A Beautiful Year for Spring Bulbs

Maybe it’s because it has not warmed up too fast, or we had moisture at the right times (though parts of Minnesota are technically in a drought), 2015 has been a good year for bulbs in my garden.

crocus

Mixed crocus

Over the past couple of years, I’ve planted more bulbs in the fall for spring bloom, including lots of crocus*, Siberian squill in the yard and garden beds, new big daffodils*, more tulips and cute, little Chiondoxa (glory of the snow). For later bloom, I have two kinds of allium as well. So far, the early spring bulbs are blooing except the tulips, which will be colorful until mid-May or beyond.

First tulips in bloom.

First tulips in bloom.

Bulbs brighten up the early spring landscape and are a great addition to northern gardens. Since we often aren’t sure when spring will occur in Minnesota or how long it will last, bulbs guarantee a bit of color before that explosion of spring flowering trees and early perennials that occurs in May.

glory of the snow

Glory of the Snow

They are easy to plant and take care of, too. In early October, I dig a big hole to place large groups of bulbs. The larger groups have more impact in the landscape and placing them in one hole is easier than digging individual holes for each bulb. I give them a little fertilizer, but otherwise just leave them alone and wait for spring. I’ve been fortunate that the many critters we have around our house have not gone after my bulbs. My neighbors have had that happen and switched to mostly daffodils, which for some reason the little monsters don’t like.

How are your bulbs looking this year?

I’m pretty sure these were test plants sent to me at no charge from Longfield Gardens. (I lost the paperwork between October and now.) The bulbs are fantastic.

Posted in Bulbs | 2 Comments

Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors

Over the years, I’ve had lots of successes and lots of failures with indoor seed starting. While seed-starting time is in February or March in many parts of the country, early April is actually a really good time to start seeds indoors in Minnesota, especially if you are planning to grow warm season crops such as tomatoes.

So, here are my top six tips for starting seeds indoors successfully.

seedlingNo. 1 — Put them where you will see them. Many gardeners have to put their seed-starting set up in the basement. They end up forgetting to check them and before you know it, the seeds are dried up or overgrown. Put them in a prominent place so you are inclined to coddle them.

No. 2 — Let the breezes blow. Outdoors, your little seedlings will experience wind (where I live, it’s gale-force a lot of the time), so get them used to it with a fan set up near your seed starting area. Keep the fan on low to get the seedlings used to wind. This will also help reduce fungal diseases.

Tomato seeds planted and labeled.

Tomato seeds planted and labeled.

No. 3 — Label, label, label. You think you will not forget which of the six varieties of tomato seeds you started are in which pots — but you will. My latest trick is to use a label maker to create labels on the seed starting trays. This is much neater than writing it out on a popsicle stick and less likely to fall off or get washed away. When the plants move to the hardening off stage, the label maker will be employed again.

No. 4 — Water gently and sparingly. More seedlings have been killed by drowning than by drying out. Water regularly, not too much, and if at all possible, from the bottom. My current set up includes really great trays I got when I ordered prairie plants from Prairie Moon Nursery. Each cell is 5 inches deep and the cell tray stands in another tray. I just pour the water into the lower tray and the plants drink it up from below. This encourages the roots to go deeper. When seed-starting season is over, I wash the trays thoroughly and give them a dip in a 10 percent bleach solution to kill any bacteria.

No. 5 — Don’t spend too much. If you only are growing a few tomatoes, it may not be worth your time and money to start from seeds. Just buy a few plants at a local farmers’ market or a garden club plant sale. You don’t need a fancy grow system either — a basic shop light, a couple of flourescent bulbs and a way to suspend the shop light above your seed trays, trays of some kind and seed starting mix — that’s all you need. Do buy or make your own seed starting mix rather than using old potting soil or garden soil.

No. 6 — Pot them up. Depending on the size of the cells you use to start your seeds, you may have to move them to larger pots as the plants get bigger. This is particularly true in my experience with those little pellets that expand when you add water. I’ve got some seedlings that were planted about two weeks ago that are going to need to go into a bigger pot very soon. Save small yogurt cups or the pots that purchased plants came in, add some potting soil and very gently move the seedlings into a bigger pot. Pot them up gradually. A tiny seedling might go to a 2-by-2-inch pot or a 3-by-3, even if it eventually will fill a large container.

