On Sunday, daylight savings begins, and we will be doing the final lap of winter before spring officially arrives on March 20th. Who is excited about this? We’ve made it through another winter!
The Spring Equinox is one of two days where the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will have equal daylight. It’s the official start of spring and the days are noticeably longer. But did my garden get the memo its time to wake up?
Late March and early April is the time when we see the first signs of spring in our garden. Tender wildflowers start to poke their heads above their winter blankets of mulch and leaves. Flowers like crocuses, violets, and tulips are usually the first to show their faces.
I wondered if the crocus had a story or a special meaning similar to the rose and other flowers? These questions led me down many rabbit holes, and who knew this small, pretty flower had so much passion associated with it.
The book The Secret Meaning of Flowers says the crocus means attachment, cheerfulness, exuberance, foresight, gladness, jovial, joy, mirth, the pleasure of hope, visions, youthful, and gladness.
In addition, I found an article that said “crocus” means thread, referring to the long, thread-like stamens. It also stated the word also derives from the Greek word Krokos because the plant gives us saffron from its stamens.
This flower also has several love stories originating from ancient Greek Mythology.
One version says Crocus was a young man and had an affair with a nymph called Smilax. He became bored and unhappy with the relationship, and the gods didn’t like his behavior and decided to turn him into a plant. Smilax turned into a beautiful yew tree known as a slow-growing tree with hard but flexible wood. Perfect for Cupid’s bow and arrow.
Another Greek version stated that Crocus killed himself because he was so grief-stricken when the gods refused permission for them to marry. The goddess of flowers, named Flora, took pity on the two lovers and turned them into plants so their love could bloom forever.
Then there is this version that says Smilax wasn’t interested in Crocus. But the ole’ boy wouldn’t take the hint to go away. In frustration, she turned him into a flower so she could have some peace and quiet.
Then we have the great Greek love story of Zeus and Hera (the goddess of women, marriage, and children). The story goes they were “enjoying each other’s company” so passionately that the river bank they were on erupted with crocus flowers.
Since then, these two lustful lovers have been associated with passionate love. In some parts of the world, crocuses bloom near Valentine’s Day and are the preferred “passion” flower rather than roses.
The Crocus species (Crocus Sativa) has medicinal properties grown commercially for saffron and seeds all over the world. So please, please, do not go out and start chewing on a crocus plant. These plants in our yards are poisonous!
c. Sativa has carotenoids that have been shown in clinical studies to inhibit cancer cell proliferation. Saffron helps reduce depression supports eye health and cognitive function.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), saffron is used for depression, shock, cramps from moon cycles, PMS, skin disorders, stomach weakness, and an appetite suppressant.
There you have it; when your crocus starts to pop its pretty purple flowers above ground, I hope you will remember they are flowers created by mad passionate love of one kind or another as well as a healing herb.
Chevallier, Andrew, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, 2016; 89
It’s the end of May here in Connecticut, and how is your garden doing? Things here are painfully slow going here. We’ve had a wet, cold spring and in between rainstorms, we’ve been busy rebuilding the yard and changing some things around for easier maintenance. We’re not as young as we used to be and its time to transition the gardens into the next phase of its life. More perennials and fewer annuals.
To add insult to injury, this winter’s brutal polar vortex combined with the wet, cold spring has taken its toll on our garden. Many trees, flowering bushes, and lavenders didn’t survive. My hubby has been busy digging up the deceased and replacing with new softwood bushes and flowering plants. I’m amazed at the extent of the damage. Mother Nature can be so cruel!
I’ve been surveying the raised bed area and figuring out what new perennial herbs I can plant that will survive our crazy winters. My big experiment will be seeing if I can grow old fashioned big bush roses. I’m planting them in the largest raised bed we have. Winter freeze will be a huge concern since the beds are above ground. Will the roots overwinter in a raised bed? I don’t know, so stay tuned…
In the greenhouse, we ripped out the aquaponics system and reverted the 2 beds back to dirt. I planted more rosemary and experimenting with scented geraniums. The variety I’m starting with is “Rose of Attar”. The leaves really do smell like roses! If they survive the winter, they will be a wonderful addition to my herb garden.
Time Well Spent!
The good news is, the time spent waiting for storms to pass and temperatures to rise has been productive. I’ve been working on the last bits of my garden book. It will be published sometime this summer titled “My Garden Journal” (although, the title may change…I’m currently playing with different titles).
I started journaling my gardens 20 years ago to remind me what worked and what didn’t from one season to the next. Gardening is a journey – your yard is an ever-changing ecosystem and I found that journaling gave me a higher success rate.
