvest the baby leaves in one to five weeks, depending upon the season and the temperature of air and soil. Lettuce and the other leafy greens of mesclun mixes grow swiftly, therefore you should plan to make successive plantings of the seed mixes throughout the growing season. Generally, if you plant mesclun seed mixes every ten days to two weeks from spring through fall, you will have mesclun for salads and stir-fry dishes all season long.
Seeds will germinate in cool weather, even as low as 40º F. Although the lettuces will grow at their best when temperatures are in the 60s, you can get good early growth by providing afternoon shade and constant soil moisture.
Even in regions with long cold winters, you can lengthen the growing season for mescluns to practically all year with grow lights, greenhouses, cold frames, row covers, water tunnels and other season extenders. Fresh home-grown greens in the middle of the snowy season would be a wonderful treat.

Sowing Seed

Plant mesclun seed about one to two weeks before the last frost date. Check with your local Master Gardeners or Extension Agents to see what that date is in your region. Another way to know when it is time to sow the seeds of semihardy mescluns is to monitor the soil temperature. When the soil temperature at a depth of two to three inches is between 32 and 40º F, you can plant mesclun seed as well as spinach, cabbage, carrots and radishes. Salad gardens are tough! Keep the mesclun bed moist but not soggy.
Mesclun seed packets say that the seed will germinate in six to fourteen days. That would be under cool soil conditions because the seeds will germinate in only three to four days when sown in the late summer in the Midwest when day temperatures are about 85º F and night temperatures are about 65º F. If night temperatures are 80º F or above do not sow mesclun seed. It is too hot for germination. Wait until day and night temperatures decline.
Make sure that soil is moist before sowing seeds. If sowing in rows, make a furrow 1/4 inch deep, sow seed, then cover furrow. If you sow wide rows or areas, simply scatter the seeds, then cover them with about 1/4-inch fine soil or compost. Keep seeded areas moist.
One final word on sowing mesclun mixes: Since many mescluns are a blend of several kinds of seeds, be sure to gently shake the seed package to mix the seeds. Otherwise, your greens might grow in slightly segregated fashion.

Growing On

Since mesclun is harvested when the leaves are small, young and tender, soil preparation prior to sowing seed is perhaps the most important factor for this tasty crop. A constant supply of soil moisture is extremely important when growing salad crops, including mesclun mixes. It is very important to time supplemental waterings so that the soil stays constantly moist but not soggy.
Mesclun greens will not be at their tender and tasty best if they are subjected to wet soil/dry soil extremes. Soil extremes encourage bolting and bitterness as lettuces begin to mature. These extremes also discourage the rapid growth that is a key to taste and texture in leafy crops.
Since harvest takes place when the plants are young, small and tender, you do not have to thin crowded seedlings as you might when growing lettuces and other greens in the usual way. Instead, begin cutting the leaves as soon as the plants are about two inches tall.


Mesclun is at its crispy peak when picked early in the morning before the sun is strong. Heat causes the leafy plants to wilt. If you must harvest mesclun during the heat of the day, be sure to allow time to crisp the leaves in cool water before serving.
Use scissors to harvest mesclun greens, beginning when they are only a couple of inches high and never let it get more than six inches tall. When you do this, the crop will continue to grow. Cut-and-come-again crops like mesclun and leaf lettuces are rare. Mesclun will make an attractive border to a perennial bed and, if you harvest with scissors rather than pulling the plants, they will regrow quickly. Cut leaves just above the growing crowns. Since some of the greens grow more quickly than others, the exact proportions of your mesclun salads will vary from harvest to harvest. Also harvest the mild and piquant mescluns separately. Blend according to taste in the kitchen or even at the table.
While mescluns are best suited to cool weather, they can be kept growing during hot summer weather by frequent planting and prompt harvest. The hotter it is, the more shade should be provided, especially in the afternoon when the heat is at its maximum.
To enjoy long harvests with each crop of mesclun, be sure to keep it cut and watered. Planting a crop of mesclun every ten days to two weeks also will extend the season. For gardeners who live in areas that have cold winters, an easy way to lengthen the harvest season in both spring and fall is to grow early and late mesclun crops in cold frames or with row covers.


Once mesclun is harvested, rinse the leaves in cool water to remove any dust or dirt. Then examine the greens for weeds or interlopers and drain on towels or pat dry. If you spin-dry the greens, be sure to use them immediately since this process bruises the leaves and they will go limp quickly. Mesclun and other greens are best when used right away. If you can't serve mesclun at once, wrap the leaves gently in slightly damp towels, seal in a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator. If carefully handled and stored properly, greens should stay tasty and fresh for several days. If recently harvested mesclun becomes slightly wilted, it will take up moisture and revive in cool water. Crisping will take ten to fifteen minutes.

