I didn’t stretch to capture this photo; the robin’s nest is at shoulder level where two paths converge in my yard.
A robin has nested in the spruce tree that stands just four feet from my compost heap. The spruce tree is quite large; the nest could be thirty or more feet above the ground—and it could be deep in the branches. But no!
The robin chose stress. It built at shoulder level on a branch you almost have to brush as you walk between the compost heap and the house—or as you step off the front porch taking the shortest path from the kitchen to the compost heap. To live as I’m accustomed, I pass within 18 inches of that nest several times a day—on some days I’m there ten or twenty times!
I’m expecting 30 raspberry plants to arrive by mail some time this week. Since I didn’t start last fall when I should have, I cut in a planting bed. There’s already a raspberry plant in place—and a grape vine. This photo shows the line I stretched to guide my shovel as I removed sod.
Cutting in a new Planting Bed
I’m cutting in a new planting bed. I vowed never to do this: if I’m putting a bed in an existing lawn, I want to start four months ahead, lay down a weed barrier (cardboard or newspapers), and cover that over with compost, manure, or mulch. The approach turns the lawn into decent soil structure and nutrition while minimizing digging.
Here’s the challenge: you can’t just plan to start new beds this way, you actually have to create them four months before you plant in them. I didn’t. But I ordered raspberry plants anyway.
The plants will arrive this week. The bed (or beds) must be ready. I’ve only myself to blame: I’m cutting sod.
But this post isn’t about cutting sod and making a raspberry bed. It’s about grubs and birds.
Nearly every patch of sod I removed to make a planting bed for my raspberries exposed several grubs. This handful went onto a piece of cardboard along with others that I eventually offered in friendship to a robin.
Grubs in the Sod
I don’t take care of my lawn. My family mows the grass to keep it under the maximum length allowed by law. That is all.
My lawn is free-range. If it wants to fight off turf diseases, or root-damaging nematodes or insects, or burrowing animals, it is free to do so. If it’s thirsty during drought it is welcome to drive roots deep or to drink out of the dog’s dish. Heck, if it wants to fly south for the winter, it can go! I won’t even ask it to write.
Apparently, the lawn lacks motivation. When I started cutting my sod, I discovered it hosts a whole bunch of grubs! Supposedly, these grubs can damage a lawn. Far more importantly (to me): the adults the grubs will become may eat leaves of my food plants.
The robin fled when I laid out grubs for her, but when she returned she paused on the garden fence to examine my friendship offering.
Making Friends with a Robin
If it hasn’t made sense so far, this post is about to come together (it still may not make sense). It dawned on me the annoying, shoulder-level robin might help dispose of grubs I unearthed while cutting sod.
So, as I worked, I collected grubs on a piece of cardboard. Then, when I wanted a break, I flipped a large planter upside down next to the compost heap and dumped the grubs onto it. The robin didn’t hang around to watch, but once I backed away, she returned and immediately spotted the bounty.
She was gorged by the time she returned to her nest, and I had a few photos… but I don’t think we truly bonded. Maybe it’s hard to build a relationship over grubs, or maybe I need to be more persistent. Whatever the case, the robin and I will be rubbing shoulders for many more weeks.
The robin clearly enjoyed the grubs, but she gave no sign of appreciation. I don’t think we’re friends, but I’ll keep trying to win her over—or at least I’ll scare her out of her nest several times a day.
In early spring, I had purchased two mint plants from the produce department of a grocery store—those plants sold as fresh herbs you’re supposed to throw out once you’ve removed the leaves to season your dinner. I left them on my screened porch, watered them as-needed, potted them up once, and eventually transplanted them into my herb garden. Cooped up in their tiny nursery pots, both plants had produced rhizomes with new plants emerging every half inch or so. I told some of the story here.
Mint is dangerous. Yes, I’ve said it before. I’ve said it so many times I’m sure I’ve given the impression I despise mint, but that impression is wrong. I love mint. My favorite ice cream flavors are Peppermint Stick and Mint Chocolate Chip (particularly Turkey Hill All Natural Mint Chocolate Chip). I’m also partial to mint in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking.