My personal journal evolved over time. It wasn’t fancy, just a list of plants and comments in the margins of how things went during the growing season.
However, when I was teaching children how to garden, I discovered by accident, my journals were a great teaching tool. My simple journal pages made the perfect outline for the curriculum I was creating. I took what I learned from these very talented students and reworked the format. The results were a simple easy to follow garden journal for children (and adults too!)
In addition to the journal pages, I also added other useful sections. For example, Parts of a Plant, Themed Gardens, How to Make Compost Tea and 10 Easiest Plants to Grow from Seed. These sections were designed to give young gardeners basic tools to be successful in their first years of gardening.
Excerpt from “My Garden Journal”
Here is the section from the book on the “10 Easiest Plants to Grow from Seed”.
Arugula is a small leafy green that has a peppery taste. It makes a perfect addition to salads and pasta recipes. To get ideas on how to prepare this green, do an online search. There are lots of recipes to pick from.
Arugula can be direct seeded into the ground and prefers to grow in cooler temperatures and is best grown in early spring and late summer into fall skipping the hottest part of the growing season.
Basil is an excellent herb to grow. Basil does not do well if direct seeded into the soil.Start your seeds indoors in small containers and then transplant outside when it’s warm enough.
When the plant gets big enough, pick the leaves off to add to a fresh tomato salad.Dry the leaves and save them for your herb and spice collection.There is nothing better tasting than homegrown basil in spaghetti sauce!
Basil prefers hot weather and full sun and best-grown late spring through the hottest part of the summer. Make sure the flowers are pinched off frequently for a bushier plant, which will produce more leaves.
If you are growing this plant in a container, water frequently.Plants grown in containers dry out quicker than plants grown in the ground or in raised beds.
Microgreens are 5 to 10 day old baby plants that you can harvest and eat. Don’t confuse them with sprouts which are seeds that have sprouted in water and then eaten. The difference is to grow microgreens you must plant them in potting soil or some sort of growing medium sprout them and then harvest the plant.
These baby plants are high in nutrition and can be grown on a kitchen counter with no sunlight. They are the perfect plants for a kitchen garden.
The easiest microgreens to grow are:
Spicy mustard greens
Cucumbers are a gardener’s summer favorite. Make sure you have plenty of room to grow these plants; they like to spread their vines everywhere.Do an online search
to learn how to save space by growing up.There are many ideas on how to build simple trellis’ using materials such as long sticks and twine.
Cucumber seeds can be direct seeded into the ground in late spring, or can be started indoors (early spring) in small containers and transplanted into the garden when it’s warm enough.
5. Green Beans
These are one of the easiest plants to grow, and you get a lot of beans in return for your work.They can be direct seeded in the ground late spring. Beans like to grow in direct sun and love hot temperatures.
When researching seeds, make sure you know which kind of beans you’re buying. There are bush beans and pole beans.Bush beans don’t need any trellising.Just plant and watch them grow and harvest them when big enough.
Pole beans need a trellis to climb on.
6. Green Onions
Green onions are tall, green and white stalks and they are fun to grow.Patients will be essential, because they may take most of the growing season before you can harvest them.
Green onions grow well in containers but need frequent watering during hot weather. They are a perfect vegetable to grow if you have a spot that has partial shade.Direct seed in early spring and keep watering.Onions take many weeks before they sprout.So be patient.
Onions also do well if left in the garden over winter. Once the garden bed is established, they will self-seed (the seeds drop into the garden bed after they flower), and new plants will grow the next season.
There are many kinds of kale to grow, so do your research on which varieties will grow well in your area.Kale likes cooler temperatures but will tolerate some heat if the plants are well established.
Kale is another plant that can be stared in early spring and late fall and will tolerate colder temperatures until a hard freeze or even snow.These can be direct seeded into the ground.
Dinosaur Kale is a good recommendation if you are looking for tender leaves, which are perfect for salads.If you want to grow big leaf varieties like Red Russian Kale, their leaves are perfect for making crispy kale chips – which are like potato chips.Yum!
Peas are another early spring and fall plant to grow and can be direct seeded into the ground.My peas never make it to the kitchen because I eat them right off the vine while working in the garden.They make a great snack!
These plants require something to climb on otherwise they will grow in a heap of strings on the ground.
There is nothing more satisfying than a fresh picked homegrown tomato! They are gardener’s pride and joy! Do your research on what kind, or color you want to grow.There are hundreds of varsities to pick from and you need to know the difference between an Indeterminate and Determinate tomato variety.