For more information on seed starting:

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Sneak Peak at Spring Garden Trends

Citrus green, bright pink and clean white make for a pretty spring table.

Citrus green, bright pink and clean white make for a pretty spring table.

Yesterday I attended an event for bloggers at Bachman’s Spring Idea House in Minneapolis and got a sneak peak at what will be in stores this spring. It was great fun to meet several fashion, lifestyle and photography bloggers, as well as seeing the colors and ideas for home and garden decor in action.

In a word: think “fresh.” Also, “pink.”

Karen Bachman Thull led us through the house, a 1920s beauty that was built by Arthur Bachman Sr., a son of one of Bachman’s founders.  Three times a year, Bachman’s re-designs the rooms in the house — furniture, paint, the whole she-bang — and opens the house to the public. This year, the house is open every day until April 19. It’s $5 to tour the house and, if you are someone who enjoys decor or is just hungry for spring, it’s well-worth a visit.

Lots of the decor was done in a fresh, bright combination of citrus green, bright pink and white. The combination works great in containers, in table decorations and in the furniture in the airy sunroom and living room of the house. Karen noted that this combination is dynamite as long as you do not add another color. If you put in a blue, a purple, an orange — it falls apart. The look goes from fresh to garish in a minute. I have a pair of bright green containers and plan to try this combination in them this summer.

This self-watering planter holds herbs in pots.

This self-watering planter holds herbs in pots.

Another garden trend worth noting is the improved vertical gardening trend. I’ve been a bit cool on most vertical gardening systems because they require so much watering — some of them are basically gutters mounted on a frame. Bachman’s is selling a couple of self-watering systems now. A sweet window box containing herbs was on display in the idea house kitchen and a massive, multi-part living wall of foliage was in the yoga room upstairs. The wall you see in the photo below contains six of the wall garden systems. Fully loaded with plants and water, each system weighs about 60 pounds. The way the systems work is that each plant is in a pot. A wicking device inside the system pulls water from the troughs to the plants.

This dramatic wall of foliage includes six self-watering systems and a whole lot of plants!

This dramatic wall of foliage includes six self-watering systems and a whole lot of plants!

Karen told me that the kitchen system would only need to be refilled about once a month. If you want to try vertical gardening, self watering is the way to go.

The house also features several forced branches of spring blooms. I think more northern gardeners should try forcing branches in the spring — it’s a great way to bring color into the house. Other garden trends noted in the house are increased interest in terrariums and air plants.

I also really loved this arrangement of snow boots outside the house. Everything is a container this spring!

These boots were made for planting.

These boots were made for planting.

 

Posted in Decorating, Garden Design, Garden Trends | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Getting Ready for Seed Starting

Looking at a forecast that includes several days of 60 degree weather, in March, in Minnesota — well, it’s hard not to be thinking about seed starting. But hold off — this too may pass and, in fact, I’m hoping it does. A very early spring can wreck havoc on Minnesota’s outdoor plants as we found out in 2012 when an unreasonably warm March caused fruit trees and other plants to start acting like it was spring only to get zapped by a nasty freeze in April.

I organize seeds by whether I'm starting them indoors or out and on which day.

I organize seeds by whether I’m starting them indoors or out and on which day.

So, while this weather is tempting, stay off the grass and out of your gardens to avoid compacting the thawing earth, and think about indoor seed starting instead. I’m getting ready to start seeds in the next couple of weeks. I’ve checked my light set up to make sure it’s still working and organized my seed box so I know when to start what. This year I’ll be starting a few more annual flowers than I have in the past. I find the home-started annuals do just as well as those I’ve bought as starts and there is a big savings on costs.

This is not a cosmos I started from seed, or grew at all, but isn't it pretty?

This is not a cosmos I started from seed, or grew at all, but isn’t it pretty?

Most of them can be started about the same time as many of your vegetables. Here’s a typical schedule for starting annuals. The “last frost” date in Minnesota is typically in early to mid-May, so I use May 15 to be on the safe side.

8-10 weeks before last frost: Baby’s breath, viola, vinca, alyssum

6-8 weeks before last frost: Snapdragons, ageratum, gomphrena

4-6 weeks before last frost: Celosia, cosmos, sunflower, marigolds, salvia

This year, I’ll be starting baby’s breath, violas, cosmos, sunflowers, marigolds and salvias, in addition to a fair number of vegetables.

What plants will you be starting from seed this year?