I like mint so much that I bought a chocolate mint plant a few days ago to add to my herb garden; eventually I may have half a dozen varieties. Despite the mint love, I charge mint as among the most dangerous plants to have in or near your kitchen garden.
After a single growing season, two mint plants jammed a root-retaining ring with rhizomes—at least three rhizomes lie on the surface, hugging the inside wall and traveling once around or more. The root barrier ring is 24 inches across meaning each rhizome is a bit longer than six feet. I’m confident that the longest make two trips around the ring; I’ve seen mint rhizomes that have grown 16 feet in a single season.
I wrote about this garden terror first in an article titled Protect your Small Kitchen Garden from Mint and more recently in the article, More Mint Madness. The recent article included photos of a mint plant moments after I removed it from its nursery pot—I’ve included one of those photos at the beginning of this post.
My Mint Today
After one growing season, and a severe winter, I inspected the mint installation in my herb garden. I had planted mint within a thick plastic root barrier that reaches about 12 inches into the soil. The barrier is a circle about 30 inches across and by the end of the growing season, mint filled it and spilled over onto surrounding soil. (I peeled back the escaping stems and stuffed them inside the root barrier circle.)
Six days after I captured the preceding photo, baby mint plants emerged from the rhizomes in the retaining ring. Keep in mind this started as two small plants in nursery pots last spring… if I don’t hack out some rhizomes and roots this season, the stupid mint plant(s) will choke themselves to death. No they won’t. I’m convinced they’ll figure out how to eat plastic if they think they need to to survive. I’m keeping my eyes on the mint; no way am I letting it escape the root barrier. By the way, if you ever trim your mint plants to keep them under control, compost them only if you have a self-contained system such as a compost tumbler. Once a rhizome reaches a passive compost heap, you’ll have mint babies poking up wherever you apply compost.
When snow finally melted off my garden, the mint leaves were gone. Mint stems were everywhere inside the root barrier. Without the barrier, it’s clear there would be mint rhizomes extending at least 9 feet into my herb garden and under my lawn. In fact, by now there would be dozens of mint plants pushing up in a nine foot circle around the original mint plant.
Photos emphasize my point: Mint is aggressive and prolific. It WILL take over once you get it started… so don’t. Don’t start it in the soil in your garden. If you’re going to grow mint, contain it—either absolutely in a container that gives the plant no opportunity to touch soil in your yard, or within an inviolable barrier that stops the roots and lets you keep the stems off your garden soil.
I spent a dollar to buy two Hen and Chicks plants at a yard sale in autumn. With snow predicted, I “heeled in” the plants in my vegetable bed. When the snow finally melted in March, I found this little family looking healthy and ready for action. Eventually, these will find a home in a rock garden I plan to build where the compost heap now rests.
I’ve been a sucker for succulents since I grew a jungle in my bedroom during my high school years. So, despite my garden’s intense focus on food plants, I’ve mused for a long time about establishing a succulent garden in my yard. Near the end of last year, I was working specifically toward that end: I had packed several carloads of rocks back from my brother’s farm to use in building a rock garden that would host a variety of cold-hardy succulents.
One afternoon in late autumn, I stopped at a yard sale. There, the only items that interested me were foam coffee cups planted with Hens and Chicks. Each cup had a price of fifty cents—lower than I’ve seen nursery plants discounted at the end of the season. I bought two. I hope my experiences with them so far inspire you.
No Garden Yet
By the time it got too cold to garden, I’d not yet prepared my new planting bed. I had enough rocks stacked on the driveway, but I needed to move the compost heap and it became too unpleasant outside for me to feel motivated.
To emphasize the certainty that you can grow Hens and Chicks, I captured this photo of a border along a sidewalk in Toronto. Toronto is well north of me and they experienced as punishing a winter as ours. However, by early March, snow had melted off and revealed this healthy-looking planting bed. Hens and Chicks have crowded the bed enough that it could benefit from thinning—a procedure the harsh winter failed to accomplish.
I didn’t want my Hens and Chicks—along with several other succulents I’d acquired—to spend winter outdoors in pots. And, there was no way I’d try to keep them growing indoors under lights. So, I decided to “heel in” the plants at one end of the vegetable bed.