Eating Qualities

The taste of mesclun will depend upon the mix of plants in the blend since mesclun is, in a sense, a salad stew that may include the mildest of lettuces as well as the most peppery of cresses. Indeed, it is possible for each mouthful of mesclun to have a different taste. Mesclun textures will be tender and smooth to slightly crunchy.
Many gardeners choose to pick mesclun just before they eat, serving it simply with only a bit of light vinaigrette dressing. Harvested while still very young, the small leaves combine with simple salad dressing to make scrumptious summer salads. When stir-fried or wilted in a bit of butter or hot oil, mesclun makes a delicious addition to fresh vegetable dishes or pastas. Mesclun is a treat for the eye as well as the palate. The colors reach through all shades of green to reddish greens and bronzes. Textures may be soft and rounded or crackling with sharp, serrated edges. Leaf forms range from simple and entire to all degrees of cutleaf shapes and even fernlike growth.
Mesclun originated in the south of France. The name derives from the Nicois word mesclumo (a mixture). The traditional mixture includes various kinds of both wild and cultivated endive (chicory), lamb's lettuce and dandelion. Arugula, groundsel, chervil, salsify, purslane, oak leaf lettuce and other greens also might be included. The French season their mesclun with vinaigrette made of olive oil and flavored with fines herbes, garlic and even anchovies, according to Jenifer Harvey Lang in her Larousse Gastronomique.
Most Americans prefer using mild light dressings on mescluns so as not to hide the delicate flavors of the greens. Some seed houses mix the seeds according to the season rather than the flavor. Thus, there may be mesclun mixes for hot weather, for mild seasons and for cool seasons. Study the different catalogs to see which you prefer.


During warm weather when days are long, lettuce and other leafy salad plants tend to develop seed stalks, the leaves get progressively bitter and tough. The key to good mesclun is to begin to harvest when the plants are two inches tall and harvest all leaves before they get much bigger than a couple of inches. Obviously, this eliminates the problem of bolting. If plants do bolt, remove from garden.
Make successive plantings and harvest young plants. Wide-row planting and sowing small areas rather than single rows of plants also will reduce tendencies that the plants may have to bolt--the thickly growing plants shade the ground, keeping the roots cool.


Home gardeners can easily grow the healthful, tasty blends of gourmet green often called mesclun mixes. Those who buy greens do not find the same kind of nutritional quality and tasty freshness that gardeners can bring to their tables.
The National Garden Bureau reports that looseleaf lettuces, a major constituent of most mescluns, are just loaded with Vitamin A and also are high in potassium. Yet they contain a negligible number of calories. An average portion (100 grams) contains 1,900 international units of Vitamin A and 264 milligrams of potassium. A portion also contains 18 milligrams of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).
Chicory greens, another common ingredient in mesclun seed mixes, also are low in calories and high in nutritional value. An average portion (100 grams) contains only 20 calories but has 4,000 international units of Vitamin A, 420 milligrams of potassium and 22 milligrams of ascorbic acid.
Mesclun greens also contain appreciable amounts of calcium and phosphorus. A water content of over 90 percent plus low calories and high nutritional values make mesclun a tasty salad treat that more than meets the requirements of even the most health-conscious individuals. Freshly picked mesclun will be at its tastiest and will contain the most nutrients.

Thanks to the National Garden Bureau and Barbara Perry Lawton for this article. The NGB has made 2009 the Year of Mesclun and Petunia, so go and enjoy these two great plants. Also for more information on the National Garden Bureau, please visit their web site at www.ngb.org!


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Plant Genealogy

Some people think all new varieties are hybrids. This is not true. There are new flowers and vegetables introduced each year that are open pollinated (OP) varieties. To understand the difference between a hybrid and an open pollinated variety, think of plant genealogy. An open pollinated plant has one parent; a hybrid has two parents. In simplest terms, hybrid seed can be defined as the seed that results from the cross-pollination of two inbred parent plants. Open pollinated varieties, by contrast, have only one parent line.

Many seeds being offered for sale in packets, mail order and at nurseries are F1 hybrids but there are a number of classes where this method of hybridization does not work. New varieties are created by a plant breeder. When a breeder has uniform, genetically stable inbred plants, he or she can consider creating new hybrids. To produce hybrid seed, pollen is moved, often by hand, but possibly by insects or the wind, from the anthers of one inbred plant (male) and placed on the stigma of the second inbred plant (female). The seed that grows as a result of this pollination is 'hybrid seed'. Hybrids are often the preferred type of a variety for a number of reasons. The hybrid parents are chosen to complement each other and/or compensate for each other's flaws, creating a new variety that is better than the best qualities of each of the parents. Hybrids tend to be very uniform, have better seed quality, and they can be more vigorous plants. Many show other aspects of improved performance such as earlier or more sustained flowering, larger flowers, or in vegetables earlier or larger fruits.

Most large-scale production of F1 hybrid seed is produced in greenhouses or enclosed shade houses. The female flower plants are grown on greenhouse benches and workers place the selected pollen on the receptive female. This control of the cross-pollination is critical for hybrid seed production. The production structures are enclosed or sealed so that no bees or other pollen carrying insects enter the structure. In certain cases the creation of hybrid seed is not feasible for several reasons. First, the biology of the plant or the flower configuration are designed for self-pollination resulting in open pollinated plants.

