Earth Day Gardening Tips

IMG_3428

You know the saying: “think globally, act locally”.  Honoring the earth can be as simple as being greener in your garden.

As gardeners we get to celebrate Earth Day all year.  As Master Gardeners and educators we are fortunate to have opportunities to multiply that appreciation.

I came across an article by Jennifer Davit (Director of the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park) on Celebrating Earth Day by Sharing Gardening Tips  in the Chicago Sun Tribune.  Her six suggestions are as applicable for Goodhue County as they are to Millennium Park in downtown Chicago:

  • Replace annuals with perennials. There are many beautiful perennials that are native to the bluffs and hardwood forests of Goodhue County that can be integrated into  gardens and require little water and no fertilizer.
  • Don’t overfertilize. Perennials in our garden are chosen for their durability and successful growth over time. They typically don’t need supplemental nutrients through conventional fertilizers — some will actually perform poorer if they are fertilized, especially with liquid formulations. Only fertilize if the plant is showing signs of nutrient deficiencies.
  • Think beyond color: When choosing perennial plants and grasses, consider textures, movement, sound and scents. For example, the combinations of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and Eastern bee balm (Monarda bradburiana) provide excellent textural diversity throughout the year.
  • Attract wildlife. Choose plants, such as calamint, salvias and native milkweeds that provide nectar and pollen to attract and feed wildlife. Many beautiful gardens from Millennium Park in Chicago IL to our own Discovery Garden in Red Wing MN do not use chemicals and create habitat for all to enjoy.
  • Say no to insecticides. By tolerating a little plant damage, you will help welcome a healthy insect population to your garden. You’ll be amazed at the number of dragonflies that come to eat your mosquitoes, the number of bees that will collect pollen and nectar from your plants, and the variety of butterflies that will make your garden their home.
  • Don’t forget winter: Instead of cutting back perennials in fall, leave them up through winter and cut them back in late winter, before early spring bulbs start to grow. This will enable you to enjoy your garden despite the cold and provide a home for wildlife year-round.

We can do that!

I am sure Karen would add a seventh bullet promoting  no till gardening  to reduce weeds and protect soil.  We can do that too!

Tiptoe into Spring with “Winter” Sowing

IMG_3014

Looking at my 2012 garden calendar, by this date last year I had planted radishes, raddichio and spinach in my community garden. The crocus, early daffodils, forsythia and cherry leaves were sprouting in my backyard.    While its not to soon for spring, a post today (March 22) on the MN Master Gardener Listserve, reminds us we can be planting vegetables, even with the foot of snow on the ground:

"I've cold-sown all kinds of seeds in many types of containers 
in the last 7'ish years.  I've gotten the best results from:   
1. Seeds of perennials , especially natives (Stands to reason, 
eh?)  

2. Seeds of self-seeding annuals, including tomatoes (Again, 
this makes perfect sense) 
3.  Seeds of cold-hardy annuals like kale, lettuce, 
snapdragon, pansies, broccoli, etc. While a gardener can 
try cold sowing with any seed, in my experience the lowest
 germination rates come from the least cold-tolerant plants,
e.g., peppers.  

As for timing, I am doing my cold-sowing this week.  

While I've done it earlier in the season, I've found no  
advantage in doing so and maybe a slight reduction in 
germination rates in the more cold-sensitive plants.  

When is it too late to cold-sow?  When you can sow seed
directly into your garden! For cold-tolerant seed, that  
means as soon as the soil is workable.  For heat-loving seed,
that means when the soil has warmed to ~60 degrees (F) and
the danger of frost has passed.    

The beauty of cold-sowing
is that the seedlings emerge and grow in concert with Mother
Nature.  Only "she" decides when the seed will germinate and
how fast the seedlings should grow.  And when the time comes
to transplant the seedlings into the garden, they experience
no temp-related transplant shock.  (Sue Schiess Hennepin County
Master Gardener)"

Also don’t forget Terry Yockey’s great link on Winter Sowing.

Culinary flowers

IMG_3258All from the garden… blossoms of nasturtiums, borage and dill add to an already delicious salad!

Browsing through seed catalogues during an early spring thaw, it is easy to be drawn to the color of nasturtiums.  It is easy to admire the color nasturtiums bring to containers or the way they dress a salad with salad with their peppery taste.    Why stop here when there is a great online resource on the University of Minnesota’s Extension Master Gardener website.

