May 8, 2012
ASK THE GEEKS with Garden Center Expert Lisa Briggs
Talk to any gardener worth his or her salt about growing vegetables and you are sure to hear the term ‘heirloom.’ And though these special varieties are the current darlings of the edible gardening craze, no one is quite certain what exactly constitutes an heirloom vegetable. Start the conversation over your garden fence and see what happens. Most experts though, agree on a few key points so let’s tackle them one by one.
The most common trait is age. Heirloom should be old. Just how old is open to discussion. A common theory is that these varieties are those introduced before 1951, which is when modern plant breeders began to introduce hybrids. And while that makes a lot of sense, most seed catalogs seem to focus on varieties that date back to the 1930s and ‘40s, using the Victory Gardens of World War II as a reference point. A lot of varieties are much older, especially those that trace their heritage to Europe, Asia and Africa.
And just as gardeners have differing ideas about how old heirloom varieties should be or where they should come from, they also like to exclude any that were commercially available in seed catalogs, limiting their personal choices to those that are specific to a region or were passed down from one generation to another. Since I am a cheerleader for biodiversity, I like to plant all of those old-time varieties, celebrating especially any seed with a really good story. For instance, ‘Lazy Housewife’ bean was introduced around 1810 and is one of Seed Savers oldest beans. It was given this colorful moniker because it was the first snap bean introduced that was stringless. Or how about ‘Nebraska Wedding’ tomato, the ultimate love apple whose seeds are still given to Nebraskan brides as wedding gifts.
Another commonly agreed upon trait is that heirlooms are ‘open-pollinated.’ This means that these varieties can be grown true from seed and that future generations will be true-to-type. So any ‘Lacinato’ kale that is grown from collected and properly saved seed will look and taste like the original parent plant. More and more commercially grown vegetables are hybrids. Seeds saved from these varieties are unlikely to germinate. And even if it does, the new plants won’t display the same characteristics that enticed you to try it in the first place.
It is worth remembering that open pollination is anything but. Take squash and pumpkins. When left to their own devices, they will pollinate all over the place. You harvest what you planted, but saved seed will result in all kinds of mongrel plants, a few good and many really bad. Members of the Brassica family, like cauliflowers and cabbages will do the same thing.
A third trait is a big one for our gardeners-quality. What draws us to heirloom varieties is variety. We want tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, not something strip-mined in Florida. We want apples that evoke childhood memories. We want a truly juicy cantaloupe. Fruit in the grocery store may look picture perfect, but it often doesn’t taste like much. This is why we plant heirlooms.
To be fair, heirlooms can be a mixed bag. For some gardeners, all the fabulous taste in the world can be offset by pests that were unknown a hundred years ago. Hybrid plants are often disease resistant. And heirlooms can be quirky. Seeds germinate more erratically, some popping up right away, while the rest in the flat take their time. The new seedlings may have some pretty wacky growing habits. It’s okay. Plants are like people and I guess that some just need to express themselves.
But I say, “Go for it.” With a little advice from your friends in the Garden Center, you can find an heirloom variety that is particularly suited for your garden and your tastes. And you never know. In another hundred years, your great great grandchildren might be waxing poetic about the same tomato variety that you choose today. And you’ll be creating your own family stories.
May 3, 2012
Conversations with Sod….notes from the field
Mulch, mulch, mulch. Seems that’s all I do these days besides plant a few HUGE trees here and there. Definitely keeps me in shape (and mighty dirty I might add). The landscaping crew continues to be super busy trying to get everyone’s yards ready with the early warm weather push. The garden center ladies are continuing to arrange and reveal our perennial selection and vegetables as they become available. They’ll begin receiving more and more annuals over the next few weeks as well. The Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery construction continues to reveal more and more of the new beauty within. Besides the completion of the screened in porch with fireplace, new dark hard wood floors and bar have been installed and deep, bold, earthy colors and artistically designed imprints landscape the walls. Our open house weekend May 19 & 20 (during normal business hours) will be quite the spectacle with restaurant tours as well as our container planting party – Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers where you can pick a container at the shop or bring your own in, purchase your favorite plants onsite and put your pot together at the garden center (no mess at home!) with the help with our expert garden designers. Also enjoy 20% off giftware, statuary and pottery at both locations. The weekend before, celebrate Mother’s Day with the kiddos on Saturday, May 12 from 10-3PM, have them plant up a pretty present for mom while parents receive a 20% off a single item coupon as an additional gift.
Enough with the updates, now on to the main topic. We thought it appropriate to do a blog on starting your vegetable garden! With our early warm weather tease, it seems as though spring is lasting forever! Well, there are plenty more things you can do these days besides even planting your perennials that have weathered through the winter – for instance, our perennials have been tempered in the weather so they are pretty stable in their pots and soil and can be planted in the ground now.
As for the veggie garden here are a few of the vegetables that you can plant before the last frost weekend as the typical starting date for your garden:
As well as some of the locally grown heirloom vegetables that we offer at our garden center:
- kale – lacinato and dwf scotch blue varieties
- broccoli – romanesco, de dicco, calabrese varieties
- cauliflower – early snowball variety
- cabbage – caraflex, mamouth red rock, copenhagen market, primo
We soon will also be selling brussel sprouts which can be planted now as well.
When you start planting your vegetable garden, here are some tips to remember when beginning this early with the cold weather veggies. First off, don’t get too overzealous on the watering in the early weeks. The cool soil right now doesn’t allow soil to dry out as well so there is a risk of plants rotting off. Secondly, this is the time to add your organic matter such as earthworm castings, organic compost, etc. A nice prepping and preparing of the general structure of the garden will get it ready for the next shift in planting – tomatoes may even be started just after Mother’s Day.