In other cases the cost of creating a hybrid plant is prohibitive and the hybrids may not be notably superior. For example, Salvia splendens hybrids were created, offered by several companies, and are no longer sold because the hybrids were not noticeably improved over open pollinated plants.

Open pollinated flowers or vegetables are often easier and faster to breed and produce. Breeders create new varieties by selecting "parent" plants by repeatedly self-pollinating a particular plant and its resulting progeny over several generations. For instance, a plant breeder may find a plant with an interesting or unique characteristic, either growing in the greenhouse or perhaps even growing in the wild. The breeder would pollinate this plant and grow out large numbers of the second generation as this is where the most variations occur and good combinations of characteristics from the parents are sometimes found. Normally a number of selections are made in the greenhouse and outdoors. To make sure that the variety is true to type, the best individual plants are chosen, these are self-pollinated, and the whole process is repeated from as few as three to possibly eight or more times.

Production of OP varieties often takes place in acres of fields where thousands of plants are grown. Bees may be provided to enhance pollination, and seed may be harvested by hand or with specialized equipment. The only obstacle is that each variety or color must be produced at a location distant from other varieties or colors so that cross-pollination contamination does not occur.

Once the variety has been developed, named and introduced, the work has not ended. Some classes of OP flowers or vegetables need to be very closely watched as they can become quite variable for plant or flower type. Continuous stock seed maintenance is very important to maintain good quality.

When a promising line has been developed it is then tested under various climatic conditions. Outstanding varieties may be considered for entry in the All-America Selections or Fleuroselect (European) trials.

WHAT ARE ORGANIC SEEDS? We have received inquiries about organic seed. We offer this explanation. They are seeds harvested from plants that have been grown without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Also organic seeds are not treated with any fungicide or other synthetic chemical (after harvesting) prior to sale. Organic seed is sold through retail outlets and mail-order catalogs. Some organic seeds are sold as Certified Organic Seeds. Certified seed is seed that has been certified by an independent organization that says the seed meets specific organic standards established by the organization. There are many different certifying organizations in the U.S. and internationally including Oregon Tilth (www.tilth.org) and California Certified Organic Farmers (www.ccof.org).


Monday, May 11, 2009


Short on space? Renting? Living in an apartment? Answer yes to one of these questions and container gardening might be for you. But container gardening doesn't necessarily mean you can only grow flowers. There is an incredible variety of vegetables you can grow in pots.

Many times you will see people growing vegetables in half whiskey barrels. They're ideal because they're reasonably deep enough for some root crops. Of course you can really use just about anything. The conventional - terra cotta (or fake terra cotta) ---- to the unusual - 44 gallon drums cut in half, bath tubs, kid's wading pools, even old boots. You just need to make sure your container has adequate drainage by either drilling a hole in the bottom or filling the bottom of the container with rocks or old broken clay pots.

Use a quality potting mix as it’s designed for good drainage. Ordinary garden soil will compact too heavily and limit root growth, so avoid the temptation to use it. Unless you're growing root crops or onions you can also add some composted manure, blood and bone meal to the container. If you're growing onions, legumes (beans, peas) or brassicas (cabbage, broccoli) add some lime or dolomite to sweeten the soil. Throw in a smidgeon of sulphate of potash if you're growing veggies which flower, like tomatoes, chili’s, eggplants, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchinis, melons, sweet corn. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back!

When you're choosing your containers there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. Use light rather than dark colored containers to reduce heat absorption. This will put less stress on your vegetables. If you want your pots to have an attractive terra cotta look you should consider plastic fake terra cotta. Its lighter and the pot won't dry out quickly like real terra cotta. Remember whatever type of container you choose, water will be used quicker in potting mix compared to soil. So you'll need to water your containers regularly. During summer heat waves they'll need watering twice a day.

Watering containers regularly creates a problem. Nutrients in the enriched potting mix are gradually leached out. So to keep your plants healthy you should water them weekly and sprinkle in some good old 5-10-5 fertilizer. It is organic and safe for both you and your plants

The next big question is what vegetables can you grow in containers? Almost all of them. There's only one thing that determines what veggies you can grow in containers, and that’s the size of the container. Basically, the deeper the container, the greater the variety of vegetables you can grow. Deep containers let you grow a greater variety of root crops like carrots and parsnips. However, you should still be able to grow baby carrots in shallower containers. Deep containers also let you drive down big stakes to support 6 feet tall tomato plants and should also accommodate sweet corn. You can still get around these problems even with a container depth of about 8 inches. It’s all about choosing the right variety of vegetable. For example grow low bush cherry tomatoes or dwarf tomatoes that don't need a large stake. Have a look through those seed catalogues you received over the winter or do a bit of research to find the variety best suited for your containers, then head off to your local garden center with your list. The more research you do, the better your bounty will be.

For those with little space for growing, you can supplement your food budget in these economic times by growing your own vegetables, plus you have the added benefit of knowing they are pesticide free.

Now get outside and get growing!


Monday, May 4, 2009


A revised version of the USDA Hardiness Zone map will be released later this year according to recent reports. The color-coded map, found on the backs of seed packets and in garden magazines and on websites, shows the average annual minimum temperatures for the USA. Across the country, those average minimal temperatures have been slowly rising. For an interesting visual on how the zones and general warming patterns have changed between 1990 and 2006, visit www.arborday.org/media/mapchanges.cfm.