Heeling in means planting a seedling poorly; without commitment. You can dig a shallow hole or find a bare patch of soil, lay the roots of the plant against the soil, and then cover the roots with more soil. I’ve seen young fruit trees heeled in while they were all but lying flat on the ground.
In any case, I heeled in the Hen and Chicks plants along with close to a dozen other succulents I’d bought at a garden center at “we don’t want these anymore” prices. Winter happened.
It was an impressive winter! We had more than a month where temperatures never rose out of the teens, and we had many, many days near and below zero. We also had snow, which is a blessing. Snow covered the garden continuously for several months and provided some relief from the cold for perennials.
A rule of thumb for central Pennsylvania is to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. Usually by mid-February daffodils are at least sprouting and by March warm days beckon us to garden. This year St Patrick’s Day came and went and we got to April 1st before there was any real beckoning.
A chick must have broken off one of the potted plants when I heeled it in last autumn. Under snow at seriously frigid temperatures, the little plant managed to drop roots into the soil. It looked perfect when the snow melted, and it will look just fine in its new home when I get the rock garden assembled.
But look at the photos! Hens and Chicks are very well, thank you. The two plants I heeled in are healthy and ready to move. What’s more, a small “chick” that must have broken off last fall had rooted where it lay despite the cold and snow!
To reinforce the point, I’ve included a photo of a border along a yard in Toronto. I visited Toronto in early March—at least one hardiness zone farther north than central PA. In the city, snow had melted, and that dense growth of Hens and Chicks made a dramatic in-your-face, winter, statement.
If you have any doubts about succeeding with gardening, try growing a Hen and Chicks plant. If a small piece of this plant can break off and root itself during a miserably cold winter, I feel safe to suggest: you can grow that!
Follow this link for more You Can Grow That posts.
My first chili pepper sprout of the year is a sweet pepper, but I don’t know what type. Last year I collected orange bell and sweet Italian pepper seeds from my harvest and managed to store them unlabeled. I’ve two distinct packs of seeds, and planted as many from one pack as from the other. Nearly all have sprouted. I’ll find out in August which plants are which.
Just a week ago I reported on the success of my tomato starts (Tomatoes Under Lights). Two days later, my first chili pepper seedling of 2015 emerged.
You might surmise I get a special rush when my seeds start each year. I used to wait until my garden soil warmed and then I’d buy flats of seedlings at local garden stores. Year after year I’d choose from among a very limited variety of plants. Starting my own seeds changed so much.
- I now select from among hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and peppers rather then from the dozen or so available in local garden centers.
- I now try varieties of plants that simply aren’t available as seedlings at local stores. For example, I’ve started artichokes and cardoon this year as well as quince trees all from seeds.
- My gardening season becomes “real” some 2 months earlier than it used to. Perusing garden catalogs from January until April used to make up my entire “pre-season.” I still peruse catalogs, but in February and March I mail-order seeds, fill planters with soil, and start plants under lights. My growing season is way longer because I get to tend seedlings
- for a month or so before I set foot in the garden.
- I get to enjoy near problem-free gardening leading up to spring planting. Starting seeds indoors under lights controls for nearly every problem I face in my garden: light, water, insects, disease, marauding rodents, birds… I decide how these work on my seed-starting shelf.
- My sense of accomplishment is way bigger when I start my own seedlings indoors under lights. I marvel that a seed the size of a bread crumb under my care grows to a plant more than 10 feet tall and produces 20 to 100 lbs of food containing seeds that can start it all over again next year—perhaps several thousand times over, depending on the food.
I planted 16 sweet pepper seeds in this container and every one sprouted. That’s a very tolerable percentage!
Do you start your own seeds? Perhaps this is your year to try.
Saturday and Sunday, March 21st and 22nd, I planted 73 tomato seeds in five planters. The planters are under lights in my office.
The 73 seeds represent 18 varieties of tomatoes – six varieties I brought back from last year’s garden, and 12 I bought from seed companies this spring. The first seedling emerged on March 26, just five (or four) days after planting. I snapped photos but here it is about 36 hours later and I’m just creating a post.
A lot happens in 36 hours! At last count, 67 seeds had sprouted. My planters have gone from bare to heavily-forested in just a day-and-a-half. I’m very excited to set the seedlings into my garden, but that won’t happen until June (unless the weather forecast is excessively rosy in May).