Thanks again for reading! Another exciting thing I might point out is the Restoration Farms program with the Sheboygan Falls High School Food Science class that aims to grow, maintain and harvest vegetables at Restoration Farms and then bring the food via a “mobile farmer’s market” with veggie truck year round to over 600 impoverished community members in desperate need of good, healthy food. The program/cause was chosen as one of 100 finalists (out of thousands through this national contest put on through State Farm) to compete to be one of the top 40 vote getters through Facebook. We need your help to win a $25,000 grant! Through Facebook, vote as many as 10 times a day to help End Food Injustice, the name of the cause (search under Wisconsin), win the big prize! CLICK HERE for the link to the starter page of the contest Cause An Effect, then search under Wisconsin for End Food Injustice. Thanks for all your help that will help us help others! Happy planting!
From the field,
October 6, 2011
Even though autumn may seem like a time of decline, it happens to be my favorite season. There is something comforting about putting your gardening projects to bed for the coming winter. And it works for life’s projects, too. I appreciate the chance of a break to breathe before the holiday madness begins.
Here at Restoration Gardens, and at the farm, this means deciding what winter preparations need to made. What trees will we up-pot? When will we cut back the perennial grasses? Which bulbs will we save to force? Where will we plant next year’s garlic? I could easily list another dozen tasks. Your list might be similar, or completely different. But all of these jobs can be described as ‘general fall clean-up’.
The first job that we tackle is cutting back-pots of perennials for over-wintering, plants on the berms, annuals and vegetables in the raised beds. So the big question, both physically and philosophically, is “What should I cut back and what should I leave?” Cleaning up spent perennials in the fall can give you a leg up on next year’s busy spring, as well as prevent the spread of fungus and other diseases. So go ahead and cut most of those plants as they die back, especially really leafy ones like hostas, daylilies, iris and peonies. But many plants can provide lots of interest to a winter landscape. Grass seed-heads and hydrangea blossoms are just two that are very popular. If you like the lovely quality that those plants add, you should mark your calendar with a note to schedule some very early spring maintenance for optimum performance next season. You’ll want to cut the grasses and other perennials back before they show signs of spring growth. Any fruit or spent flowers that are left on woody branches should be pruned for shape once the buds begin to expand.
I prefer to separate pruning from cutting back as there is technique and timing involved. Some woody plants can handle fall pruning and some cannot. Evergreens, for instance, are best trimmed as the new growth begins to harden, generally the first part of June. Pruning right now can open the plant to disease and winter injury. And the general rule for flowering trees and shrubs is to prune any that flower on old growth as soon as the flowers are spent, and those that flower on new growth while the plant is dormant. Lilacs, crabapples and magnolias should be trimmed by mid June and hydrangea, spirea and potentilla can be cut back any time the leaves are off and the plant is dormant.
Roses are an exception to that rule. Unless you have old-fashioned hydrid teas and grandifloras that are going to spend the cold season under rose cones, I recommend spring pruning. The very popular shrub roses are able to withstand our winters without much dieback. Wait until next spring’s buds swell for any trimming. Then you can shape the plant and remove old or damaged canes.
And as long as we’re on the subject of pruning out damaged wood, that can be done anytime for most plants. Make clean cuts with sharp pruning shears or saws. But if you are working on a plant that is susceptible to vascular diseases, only make those cuts during dormancy. These diseases are carried by insects that are attracted to the oozing sap that pruning often causes, so take care with oaks, ash and if you are lucky enough to have one, any native elms.
As for raking, your spring lawn will be much healthier if it isn’t covered by a layer of old foliage all winter. But what can you do with all of those leaves? Many gardeners like to save their leaves to use as a winter mulch on their beds and borders and that’s fine as long as it isn’t mounded deeper that 2 or 3 inches. It will break down a bit over the winter and it’s free. In the spring, topdress the beds with an inch or two of shredded bark. You should use clean straw for plants like roses and butterfly bushes that require deeper mulch for more protection. Leaves also make an excellent soil amendment for new planting areas and raised beds. Chopping them with a lawn mower on a dry day will hasten their decomposition. You can then spread the pieces evenly, digging in now or next spring. And if you use a composter, these smaller bits will speed the process.
Harvesting and foraging are activities that the staff Restoration Gardens spends a lot time on. Any of you who purchase our hand-made wreaths, holiday or not, might be intrigued to know that many of the decorative materials are growth right on the Kohler and Plymouth properties. We use everything from fountain grass seed-heads and curly willow branches to dried hydrangea blossoms and iris pods in container arrangements, wreaths and baskets. Last week would have found us foraging for bracket fungus moss tufts for spooky Halloween pots and hanging bright violet sea holly flowers to dry. Just use your imagination. Many gardeners have access to red twigged dogwood which can be renewal pruned in a month or so for holiday pots, leaving room in your decoration budget for some exotic berried juniper or coned incense-cedar.
Finally, I’ll write a few words on fall planting. There is a reason that landscapers plant into November. They know that autumn often provides the perfect conditions for plant establishment. Temperatures are cooler, rainfall is more regular and plants are concentrating their efforts rootward. You can feel free to take advantage of the fall sales at trusted garden centers. We’ll point you in the direction of trees, shrubs and perennials that are able to handle late planting. So celebrate the Autumnal Equinox with a little work in the garden tempered by some fall reflection.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the beauty of fall!