Posted in Annual Flowers, Seed starting | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Winter Sowing Native Plants, Two Ways

A week ago, we had a few days of pleasant 30-degree weather here in Minnesota, perfect weather for winter sowing native plants for the meadow I maintain behind my house. The meadow has been challenging, to say the least. There is a lot of weed pressure near it (and in it). It’s been one of those garden projects that reminds you just how small and ineffective you are compared to Nature, with a capital N.

So, I was thrilled to see that Prairie Moon Nursery, where I bought most of the plants and seeds I’ve used in the meadow, was offering a Jungle Prairie Mix of seeds. According to Prairie Moon, the Jungle Mix  “includes the most robust and competitive prairie plants available. The Jungle Prairie is perfect for a weedy ditch, a privacy screen, or for just establishing a profusion of flowers while providing habitat for wildlife.” Sounds good to me.

Seeds waiting for spring

Seeds waiting for spring

I ordered enough seeds for 2,000 square feet to spread on the meadow. I also liked that this is a project they recommend you do during winter — a time when I’m less busy in the garden anyway. (Prairie plants tend to need stratification to germinate — that is, the process of breaking the seed coat by repeated freezing and thawing — so sowing them in winter allows the process to happen naturally.)

The directions for spreading the seeds call for dividing your area into smaller spaces so that the seeds are more evenly spread. I visually divided the meadow in four, then mixed one-quarter of the seeds with a filler material and spread it on each section by tossing it as evenly as I could. My husband raised the issue that birds would eat the seed, but we did not see any increase in bird activity after casting the seeds. We have a feeder not too far from the meadow, so hopefully they will get their sustenance there.

While working on that type of winter sowing, I dug out some of my seeds from last year. I found several kinds of seeds that work well in the meadow—lupine, prairie coreopsis, rose milkweed, and asters, among others—and decided to sow them in traditional winter sowing containers. That way I can place them in the meadow, where I think they will look best. (Read the first paragraph of this post again and ask yourself: Why is it so hard to let go of control?)

Anyway, I have complete instructions on winter sowing in containers on the blog and followed them, using a fairly light potting mix, which included potting soil, perlite and vermiculite. Three of the winter sowing boxes are outside now and more will be added as we empty lettuce containers and milk jugs here.

Will you be winter sowing this year?

 

Posted in Meadow Project, Native Plants, Winter Sowing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Gift Idea: A Spring Garden for Valentine’s Day

The Watch 'em Grow basket arrives with some growth.

The Watch ’em Grow basket arrives with some growth.

Are you looking for a gift idea for your valentine this week? If he or she is a gardener or someone who likes flowers, let me suggest this pre-planted bulb garden the folks at Bachman’s are offering. Called Watch ’em Grow, the pots come in 8 or 10 inch sizes and are planted with an assortment of spring bulbs: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and muscari.

When they arrive, the bulbs are just starting to grow. Give them a little water and set them in a bright spot, and in a week or so, your valentine will have blooms. Mine arrived January 26 and by February 4, the cutest tiny daffodils I’ve ever seen on it were in bloom. Today, the hyacinths are also blooming (one light pink, one dark purple) and the tulips are just starting to break open. I’m guessing I will have blooms for about 10 more days.

Pretty spring colors!

Pretty spring colors!

Fresh flowers are a wonderful gift, but I like something that you can watch grow and enjoy for several weeks. Other suggestions for a Valentine’s Day gift for the gardener in your life?

  • Seeds! How about seeds for a butterfly garden? Or a selection of tomato seeds with unusual names or flavors?
  • A tree. A few nurseries are open now and you can get a gift certificate for a tree.
  • A book about gardening or cooking. Some of my recent favorites include The Layered Garden, Groundbreaking Food Gardens, and for planning how to cook up all the good vegetables your gardener will grown next year, Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table. (Check out the March/April issue of Northern Gardener for an article on the garden Amy and her husband, Aaron Spangler, tend in northern Minnesota.)
  • A CSA share. OK, this is a big one. But, if your gardener does not grow a lot of food, but loves fresh food (and who doesn’t?) how about a share or partial share in a local community supported agriculture farm? You can find a list of regional CSAs here.
  • Fresh flowers. A bouquet is lovely and much better for the figure than a box of chocolates.

Enjoy the holiday!

Disclosure: I was sent the Watch ’em Grow basket free of charge for review purposes. My policy is to review products only if I like them. If I don’t like them, I will not mention them on this blog or in social media.