I love starting my garden indoors under lights!
In about six days, all but six of the tomato seeds I planted in containers have sprouted. Unfortunately, only one out of four Great White seeds is up, so I may do a second planting of that variety. Those leafy things way in the back on the right are cardoon and artichoke plants. I started artichokes about February 10th, and cardoon about March 5th.
Perhaps as hardy as the other crocuses in my yard, this one sneaked under my fig tree lean-to and managed to get a head start on spring.
This is an awkward “first crocus of spring” post. The photo dates back to March 9, but the crocus plant it shows cheated.
In late fall of 2014, I had two young fig trees I’d bought at the end of a garden center’s retail season. These had been in containers on my screened porch and I wanted them in the ground before temperatures plummeted… but I didn’t want them to freeze back to the soil if we had another polar vortex like the one in winter 2013-2014.
So, I built a lean-to. I leaned a “trellis” against the wall and draped very heavy plastic over it. Bricks hold everything in place. This lean-to would keep the wind off the fig trees and most likely keep the temperature around the trees at or just below freezing on the coldest winter days.
It’s not pretty, but it’s practical: There’s a section of wooden fence under that plastic. I leaned the fence against the wall, draped it with plastic, and held the plastic down with bricks. Though I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b/7a, I expect the two young fig trees inside my lean-to had a zone 9 kind of winter.
On March 9, I peeled back the plastic so the trees wouldn’t overheat on sunny days. The first crocus blossom of the year in my yard was growing strong inside the tent—it had benefited from the shelter while the other crocus plants shivered under snow.
Crocuses have arrived
For days I wrung my hands: Should I reward the cheater? How could I feature such a softie as the FIRST when so many others had faced the elements and were only days behind?
The other crocuses are now in bloom, and the first crocus blossom has faded away… except for in the photo on this page. Sure, it had life easy this past winter, but it gave me a chuckle when I found it blooming away alongside its sleeping fig tree sheltermates. So, there it is; it’s spring!
It’s still cold enough in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for ice to form on the water in my “rain garden.” I use quotes because I dug a hole several years ago and it has been wet only in spring thaws and heavy storms—it’s dry most of the year. Haven’t yet decided what to plant in it.
Being a garden writer has changed me. Before I posted my first blog entry, I’d plant almost exclusively things intended for my stomach. I’d joke (and I still joke) that if the plant doesn’t come with a recipe, I won’t waste energy growing it.
There were exceptions. For example, I came across zinnia seeds that were supposed to be special and I planted some. They weren’t special. I also planted poppies year after year until finally two plants survived to adulthood. They met their demise under the lawn mower when my wife sent my oldest child with it into an unkempt flower bed.
How Garden Writing Changed Me
Through blogging I got to know other garden writers and a group of them in New England organized an outing to a public garden in very eastern New York… I have friends in that area I’d actually already met in person, so I used the outing as an excuse to visit.
A cluster of leaf buds sits on the soil line between stems that supported last year’s blossoms. I bought closeouts at the end of the season in 2014 and “healed them in” in my vegetable garden. I’ll transplant these into the rock garden I expect to create in April.
It was a most terrific day. I toured a gorgeous garden with people I had known only as avatars and Twitter names. As those people became “real,” my change began.
My friends all were giddy about the garden and it was easy to understand why: Textures and colors intertwined in displays I’d never have conceived. Gorgeous arrangements of rocks, wood, water, and living plants drew us from one themed area to another. The weather was perfect. The light was perfect. The people were perfect.
Ideas accumulated in my mind. Ornamental gardens around homes in central Pennsylvania are, for the most part “shrub-and-mulch” monstrosities (set shrubs and young trees throughout a planting bed and spread mulch). I don’t recall seeing mulch in the public garden (it was probably there, but I simply didn’t notice it); each themed area combined hardscaping and a variety of plants to interest a visitor looking up, forward, or down. Plants provided the ground cover that mulch provides in central Pennsylvania!
Hens and Chicks were on sale at a yard sale late in 2014. I bought two for a dollar apiece and heeled them in in the vegetable bed next to the sedum. They’ll also move to a new rock garden in April.