Adding Vertical Movement to your Garden

As many of you know one of my favorite perennials for the garden is Ornamental Grasses. They add upright habit in the garden, the gentle swaying of the leaves add motion, and the soft rustling of the leaves calms even the most upset soul. I am going to list a few of my favorites today, but if you live in Northern NJ, stop by the James A. McFaul Environmental Center in Wyckoff and visit the Ornamental Grass Garden (something I created many years ago) to see the actual plants and their growing habits.

We will start this journey with the grasses that are green for most of the growing season, but deserve recognition for either their fall foliage color or their flower structure. The first is Briza media (Quaking grass). This 12" specimen will work well into the front of your border and in June you will be pleasantly surprized by the heart-shaped seed pods which are 12'' above the foliage. As the common name suggests, with the slightest breeze the seed heads "quake" and give animation to the garden. Chasmanthium latifolium (Northern Sea Oats) is also known for its seed heads, but more importantly it is a native grass that will thrive in a partialy shaded area of your garden. It grows to 30" and will reward you with excellent dried flowers for your arrangements. One word of caution: Northern Sea Oats can be a relentless self-seeder, so diligence is a must! Deschampsia caespitosa (Tufted Hair Grass) is a 12" clump growing grass which will reach 30" in height in flower. This grass is used for a visual tie in the front of your border, never interfering with the rest of your planting but always letting you know it is there. Panicum clandestinum (Deer Tongue Grass) is a 3 - 4' native that will tolerate shade. The wide leaves of this plant will give the garden the feel of bamboo without the running rhizomes to worry about. Micanthus sinensis purpurescens (Flame Grass) grows to 4 - 5'. While this grass has the telltale flower plumes of Miscanthus, the common name will say it all; it turns a bright red in the fall and will turn your head to that section of your property, not only to that section of your garden. Finally in the green is the ever popular Fountain grass of which I have two favorites; Pennisetum alopecuroides "Moudry" (Black Flowering Fountain Grass) and Pennisetum alopecuroides "Little Bunny" (Little Bunny Dwarf Fountain Grass). Black flowering fountain grass is 24" tall and has unusually dark colored seed heads in late summer/early fall. Little Bunny is 6" tall in flower and should be planted in mass so it will not get lost in your garden. Both plants have the characteristic fountain grass seed head, with Little Bunny's being only 1" long instead of 6 - 12" of the normal fountain grass.

In the blue spectrum I have four grasses that are worthwhile. The first is Agropyron megallanicum (Blue Wheat Grass). This 12" plant has a silvery-blue color which will work well when cross-planted with Artemesia "Silver Mound". The blue that you will most likely see at your local garden center will be that of the Blue Fescue, Festuca cinerea. The best cultivar of this is "Elijah Blue". Its powdery blue color and clumping habit will make this a necessity in any garden. The third blue is Helichtotrichon sempervirens (Blue Oat Grass). This 24" plant has the same silvery blue as the wheatgrass, but it is taller and more upright. A massing of Blue oat grass will attract your eye to that part of the garden that may be colorless in between flowering periods of other perennials. Panicum virgatum "Heavy Metal" (Heavy Metal Switch Grass) is a stiff, upright grass that will grow to 4 - 5' and has a metallic blue color. Just as with the flame grass, Heavy Metal will draw your eyes to that section of your property.

There are two red grasses that can be mentioned; one is Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron" (Japanese Blood Grass). This plant can be used for massing, where its red coloration will be a good border plant, especially in front of green conifers. This 12" plant does need full sun for good coloration, and it can also be a tad finicky in the winter, so don't believe the Zone 5 classification. The second is Pennisetum rubrum (Red Fountain Grass), an annual that has red foliage and flower spikes, the latter will turn a cream color in the fall. This plant will grow to 24" tall.

Variegated varieties of ornamental grasses only seem to add to the wonder of them. A perfect example of this is Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret' (Cabaret Japanese Silver Grass), which has wide, ribbon-like foliage with milky white striped centers. It grows to 6' tall and is topped by copper colored flowers in mid September. "Cabaret" does need to be cut down in the fall, since this particular variety is notorius for shedding it's leaves all over the place. Carex hachiojensis 'Evergold' (Evergold Japanese Sedge) is distinguished by bright creamy yellow, center striped leaves with an arching habit. This 12 - 16" plant will brighten any shady area in your garden, whether planted as a specimen or in mass. The bright yellow - green linear stripe along light green leaves gives Alopecurus pratensis var. aureus (Yellow Foxtail Grass) an almost lime green appearance. The 6-8" Yellow Foxtail makes a good filler and spiller, especially mixed in with spring bulbs. Miscanthus sinensis 'strictus' (Porcupine Grass) has unique horizontal golden banding that will grow to 4'.

So next time you are at a Garden Center looking for plant material, keep ornamental grasses in the back of your head as well. A good garden needs more than just an explosion of color!