Posted in Amazing Plants, Bulbs | Tagged | 1 Comment

In Praise of the Como Conservatory

Winter Respite imageReaders of this blog know that I am a big fan of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul. During the coldest time of the year, I love to visit the conservatory to soak up the humidity and warmth as well as to admire the exotic plants.It’s a bit like taking a trip to the tropics, without leaving town.

This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the conservatory at Como Park and so we decided to mark that event with an article in Northern Gardener. I was thrilled to be able to write this piece and show some of my photos of the conservatory. You can read the article online by clicking the image above, or you can see it in the January/February issue of Northern Gardener.

What’s your favorite way to get through the winter?

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Amaryllis in the Morning

'Exotica' amaryllis

‘Exotica’ amaryllis

I’ve been the recipient of several homeless houseplants over the past couple of years, so I’m hesitant to add too many more to my collection. But when the folks at Longfield Gardens offered me (and several other garden writers) a free amaryllis kit this fall, I was happy to give it a try, and am surprised by how truly stunning the amaryllis is turning out to be.

The kit came with a whopping big bulb, a cute tin container, some soil, mulch and instructions. Back in November, the kit arrived, and I potted it up on Nov. 17. Per the instructions, I gave it a pretty thorough watering, and that was probably the last time I watered it. In a few weeks, the bloom stalk appeared and it grew so fast that I started to measure it. One day it was 11 inches, then 12-1/2, then 17. It topped out at just over 20 inches without the blooms.

amaryllis plantI was hoping the bulb would bloom in time for Christmas, but it started blooming about a week later. The bulb was located in my kitchen sink window, which is the sunniest spot I have in December, but possibly not as warm as the bulb would have liked.

The blooms are a delicate cream color with streaks of yellow and apricot. I’ve been posting a few shots on Instagram and it’s fun to see how the Instagram filters change the look of the bulb. (The photo above is without any filtering.)

The blooms should last another week or so. There’s also a second stalk coming off the bulb which looks like it will bloom after this one fades. You can keep amaryllis bulbs for use the next winter. This involves removing the flower stalks and setting the bulb and its leaves in a sunny spot over the winter before moving it outside in the summer to build up the nutrition the bulb needs to bloom again.

For more information about forcing bulbs, check out the November/December issue of Northern Gardener. There is a fine article by Margaret Haapoja on which bulbs to force into bloom and how to do it.

 

Posted in Bulbs, Garden Gifts | 3 Comments

A Sea of Poinsettias

It was a great Thanksgiving weekend, with visits from family, Black Friday shopping with my daughter and her friend and lots of food, including a pie made with cranberries and the last of my homegrown cherries. It was topped off with a visit to the Bachman’s greenhouses in Lakeville Sunday afternoon, courtesy of my friend Gwen and her husband, John, who works there.

 

My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.

My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.

Bachman’s grows about 65,000 poinsettias each year. Many are sold at the Bachman’s stores and the rest are grown for organizations that sell them as holiday fundraisers. The greenhouses (I think we were in three different ones during our walk through) are enormous and two weeks ago, they were completely full, John said. Now, many of the poinsettias have been shipped, but the ones remaining look like a sea of red, pink and white.

These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.

These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico and the English name came from the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. In Mexico, the plant will grow to 10 to 15 feet tall. (Bachman’s grows some poinsettias taller than the usual 1-foot or so size and they are stunning.) The Aztecs used poinsettia leaves as a dye and used the sap to reduce fevers. While poinsettias are not poisonous to humans, they can cause vomiting and other stomach upsets in animals. (They also taste terrible, according to this great poinsettia website.) A member of the spurge family, poinsettias have the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. The brightly colored tops of the poinsettias are not actually flowers. They are brachts (modified leaves) and the tiny yellow bits inside the brachts are the flowers.

These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.

These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.

With the right situation, poinsettias can survive the winter. Here are some tips for keeping your holiday poinsettia healthy.

  • Try to give it 6 hours of indirect sunlight a day. (That may be tricky in Minnesota in December, but choose the poinsettia’s spot with light in mind.) Many sites recommend a south, east or west window, but the plant should not touch the cold glass.
  • Check the soil in the pot daily and give it a good drink whenever it feels dry to the touch. You should make sure the pot has a drainage hole (poke some holes in the foil wrapping, too). When you water, give the plant enough that the water runs out the hole in the bottom. If the plant is on a plate to catch the drips, be sure to empty the water so the plant’s roots don’t get too soggy.
  • If you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant, give it a dose of all-purpose houseplant food after the blooming season and once a month through winter.