For beginner gardeners, I would recommend not growing tomatoes in the heirloom (or determinate category) until you are an experienced gardener. Heirloom tomatoes taste great but can be very temperamental if the plants don’t get an even amount of water and sustaining hot temperatures.They are also prone to disease and fungal problems.
If the plants get stressed this results in what is called end rot or blossom rot.The tomato is not ripe enough to pick but instead starts rotting on the bottom of the fruit and the falls off the plant.Once a plant starts producing rotten fruit the problem cannot be fixed. The plant must be pulled out of the ground and thrown away.
I recommend varieties like “Big Beef” or “New Girl” for a nice evenly round healthy tomato and are perfect for sandwiches or salads.These varieties are what is called “Indeterminate” hybrids and are not prone to disease or fungal problems.
There are smaller tomato varieties you can grow too.Grape and cherry tomatoes produce a lot of fruit and are fun to grow.Make sure you share with friends and family if you have too many.
Indeterminate Tomato: Tall plants that require staking for trellis and will keep producing fruit up until first frost.
Determinate Tomato: A bush variety that is low and compact and doesn’t require staking. These plants grow a certain number of fruit and then the plant stops growing and dies.Unlike the indeterminate tomatoes where the plant continues to produce fruit until it’s too cold.Heirloom tomato varieties are determinate plants.
I recommend you start your seeds indoors in small containers and then transplant into the garden in late spring. Do not direct seed into the ground the seeds will have difficulty sprouting.Tomatoes need full sun and plenty of hot temperatures.
Sunflowers are beautiful and can be a showy centerpiece to any garden. The good news is sunflowers now come in many different sizes.These are a perfect plant to direct seed into the garden.
There are shorter more compact varieties that produce multiple flower heads that are smaller. These are great for flower bouquets.
The tall varieties like Royal Hybrid produce one big flower and need lots of sun.Make sure your seeds are organic if growing these flowers for bird food and don’t spray your plants with pesticides or herbicides. Chemicals hurt the birds and wildlife that will live among your plants in the garden.
At the end of the season, cut the flower heads and dry them. The birds will appreciate a nice snack when there is little food to forage on during the cold winter months.
Cooking a healthy meal can be a full-time job for any parent. Between planning and organizing, it takes a lot of effort to stay on track. That’s why I have a few hacks on hand to quickly improve the nutrient density in meals.
Quinoa is a great cook ahead that can be sprinkled onto a salad for an exotic addition of protein. It absorbs flavors so you can pair it with any dressing and it will taste great. Quinoa is also a great way to cut back on rice. For recipes that call for rice, try replacing ½ of the amount with quinoa. You will hardly see the difference yet you will improve your nutrition by adding fiber and lowering your glycemic index. Quinoa is a good source of minerals such as folate, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains all the essential amino acids, giving it a high score for a good source of protein. Beware though, it is still a grain and too much of it can be “too much of a good thing”.
Rich in iron and really flavorful, this makes a great addition to the kids’ mac and cheese. They simply LOVE it. Recently I have started experimenting with combining it with cauliflower rice. I sauteed a chopped onion or leek for about 5 minutes, then add the riced cauliflower (2 bags frozen) for another 5 minutes, sprinkle some dill or use fresh if you have, add salt and pepper. After it caramelizes add a bag of frozen spinach and cook for about another 10 minutes. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt or some feta and you have a low carb, Greek spanakopita inspired delicious and quick alternative. Spinach is a quick add on to rice, quinoa rice or even sautéed as a side dish. Power up!
Mushrooms act as a major immunity booster that can help the body fight illness as well as several types of cancers. It is recommended that you have a little daily. But who can keep up? Try freezing your mushrooms for easy access to omelets, and sautéed meals. Sautée some with onion and keep in the fridge as a sandwich or salad topper. Consider making mushroom burgers. They are easy, quick and very filling.
These are really misunderstood in my opinion because they are usually eaten out of a can. Try soaking a bag overnight and then giving them a quick boil until soft. No spices needed! After they are softened you can eat them plain -so sweet!- or add them to any salad. Keep in the fridge for an easy add on! You can also throw them in the blender with lemon juice and olive oil for a nice hummus.
The best way to increase your fruit intake is to keep it easily accessible. Take a few minutes to cut fruit and keep it in the fridge. It will more likely be your next snack or meal. My favorites for this are watermelon and honeydew. Another great trick is to load up on berries. They have a very short shelf life so eating them will be a priority.