Friday, April 10, 2009

The 21st Century Victory Garden

During World War II, experienced and first-time gardeners in urban, suburban, and rural areas planted vegetable gardens to grow produce. Many turned over patches of lawn to create gardens large enough to feed their families through the summer and, sometimes, to preserve some for winter use. Back in the '40s, people tended their victory gardens basically for their own use and to share the overabundant bounty with neighbors.
The 21st century victory garden expands the original intent to include an extra row or bed you plant specifically to share-with those who need the nutrition that fresh vegetables provide but lack the means to grow their own. Plant a row, or more, for the hungry and distribute the produce to a nearby soup kitchen or food bank.

Planning Your Garden

No matter what size garden you decide on, take the best advantage of the area. Wide beds-about 3 feet across-are better than rows because you cut down on the number of paths you need, especially important in a small garden. Vegetables need full sun, so select a site with a southern exposure. Plan to put tall vegetables, such as tomatoes and trellised vining crops, on the north side of the garden so they do not shade other plants.
In addition to familiar, traditional vegetables, try a few newer ones to expand your culinary possibilities: Bok choy, Japanese eggplant, jalapeno or other hot peppers, and herbs such as Thai basil, Mexican mint marigold, and cilantro. Plan for success by selecting easy vegetables you sow directly in the garden.

Five Sure-Fire Vegetables

The following five vegetables are among the easiest to start from seed sown into prepared garden soil outdoors. With regular watering and nutrient rich soil, they produce bumper harvests.


Gardeners can grow beans that are small bushes or pole beans that will climb 6 to 8 feet. Warm weather vegetables, beans do not germinate well in cold soil; wait until late spring to sow them. Pole beans produce over a longer period of time than bush beans, and they occupy no more space because they grow best twining up trellises or bamboo tepees. Sow thinly in blocks in a wide bed, along the base of a trellis, or around each pole of a tepee. Sow bush beans in rows or blocks. Rows can be about 2 feet apart. To harvest bush beans more easily, stick a few twiggy tree or shrub prunings in the bed when you sow to keep the slightly vining stems upright. For a longer harvest, sow bush beans every 3 to 4 weeks until midsummer. Add color to the garden with a selection of beans with green, purple, and yellow pods.


Both slicing and pickling cucumbers are warm-weather crops, and both produce an abundance of fruit. To save space, grow cukes on a trellis or in a cage instead of letting them sprawl on the ground (fruit turns out straighter as well). In late spring, sow seeds sparingly and thin seedlings to sit about 1 foot apart. Guide the plants onto the trellis as they begin to put out tendrils. Keep plants watered well through the season. Harvest fruit often and when it is small (length depends on variety, anywhere from 4 to 8 inches long). If you want to grow pickling cucumbers, be forewarned: two to three plants suffice, and you may find it difficult to keep up with the harvesting!


One of the cool-weather vegetables, peas grow best as an early spring or a fall crop. Sow this short-vining vegetable in blocks or in double rows with a short trellis, or pea fencing, in between the rows to make harvesting easier. Grow sweet snap peas, snow peas, or shelling (English-type) peas. Harvest the pods of the first two when small to eat whole, cooked or raw; shell the mature pods of snap and shelling peas. If you plant a row to give to a soup kitchen, stick with snap or snow peas, which make preparation faster for the cooks!


Surely the easiest vegetable to grow, radishes mature in 25 to 28 days. Because there are only so many radishes a family can eat at one time, sow seeds sparingly, two to three times ten days apart in spring and again late summer. Instead of devoting an entire row to them, sow the seeds with other veggies, such as beets and squash. The radishes will be ready to harvest before the others need the space. Skip midsummer sowing unless you particularly enjoy hot radishes.

Summer Squash

Like cucumbers, summer squash plants produce copious amounts of fruit. Unlike cucumbers (and winter squash), summer squash grows as a bush, not a vine, but it needs space for its mature spread of 3 to 4 feet. Sow a hill, or group, of 3 to 4 seeds, spacing the hills 3 to 4 feet apart. When seedlings reach 2 to 3 inches tall, thin each hill to the two strongest plants. Four to six plants feed a family of four very generously. Towards midsummer (mid-August), make a couple of new plantings if you have an empty bed. Summer squash grows as well in a flower border as in a vegetable garden; the foliage is striking until it begins to yellow near the end of the season.

Plant a Row

Plant A Row for the Hungry began as a grass roots program, which, under the auspices of the Garden Writers Association of America, continues to expand. Last year it was responsible for providing more than 1 million pounds of fresh produce to food banks, soup kitchens, and other organizations feeding the hungry across the country. According to Jim Wilson, former co-host of PBS's Victory Garden as well as an author and lecturer, the need for fresh produce now is just as great as it was during WWII-the changing economy has hit not only the ordinary working person but also the processors that food banks traditionally rely on for contributions. Those contributions were down 40 percent last year, while the demand continues to increase.

You really can make a difference if you plant an extra row or two for the sole purpose of donating the harvest to the hungry. Increase the impact by getting your neighbors involved. For information on how to start your own PAR program or to find local food pantries, check out the PAR site managed by GWAA at www.gwaa.org/par or call toll-free 877-GWAA-PAR.