I’ve resisted the change, but each subsequent visit to a show garden has provided more inspiration; more examples of ornamental garden design done well. And there’s another factor:
Whenever I attend a GWA event or a horticulture industry conference, it seems I bring home seeds and plants to try in my garden. When those aren’t edibles, I imagine my yard some day rivaling the many show gardens I’ve visited.
Am I close? Do I know what plants will look good together when they grow up? Do I have any ability to design an attractive ornamental garden? Does this paragraph contain enough questions? (No. No. Maybe. Do you think it contains enough questions?)
What’s in my Kitchen Garden Now
Last autumn, I grabbed a whole bunch of hardy succulents at a garden center—marked down to a fifth or less of their “in-season” prices—Tall-standing and ground-hugging sedums, and Hens and Chicks. I had also picked up some sedum roots at Cultivate ’14 and had nursed most of them into seedlings.
I fell in love with hellebores when I first saw their fleshy white flowers poking out of a snow bank. Prices for these plants always seemed high until I found a friend selling native plants at a local garden show last spring. I bought one from her and she generously gave me another. They went in the garden in early summer and spent a lackluster season there. Despite drawing full shade until late afternoon, one hellebore was already putting up flower stalks by the time the snow melted off of it as spring approached.
As gardening season ’14 ended, I simply ran out of time to install the planting bed I want for these succulents. To increase their chances of surviving winter, I “heeled them in” in my vegetable bed. They’ve been covered with snow for months, but it melted off while I was away last week. They look spectacular! Photos complete the story.
Given that the ground is still firm with surface frost and frozen through in some places, it’s astonishing to find so many plants looking alive and ready for spring. I’m ready to go; I wish the climate felt the same.
Horehound doesn’t belong on this list. I added it two seasons ago, technically not as an ornamental element—its and herb. I included the photo because the plant is remarkable. Last season, the horehound emerged from winter dried up and burnt; all growth in 2014 came from the roots. This winter brought at least one month-long stretch where the temperature never rose out of the teens; it seemed colder overall than the previous winter. Still, snow melted away to reveal healthy, beautiful leaves on the horehound plant… it’s so true that snow insulates plants from winter cold.
My (nearly) annual seed giveaway closed on February 15. Seeds are almost in the mail! Here’s where things stand:
- My wife and I selected the grand prize winner!
- I contacted people who nearly almost kind of entered the giveaway but might have missed a critical step (no mailing address received here).
- I designed, printed, and applied new seed envelope labels – more than 160 envelopes.
- I’ve packed 80 seed envelopes with 80 still awaiting attention.
- I wrote (am writing) this post to let participants know their seeds are on the way.
The grand prize, two pruners supplied by Corona Tools, go to Maggie Towson whose winning comment appears below.
The Corona Tools Grand Prize
My wife and I reviewed the comments that qualified participants for a shot at the grand prize (Two Corona Tools pruners). We loved the stories! Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to share.
Several comments gave me a chuckle, and a few were very poignant. The winner scored on both sides with a story that seemed especially fine-tuned to the judges’ sensibilities. It involved not only gardening, but also a dog behaving exactly as dogs do: being ever so helpful in exactly the worst possible way. I had warned that a story about a garden failure may not entertain the judges, but OMG, a PUPPY!
Congratulations to Maggie Towson, and thank you for the wonderful picture you told about Luna. If not for my garden fence and a deep distrust I have of Nutmeg’s (my dog) gardening sensibilities, this could be our story! Your pruners should be in the mail before the snow melts.
And the Seed Giveaway
I hope to fill the remaining 80 seed envelopes tonight. Here’s what’s left after that:
- Printing and applying mailing labels
- Writing and printing a letter about the seeds I’m mailing
- Stuffing envelopes
- Visiting the post office to get stamps and mail things out
If all goes well, seeds should be on the way on Friday, February 27, or Saturday, February 28.
It’s hard to express how much I enjoyed your comments. I hope you have great luck with the seeds. I’d love to hear from you once or twice through the season about how things are going… it’d be especially awesome if you’d post a photo of plants producing, of tomatoes, peppers, or squash you harvest, or of all of the above. If you wish, email a photo and a comment or two about your experience and I’ll feature it in a blog post during the growing season. If you blog and write a post about how these seeds work out, let me know and I’ll post a link.