This superfood can be added to any snack to boost fiber and omega 3’s along with antioxidants. Who doesn’t want that in a bowl of cereal, instantly? Consider adding to your yogurt, toasted bread, and even ice cream.
This is my go to side dish when I need that extra something to add to a meal. If I am baking dinner it can go straight into a baking dish with some EVOO. If not I can easily steam it and cleanup is a cinch. A major player in the cruciferous family, it is rich in everything, good for you and delicious. Always keep on hand.
Setting up for success with easy cheats makes up a big component of healthy eating. Now that the kids are helping themselves to snacks it’s even more important to have these easily accessible and at the front of the fridge.
Spring has arrived here on Thompson Street Farm. My raised beds are finally defrosted and the rain has stopped, we’ve been busy cleaning out winter debris and prepping the soil for planting.
Maintain good soil health: One of the most important parts of being a successful gardener (or in my case farmer) is maintaining good soil health without dumping expensive fertilizers that are bad for your health and environment. Soil is a biological system which has millions microorganisms living in it that needs to be cared for. Understanding what is in your soil and what is not, will determine how successful your garden (or farm) will be.
I’m not a biologist and to be perfectly honest, soil biology is one of my weakest areas in my farming operation. I’ve read extensively on the subject; however, for me personally, I need things broken down in easy to understand language. I need a recipe of sorts specific to my land. There is so much information out there most of it doesn’t apply to my situation and I am frequently confused and frustrated.
I’ve learned I’m not alone. Finding soil amendments in small quantities can be hard for small plot growers. Some elements are only sold by the ton. In other situations when I could find smaller quantities (e.g. 1 lb. bag); it was too expensive to buy in the numbers I needed (e.g. 50 bags). This was my problem with bloodmeal. In the end, I resorted to ordering a 50 lb. bag from Amazon, paid the shipping fees because it was cheaper than buying (50) 1 lb. bags from my local garden store.
Use a good lab for soil testing: Last year I hired a soil fertility expert to help me figure out what to do with farm land I am leasing. My first year, I had very little seed germination. I knew I needed a soil test, but I wanted help translating the results and help sourcing a reliable retailer who would sell me soil amendments in the quantities I needed.
In our first meeting I explained I used my states university lab and I was frustrated on how to interpret the information. They use a general rating system:
• Below Optimum
• Above Optimum
In the recommendations section on every lab result regardless of what was rated they recommended 10-10-10 fertilizers. I started asking myself why do soil a test if the recommendation is always going to be the same? I knew the lab wasn’t explaining my test results accurately. They knew I was an organic grower, so why were they always recommending the use of commercial fertilizers.
I learned from my soil specialist some soil labs are better than others. He strongly recommended I stop using my state lab and use a lab that will give me the actual numbers of each element.
Test your Soil: Standard recommendation is once every 3 years in the fall. However, if you need a starting point don’t worry what time of year it is – just do the test. This will be your baseline.
Collecting your soil sample: If you have multiple beds (I have 22 raised beds) save some money by taking a sample of dirt from all your beds. Mix the dirt in a container and remove 1 scoop and send it off to the lab. This will give you an overall baseline of your soil make up.
If you want to know what’s going on in each bed take samples from different sections of the bed and mix together and remove a single sample. But be aware this can be expensive.
If you are growing in the ground, take samples from several different locations in your growing area. Mix together in a container and pull out 1 sample.
Soil Testing Check out Dan Kitterage YouTube Video introduction on soil testing
According to Dan Kitterage from the Bionutrient Food Association in MA he recommends your base minerals should be as follows:
Sulfur – 75ppm
Phosphorus – 75ppm
Calcium – 60% – 75%
Magnesium – 12% – 18%
Potassium – 3% – 5%
For more detailed information on soil biology I recommend you check out Dan’s website www.bionutrient.org
Manure vs leaf compost/mulch: Once you have addressed your soil mineral issues there is the question of organic matter. How much, what kind and how often? An old friend of mine is always telling me “You need nitrogen and lots of it!” “Use whatever you can find! That will really get you going.” My response is always “Not so fast my friend…..”
As an organic grower dumping manures in my beds or field is not the magic cure to all soil ailments. There has to be a balance between minerals and organic matter. In addition, manures are often mixed with the animals bedding which tends to be higher in ammonia verses nitrogen and other nutrients because the bedding is soaked with urine.
What kind of manure matters: Chicken, cow, horse, rabbit, goat, pig etc. Not all manures are the same. They all have different nutrient levels. Is the manure mixed with the bedding? If yes, what kind of bedding did they use? Stay away from wood shavings and sawdust bedding if possible.