Vegetables and Herbs for a Victory Garden

brussels sprouts
bush beans
summer squash
swiss chard
sweet corn

Making the Most of Your Space

Harvest more than once from the same row or bed by making use of techniques such as interplanting and succession planting. Follow vegetables that grow best in cool weather, such as radishes and lettuce, with warm-weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. Purchase bedding plants of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

A few winning combinations:

* radishes and summer squash
* lettuce and peppers or tomatoes
* lettuce and pole beans
* peas and cucumbers
* beans and sweet corn
* beans, sweet corn, and pumpkins

Patriotic Flower Flourishes

Show off your victory garden by surrounding the beds or the perimeter of the garden with a border of red, white, and blue flowers. Bring a few bunches of the cut flowers with you when you drop off vegetables at a food pantry or soup kitchen; as Jim Wilson says, "they help brighten the tables." Try a few of these combinations based on AAS Winners: (Note: Plant height in parentheses)
* Salvia coccinea 'Lady in Red' (18"-24")
* Zinnia 'Profusion White' (10"-12")
* Verbena 'Novalis Deep Blue' (8")
* Zinnia 'Scarlet Ruffles' (2'-3')
* Zinnia 'Profusion White' (10"-12")
* Eustoma 'Forever Blue' (8"-10")
* Snapdragon 'Rocket Red' (3')
* Shasta Daisy 'Snow Lady' (10")
* Eustoma 'Forever Blue' (8"-10")
* Vinca 'Jaio Scarlet Eye' (12")
* Nierembergia 'Mont Blanc' (5"-6")
* Verbena 'Novalis Deep Blue' (8")
* Celosia 'Prestige Scarlet' (12"-17")
* Shasta Daisy 'Snow Lady' (10")
* Verbena 'Novalis Deep Blue' (8")
* Snapdragon 'Rocket Red' (3')
* Snapdragon 'Rocket White' (3')
* Eustoma 'Forever Blue' (8"-10")

A special thank you to the National Gardening Bureau for their use of this article. Please feel free to visit their website www.ngb.org for more useful and informative articles!


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

LOVAGE (Levisticum officinale)

Lovage happens to be one of my favorite herbs that I grow in my garden. For years I tried to grow celery, but the summer heat just wilted the plants before I could harvest them. I then stumbled onto lovage at Well Sweep Herb Farm in New Jersey and have been a big fan ever since.
Lovage is the tallest of the umbellifers, reaching a height of over 6 feet, and makes an attractive back-of-the border plant (which is a great idea to incorporate edibles in with your landscape plantings). All parts of the plant are useful in the kitchen, making it a worthwhile plant to keep. This herb was once thought to be an aphrodisiac, and was used by witches in their love potions.
Lovage looks and smells a lot like overgrown celery. The taste is similar to celery but I would say it is a little more bitter the further into the season you go. It has bright green, hand shaped leaves and thickly ridged hollow stems. The flowers, which bloom in mid- to late summer, are small, yellow, and formed in umbrella-like clusters. The seeds are flat, oval, and deeply ridged. The usual height is about 3-5 feet, but it can grow over 6 feet tall.
Lovage is one of the few herbs that tolerates shade, and it grows equally well in full sun. It will last several years if well cared for, and after about 4 years when it becomes too woody the roots can be used as a vegetable after the bitter skin has been removed.
It grows well in climates where it can receive a period of dormancy in winter. Sow indoors in late summer and retain only the best seedlings. One or two plants will provide enough of this herb for even the largest family. Keep the plants well watered in fall and spring. Water deeply to encourage deep root development, and take special care that young plants are never allowed to dry out.
The plants will die out in winter. In areas of hard frost, mulch the roots to protect against freezing.
Cut the stems and the foliage for drying in autumn. They are somewhat slow to dry, depending on the weather. Cut stalks of seedheads and hang to dry. When cutting, take care not to damage the center of growth.
Leaves may be used to flavor soups, casseroles, sauces and marinades. It may also be lightly cooked as a green vegetable. The stems can be candied as you would angelica, and the seeds are used to flavor baked goods. The roots can be peeled and used as a vegetable.
Give lovage a try. If you are a fan of celery, there is nothing better than lovage in your own garden.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Spring Time Question

Hi! My name is Angie, and my husband's name is Joe. We just became first time homeowners this winter in Ohio. Up until now we've both lived in apartments since graduating high school 13 yrs ago-We haven't had a yard to take care of. We have a fairly small yard (1/3 acre) & all of a sudden we're wondering what we should be doing with it this spring! As the snow melted & it started to warm up we both noticed that our yard looks a little worse than the neighbors. It has more yellowish areas & there are some very small bare patches (the previous owners had a dog, so we're thinking the dog had something to do with that). I'm pretty sure that many of the neighbors have lawn care services, which we're not interested in right now. I'm pretty opposed to using many chemicals on the lawn, if any at all. Personally, I think that absolutely perfect grass lawns looks a little weird. I want our lawn to look nice, but it certainly doesn't have to be perfect. My husband was thinking of putting on some sort of crab grass control chemical this spring, but he told me that if I could come up with a chemical free alternative soon then we'd do that instead. I did a google search, which led me to your blog. I read the post on August 27 about chemical free crab grass control & it was really helpful. Since we're so new to this, I was just wondering if you had any advice you could give me about spring lawn care & what we should be doing right now (especially about the small bare areas). I would really appreciate it!