Just 20 days until we’re supposed to plant peas in our gardens in central Pennsylvania. I’ve never planted peas in snow… could be interesting.
For at least four months after harvest, these tomatoes got moved around in our dining room until I noticed they’d started to wrinkle. These are Green Sausage tomatoes—an heirloom paste tomato that remains green when it ripens. It also, apparently, creates a hermetic barrier between its innards and the rest of the universe.
In late January, I ate a fresh homegrown heirloom tomato harvested from my outdoor garden. This is remarkable because by early October of last year, those of my tomato plants that hadn’t been killed by blight had been frozen by an early frost.
Green Sausage, the variety of tomato in question, had proven particularly susceptible to blight and I had pulled four apparently unripe fruits from the desiccated plants in mid-to-late September. These went to the ripening table in the dining room but I wasn’t convinced they’d ripened by the time I folded up the table at season’s end.
So, four Green Sausage tomatoes spent at least four months “ripening” in our dining room. Finally, in mid January, I noticed they had started to wrinkle. They weren’t soft or blemished as a spoiling tomato gets. They were simply wrinkling.
What’s a garden blogger to do? I took pictures, I made video, and I cut open one of those 4+ month old fruits. I was dismayed at what I found. The photos tell the story; the video captures my reaction “live.”
Cut lengthwise, the 4-month-old Green Sausage tomato (an heirloom variety) revealed plenty of juicy flesh. It begged me to taste it; my reaction is in the video.
The coldest days of winter and a typical central Pennsylvania snow reaffirm the area’s USDA hardiness zone rating. Freesias would not survive this winter outdoors.
Freesias! I took a flier last spring and bought a package of freesia bulbs on closeout. I’ve never grown freesias. I couldn’t have identified them had someone led me to a freesia patch to harvest a few for a bouquet.
Knowing so little about them, I planted twelve freesia bulbs according to instructions on the package: buried many inches deep in a 12-inch container. In a few weeks, exactly two plants emerged. Eventually they blossomed and I fell in love with their fragrance; freesias smell like flowers, but not like any I’d sniffed previously.
By summer’s end, the two freesia plants were done. The temperature dropped, a few weeds sprouted in the freesia planter, and one day three new freesia sprouts appeared. This was an aha moment! Freesias, apparently, draw motivation to sprout from a mild cold spell. The package had identified freesias as annuals in my hardiness zone, so I suspect a freeze would have killed the bulbs. But they were far from dead; there had been no freeze.
Still knowing little about freesias (you’d think I could read something), I guessed that sprouting in autumn and then being put into cold storage would overtax the bulbs. Now that they’d sprouted, I figured they’d need to mature and recharge themselves to make it through a dormant period.
Being uncommitted to ornamental plants, the most I was willing to offer was a place on the sill of a south-facing window. The freesias have persevered! Seven bulbs sprouted and have grown gangly leaves that hardly hold themselves upright.
I’ve watered occasionally and broken off a dandelion whose tap root has a death grip in the soil. Other than that, I paid no mind.
Until last week.
It’s so dark in the basement where my freesia pot sits on a windowsill that there’s barely enough light to take photographs. Still, the plants are abloom and the basement room is redolent of spring.
Freesias in Winter
Two weeks ago I brought an assortment of plants back from MANTS, a horticulture industry trade show in Baltimore. I set the plants on our ping-pong table which catches some light from the south-facing window where the freesias sit. As I was setting up electric lights for those plants about five days ago, I noticed the scent of spring! Sure enough, there was a blossom on one of the freesia plants.
My freesia planter sports two sun-starved flower stalks laden with buds. Five days after the first bud opened, a second is about to burst. It seems likely the blooms will continue until it’s safe to move the planter outside.
The lifecycles of my freesia plants, I’m sure, are severely screwed up, but that will remain their problem. I’ll move the planter outside in spring and back in autumn. If the plants eventually synch with the seasons, I’ll give them a cool, dark corner to winter over next year. Otherwise, I suppose they’re doomed each year to grow gangly and watch from my south-facing window while the snows fall.