Wood shavings and saw dust are often sprayed with chemicals which will leach out into your soil. Add the additional high levels of ammonia and you have a potent mixture that could burn your plants.
I realize finding manure free from the wood bedding maybe difficult but if you check around you may find someone who doesn’t use that type of bedding with their livesstock. If the bedding is straw then it’s ok because straw doesn’t absorb urine and breaks down quickly.
How old is the manure? Never ever put fresh manure on your soil. Last year a new gardener at our local community garden put several inches of her daughter’s newly made horse poo on her bed. Her rational it’s organic and free! What could go wrong? The result was she killed everything. That was a hard lesson for her to learn.
One year or more is best as it has time to rot a little, cool off so it won’t burn your plants. In addition, a little goes a long way, especially in small spaces.
How often should I put down manure? If the manure is composted (which is different than pure manure) you can put it down every year. If it’s straight manure its best to add it on your field and let rest for 1 month before planting. There is no information available on adding straight manure every year is wise. I recommend you consult with a soil fertility expert.
BEWARE of Toxic Manure: Not to be an alarmist, but sourcing your livestock manure is important. It’s what the animal digests and comes out the other end is the concern.
Some farmers spray their hay fields with herbicides to keep the weeds down. The hay is baled, sold or fed to the farmer’s livestock. When the cow or horse, for example, eats the hay, the residue from the herbicides passes through the animal and there you have it – toxic manure. It can stunt, mutate, or kill whatever you are growing and now you have a bigger problem – you have toxic soil.
Grass clippings collected from lawns that have been sprayed with herbicides and composted can also pose a similar danger. As much as I would love to ask for grass clippings from local landscapers, I don’t. In my neighborhood, we have a lot of those white and green trucks with tanks on them spraying Lord knows what on people’s lawns. My concern is the long term effects from the large number of residences that use these companies will be on our ground water. I doubt anyone’s monitoring this.
Using Manures as a soil amendment: Several sources recommend finding farmers that feed their animals with clean feed and use the manure solids minus the bedding. The challenge will be finding a source that will give you just the manure. It can be done. One gardener told me she asked an organic farmer friend if she could collect his cow patties in his pasture. Even though he gave her a strange look, he told her to knock herself out.
Another farmer friend recommended I check into large chicken producers who are overflowing with chicken poo and will deliver it by the truckload. Large producers often don’t use bedding in their operations. The chickens are in cages and the waste drops to a space below them and is shoveled out. In addition, owning chickens myself, I know there are a great many benefits other than collecting their eggs and/or eating them.
“They found that cotton yields peaked 12 percent higher with organic fertilizers (sic. specifically chicken litter), compared to peak yields with synthetic fertilizers…”
Manures are not sterile: As wonderful manures are, you need to be aware there are pathogens in manure that can contaminate your produce if it hasn’t been properly composted. It can have some pretty nasty bugs such as E-coli, Listeria and salmonella just to name a few. As a commercial grower I have be very careful what I put on my soil as the last thing I want is contaminated lettuce from manure not properly composted.
For my piece of mind, unless I’m guaranteed the manure has been sitting for a few years, I will only use it on my open field. For my permanent raised beds I use leaf compost. In addition, I only recommend trucking in manure if you are farming ¼ acre or more. Anything smaller I recommend leaf compost.
Leaves are easy to find. I discovered last fall some people were more than happy to collect and bag leaves if I hauled them away verses the homeowner hauling bags to the town dump and paying a dump fee. In addition, ask your neighbors to blow their leaves into your yard. I was lucky last fall my neighbor was more than happy to blow his leaves down the hill in-between our houses.
I run my leaves through a leaf mulcher which gives me nice chopped mulch ready to be put on my beds. I recommend about a 1 to 2 inches of mulch on top of your beds or growing area in the late fall and leave there over winter. Come spring, I mix whatever is left into the soil and as long as I don’t have to add any rock minerals I’m good to start planting.
Since its spring now, check if you have leaves hanging around from last year and go ahead and put them in your garden or if you’ve already planted side dress your plants. It will help retain moisture and keep weeds down.
Test your soil in the fall every 3 years. Or test now for a baseline.
Use a lab that breaks down everything by the numbers verses using general terms such as Below Optimum, Optimum etc.
Use leaf compost/mulch on less than a ¼ acre or in raised beds. If you want to use animal manures, try to use manures that are bedding free (i.e. wood shavings or sawdust), and are fed clean herbicide free feed.