Beyond salads, cakes and other desserts can be decorated with colorful blooms and cold drinks can be enhanced with a floral garnish.   The small test tube-like containers used at florists can be inserted in a cake to hold small blooms and provide water.

To assure  flowers come from pesticide-free plants, it is best to grow them yourself.  Several of the plants listed in the chart below grow well in containers.  Harvest blossoms the same day you plan to use them, gently wash them and allow the plants to air dry. Remove the tart internal stamens and styles of larger flowers such as tulip or squash blossoms.  If need be, store your colorful prizes in covered containers in the refrigerator.  Add the pretty posies just before serving.

Bon appetite!  Here are a few suggestions from University of Minnesota Extension Factsheet:  (http://www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/ygbriefs/h104edibleflowers.html )

Alpine Strawberry Flowers and leaves often used in tea
Anise Hyssop Flowers
Apple or Plum Flowers
Beebalm Flower taste differs by cultivar; avoid ‘Panorama’ as the taste is too astringent
Begonia Flowers
Borage Flowers  and leaves
Calendula Flowers
Chamomile Flowers have an apple scent and flavor
Chives Flowers blossoms and stems
Daylilies Flowers buds are good stir-fried
Dill Flowers, seeds and foliage
English Daisy Flowers
Gladiolus Flowers
Hollyhocks Flowers
Honeysuckle Flowers
Lavender Flowers can be bitter, but wonderfully scented.
Lemon Balm Leaves and flowers are scented.
Lilac Flowers
Marjoram Flowers  and leaves
Mint Flowers  and leaves
Mustard Flowers, leaves and young seed pods
Nasturtium Fowers and leaves have a peppery taste
Pansy Flowers
Petunia Flowers
Pinks Flowers
Rose Use flower petals.
Scarlet Runner Beans Flowers  and young bean pods Note: Sweet Pea flowers NOT edible.
Sage Flowers eaves fresh or dried.
Squash Flowers can be stuffed or fried. If female blossoms are picked fruit will not develop.
Tulip Use petals.

Basil Basics

basil.jpg

What’s not to love about basil?  If I had to pick just one plant to grow, basil would take the prize.  True, I have a love affair with pesto, but nothing can top a caprese salad and even the scent of brushing against the plant as you walk by can be intoxicating.

Native to SE Asia and the South Pacific, basil is in the mint family.  There are thirty different species but the most commonly cultivated in the U.S. is Ocimum basilicum.   Its genus name Ocimum is a Greek verb meaning, “to be fragrant” and species basilicum means “king or prince.”   I rest my case, oh king of herbs!

Basil is easy to grow, garden pesky wildlife avoid it, and the 1-3 foot plants look great in ornamental, vegetable and container gardens.  There are varieties with interesting leaf shapes and flavors such as cinnamon, lemon or anise as well as the beautiful color of purple leafed basils.  My favorite for its large tender leaves is Genovese Basil.  (For a broader list of basil varieties and more cultural details see the University of Minnesota Basil Fact Sheet at http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/components/M1219.pdf or http://www.ngb.org/year_of/index.cfm?YOID=10 )

Basil needs at least 6-8 hours of sunlight and well-drained soil, ideally with a pH of 6-7.5.  Seeds can be planted outdoors after spring frosts are history and temperatures range between 55-60F.  Alternatively,  you can start basil seeds  indoors about 4-6 weeks earlier.   If you shop early, basil seedlings can be found at most nurseries.  Depending on your desire for pesto, two to eight basil plants will yield plenty of pesto if you treat them right.

Once established outdoors, add a couple of inches of mulch such as grass clippings, compost or ground up leaves around the base of each plant to maintain the moisture provided by weekly watering.  Container plants may need to be watered more frequently.

You can begin snipping leaves and stems once the plant is established, leaving at least two-thirds of the plant for future growth.  By pinching off the flowering ends first you will send energy to the rest of the plant and keep the leaves tender and flavorful.  This pruning also encourages an attractive form and keep your basil plants from becoming woody.

Now, the best part.  Basil is delicious fresh in a sandwich, in salads, sauces, pasta, pizza or scrambled eggs.  It can be dried, or the true prize, in my mind is Pesto:

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves

1/3 cups pine nuts (also good with walnuts)

2 medium garlic cloves

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/3-1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Make a paste of the first four ingredients in a food processor and then slowly add the olive oil.  Season to taste.  Stores well for a week or freeze in ice-cube trays and then transfer to an airtight container in your freezer for later use.