Thanks so much!


Thanks for the question. I hope you don't mind me posting this, but unfortunately this is something many home owners are facing, so I figured the more people we can help, the better!

1). Yes the yellow spots are from the previous owners' dog, and unfortunately the only thing that can be done for that is to irrigate it well to deplete the "Hot" nitrogen (urea) from the soil. Good thing is it sounds like you've had a snowy winter, so as the snow melts, it is flushing the urea from the soil naturally. Also depending on if the dog was familiar with that area of the property, an application of lime will also help reduce the acidity of the soil.

2). Congratulations on going organic. If you visit my web site, www.thegardeningguru.com and go half way down the home page, you will see something called "The Organic Lawn Care Manual". This booklet will explain how to have an organic lawn that will actually look better than the chemically treated lawn, and you can feel safer walking barefoot on your lawn.

3). Organic crabgrass / weed control is done by using corn gluten, a by product of the corn industry. It does the same thing as a chemical does, which it puts down a barrier on the soil so when the plants germinate, it kills them. Now remember that since this is organic, you will not have 100% control. My suggestion is to apply this product before April 15th or before the forsythia flowers fade, and again in October. You will notice the amount of weeds and crabgrass will slowly decline, so be patient -- it will take a few years. But hey, having a few weeds isn't the end of the world!

So basically for right now, when the soil dries out enough, give it a good raking to remove the debris from winter, apply corn gluten to areas where you don't need to seed (corn gluten will also inhibit grass seeds from germinating). Where you are seeding an application of 5-10-5 (basic garden fertilizer which is organic) will be just fine. Also check your garden center and see if they carry Jonathan Green products. The have chemical as well as organic lawn fertilizers, and their seed is kickin' (best germination and purity % in the business). For what type of seed you need, check out the manual.

Good Luck and remember -- A bad day in the garden is still better than a good day at work!


Friday, March 20, 2009

Well it is about time!

Happy Spring to one and all, even though it may not even feel like spring where you live. I just saw this article in the NY Times on how the Presdient and First Lady are planting a vegetable garden at the White House. Good for them! This is the first vegetable garden going in at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt's Victory Garden. Read the story here:


And while you are at it, start thinking and planting your vegetable garden, and remember when you have way too many tomatoes to possibly eat, bring the extra to your local food bank. Any donations of fresh fruits and vegetables are greatly appreciated. Also check out the Garden Writers "Plant A Row" for the hungry web page at


Remember, every little bit helps, especially in these economic times!

Have a great weekend!


Monday, March 16, 2009

The Best Tool For Your Garden: The Spade

My best friend in the garden happens to be my spade (well, sometimes it can be my feline friend Cyd or Cliff). Now granted I have quite a few hand tools and other assorted goodies, but no matter where I go or what job I am about to do, I always have my trusted spade with me. It is a $70 spade, appropriately called The King of Spades. It weighs at least 5 pounds and is solid, one piece construction all the way through. I use it to dig as well as chop, slice and dice. If you are just beginning in the gardening addiction, a spade is one of the first tools you purchase as well as a shovel, trowel, rake, spading fork, and hoe.

There are a couple of things to look for when purchasing tools, and, just like your father told you a thousand times, you get what you pay for. Don’t be lured into the $10 tools, because they will surely break just when you need them the most. Now I’m not suggesting that you spend $70 on one tool like I did, but try to stay in the middle of the road with price. On the tool itself, look for quality construction. A spot weld will not hold as long as a welded strip. Handles that stop at the point where the collar begins will not be as strong as if the handle went through to the bottom of the tool. Also check the flexibility of the tool, such as a spade. The thinner the blade, the more effort you will have to exert to cut a root or dig around a rock.

Now as far as maintenance goes, simply brush off any soil that may accumulate after using, and before you store it for the winter, use a wire brush to remove any leftover soil and possible surface rust, then give it a light coating of oil to help protect it in the winter months. Also if the tools have wooden handles, give them a coating of linseed oil to help preserve and protect (your hands) for many years to come. When spring start knocking on your door, wipe off any excess oil that still may be on the blade of the spade, then look at the flat end of the spade for any divets or dents. If so, grab a metal file and sharpen to a 45 degree angle. This will be good for slicing and dicing. Too much of a sharp angle and it will lose its sharpness very quickly.

Keep these few tips in mind when purchasing and maintaining your tools, and they should last a lifetime.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Coming to a naturalized area near you - the first flower of spring!

Eastern Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus

Now I am sure you are scratching your head wondering why I would list skunk cabbage when there are sooo many more pleasing flowers of spring? Well, this blog is also an educational blog, so I am going to teach you about this unusual flower and try to get you to say "WOW" or "HMMMM".