Will you be getting a poinsettia this holiday season?

flower closeup

The yellow bits in the center are the flowers of the poinsettia.

These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.

These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.

And more poinsettias

And more poisettias

 

Posted in Decorating, Houseplants, Seasons | Tagged | 1 Comment

From Container to Cookpot: A Squash Soup Story

soup 2Earlier this fall, I bought three nice squash from the Northfield Farmers Market to use in a fall container. When the weather turned cold (and then nasty) a week or so ago, I brought the squash in to put them to use in a soup. Squash are ornamental, and most are edible as well, so there was no reason to let the squash rot on the porch.

This soup turned out especially good and I think it’s in part because I had more than one kind of squash and because of the way they were prepared. The squash included a blue Hubbard squash, a red Kabocha squash and a buttercup squash. (Here’s a great guide to all things squash.)

I have been reading chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s book Old-School Comfort Food (Clarkson-Potter, 2013). For her squash soup, Guarnaschelli first roasts the squash with a rich coating of butter, sugar and molasses. I cut the butter by about half, but it was still plenty rich and delicious. After the roasting, I freelanced things and made a squash soup the way I normally would with onions, wine and warm spices. (Guarnaschelli’s soup sounds delicious, too, but this is my preferred recipe.) It turned out beautifully, elevating a simple soup and sandwich supper to gourmet levels. Of course, I served it with the red pepper relish that I make each fall.

That's a lot of squash!

That’s a lot of squash!

A couple of notes: 1) This is not a quick meal. Do it on a day when you will be hanging around the house for several hours. 2) The amounts of some of the ingredients are variable. Because I had lots of squash, I used six cups of cooked squash for the soup and the rest went into a squash custard. You may need more or less liquid depending on how big your squash are. 3) This soup calls for an immersion blender. If you don’t have one, you could mush up the soup with a potato masher or use a regular blender and blend the soup in batches, though I think that’s a bit dangerous. (Immersion blenders come at a variety of price points. Walmart has one for less than $15; if you spend $40,  you can have this nice one I got for my daughter when she got her first apartment.) It’s a good kitchen investment.

Squash Soup from a Container Garden

2-3 winter squash (your choice on type) If very large, you may only need one

5 TBSP butter, melted in a sauce pan

2 TBSP brown sugar

2 TBSP molasses

2 TBSP olive oil

1 large onion chopped

1 TBSP chopped garlic

1 jalapeno or other hot pepper diced finely (totally optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp Garam masala

1 tsp cumin

Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp)

1/2 cup white wine (optional)

1-2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or water)

Water as needed

1 cup (more or less) whole milk or half-and-half

Prepare the squash: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Also, check to make sure your oven shelves are far enough apart — especially if you have big squash. Wash the squash, then cut them into large pieces and scrape out the seeds. Place the pieces on large trays, preferably with a 1-2 inch lip, and drizzle the melted butter over them. Sprinkle on the sugar and molasses and some salt and pepper. Put a little water in the bottom of the pans to add some steam. Then cover it all with foil and crimp the edges around the pan. You want the squash to be semi-sealed in to prevent the sugars from browning too much. Bake for 90 minutes or more until the squash are soft. Take it out of the oven (carefully!!!) and let it cool so you can handle it.

The soup: Remove the squash flesh from the skins with a spoon or knife. For my soup, I used 6 cups of squash, but you could use more and just increase the liquid. Have your onion and garlic chopped and your spices ready. Put the oil in your soup pot and warm it slightly, add the onion and a bit of salt and pepper. Let it cook until it’s translucent. Then add the spices, garlic and hot pepper, if using, and let them cook for a minute or two. Pour in the wine and let all the goodness meld for about 2 minutes. Then, add your squash, the broth and enough water to just cover the squash. Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. (If your squash is not perfectly soft, it may need more time. If it is soft, less.)

Blend the soup. When everything is soft and smelling good, blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. You may need to add more water because it should be rather thick. Add in the milk (as much or little as you like) to get it to your preferred consistency. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or (my preference) some red pepper relish.

 

Posted in Container Gardening, Fall Gardening, Recipes | Tagged | 1 Comment