As some point in our lives, we have all seen what skunk cabbage looks like. Its leaves are large, 16-22 inches long and 12-16 inches wide. It flowers early in the year; the flowers are produced in a 2-4 inches long spadix contained within a spathe, 4-6 inches tall and mottled purple in colour (actually very attractive if you get close and look!). It flowers in the early spring, when only the flowers are visible above the mud, with the stems buried below and the leaves emerging later. The rhizome is often 12 inches thick.

Breaking or tearing a leaf produces a pungent odor, hence the'skunk' in the common name. The plant is not poisonous to the touch. Though unpleasant, the smell is not harmful. The foul odor attracts its pollinators, scavenging flies, stoneflies, and bees. The odor in the leaves may also serve to discourage large animals from disturbing or damaging this plant which grows in soft wetland soils. I have seen where deer have eaten the flowers when nothing else was around, but hey, deer will eat anything when there is nothing else to eat!

Now here is the really cool part of this plant. Skunk cabbage is notable for its ability to generate temperatures of up to 15-35°C above air temperature by cyanide resistant cellular respiration in order to melt its way through frozen ground, placing it among a small group of plants exhibiting thermogenesis. Although flowering while there is still snow and ice on the ground it is successfully pollinated by early insects that also emerge at this time. Some studies suggest that beyond allowing the plant to grow in icy soil, the heat it produces may help to spread its odor in the air. Carrion-feeding insects that are attracted by the scent may be doubly encouraged to enter the spathe because it is warmer than the surrounding air, fueling pollination.

Finally, for my last "WOW" fact, Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.

So next time you walk through a woodland area and see skunk cabbage growing, don't go "eeww", teach your friends and family the uniqueness of this plant and how it isn't your normal everyday spring flower!

Friday, January 2, 2009

What do I do with my poinsettia now?

Poinsettia, the Christmas plant, is popular in many American homes. With the introduction of long-lasting cultivars, the popularity of the poinsettia has increased significantly. It was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, first U. S. ambassador to Mexico who obtained plants from the wilds of southern Mexico. The common name for the exotic plant, poinsettia, came from his last name. Botanically, the plant is known as Euphorbia pulcherrima.


Examine the soil daily, and when the surface is dry to the touch, water the soil until it runs freely out the drainage hole in the container. When watering, water at the base of the plant, making sure that some water will run out the drainage hole. If a saucer is used, discard the water that collects in it. Do not leave the plant standing in water. Overly wet soil lacks sufficient air, which results in root injury.

A wilted plant may drop its leaves prematurely, so check the soil frequently. Plants exposed to high light and low humidity require more frequent watering. If wilting does occur, immediately water with the recommended amount, and 5 minutes later water again.


If you obtain a poinsettia for your home, place it near a sunny window where it will have the most available sunlight. A window that faces south, east or west is better than one facing north. Do not let any part of the plant touch the cold windowpane because this may injure it.


To keep the plant in bloom, maintain it at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F during the daylight hours and, if possible, move it to a cooler place at night. Because root rot disease is more prevalent at temperatures below 60 degrees F, do not put the poinsettia in a room colder than this. Avoid exposing the plant to hot or cold drafts, which may cause premature leaf drop.


Poinsettias can be reflowered the following Christmas, but unless a yearlong schedule of care is observed, the results usually are not good. For such a schedule, continue normal watering of the soil until the first of April, then allow it to dry gradually. Do not let it get so dry at any time that the stems shrivel. Following the drying period, store the plant in a cool (60 degrees F), airy location on its side or upright.

In the middle of May, cut the stems back to about 4 inches above the soil, and either replant in a pot 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter or shake old soil off the roots and repot in the same container, using a new soilless mix. Many good commercial potting mixes are available. Choose one that is not very finely textured. Using soil from the garden can introduce disease to the plant. Water the soil thoroughly after potting; wait five minutes and water again. Then put the plant near the window that is exposed to the most sunlight. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 75 degrees F, and water when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch. After new growth appears, fertilize every two weeks with a complete-analysis, water soluble fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label for flowering plants.
In early June, leave the plant in the pot, move it outdoors, and place it in a lightly shaded location. Continue watering and fertilizing the plant while it is outdoors. Pinch each stem (remove 1 inch of terminal growth) in early July. Then, between August 15 and September 1, cut or pinch the new stems back, allowing three or four leaves to remain on each shoot. After this second pinch, bring the plant indoors and again place it near a window with a sunny exposure. If the plant is not pinched, it will grow too tall and be unsightly. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F at night and continue watering and fertilizing.

Poinsettias are short-day plants, which means they flower about 10 weeks after the daylight shortens to about 12 hours or less. Therefore, to have the plant in full flower by Christmas, keep it in complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. from the first part of October until Thanksgiving. During this period, any kind of light exposure between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. will delay flowering. A closet, opaque box or opaque cloth will keep the plant in darkness during those hours. Remember to put the plant near a sunny window in the daytime. Continue fertilizing the plant until mid-December.

Various reports over the years have led the general public to believe poinsettias are toxic to humans; however, this has not been authenticated.