Fragrant Sweet Annie

Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is an herb I remember from the seventies and eighties. Intensely fragrant smelling green herb wreaths were made up in the fall from the branches and I would see them everywhere for sale at craft fairs and outdoor festivals.

Wreath of Sweet Annie

I kind of forgot about Sweet Annie for a long time until a volunteer plant emerged from my asparagus patch this summer and shot up all summer long, until by September it towered over 6 foot high with many sweet smelling branches ready to be harvested. Deciding to let it remain in my asparagus patch, I watched it all season long until I accidentally brushed against it to release the intense sweet fragrance. Once you smell it, you will never forget it! Lingering on my hands and clothing long after brushing into it, the fragrance is hard to describe with an almost fruity fragrance.

Sweet Annie growing in my asparagus patch is about 6 feet high

Classified as an annual weed, Sweet Annie has escaped cultivation and is a favorite of crafters for its versatility and sweet fragrance and to floral arrangers as an aromatic filler. Slow to germinate, and late to bloom (mine just started to bloom in early to mid-September here in zone 6b), it readily self-seeds, so I know I will have more next year and will probably have to pull some out. Not a beautiful plant, more weed-like than ornamental, it was fine relegated to my vegetable patch.

Harvesting

Yellow green beads form on the end of the branches as flower buds

Growing like a well-branched Christmas tree, I waited until yellow beads appeared on the branches arranged in panicles, which are the buds of the flowers. This is the perfect time to harvest it and I cut the woody trunk down with loppers and then cut off each individual branch for drying. If you harvest it earlier, the branches will kind of shrivel up. Some I bunched up with a rubber band and hung up in my basement for 1-2 weeks, for straight trusses. Other branches, I curled up in a trug for drying. That way, the branches will dry in a rounded form, perfect for making into sweet smelling wreaths.

Drying branches of Sweet Annie in round trugs

A sun lover, my Sweet Annie plant required no care and it loved our drier weather this season.

Sweet Annie’s Uses

Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever for hundreds of years. Fruity, astringent, aromatic, Sweet Annie has been used as an air freshener and pest deterrent. You can crumble some into your carpet before vacuuming for a long lasting fragrance to linger long after you have finished cleaning.

Freshly cut Sweet Annie ready to be bundled up

Commonly used in crafts as a base for wreaths and swags, and a filler for arrangements, the dried plumes can be used in a variety of ways. Break up the large branches into smaller pieces for different projects. More pronounced in humid weather, the fragrance can waft on the breeze into my house. If you hang a branch in a bathroom, the damp air will release the fragrance. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Sweet Annie, with bouts of sneezing and sometimes skin irritation. I find that the sneezing happens if I work with it too much, so limit my time with it. I enjoy Sweet Annie from a distance!

Sweet Annie makes a great filler in arrangements; here I arranged with marigolds, cosmos, dahlias, and goldenrod

For other herbal wreath ideas, go to my post Fresh Herbal Wreath.

Fresh Herbal Wreath

Customize Your Garden With Heirlooms

As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.

Array of heirloom tomatoes
I grew this heirloom “Mushroom” tomato this year
Heirloom harvest

Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.

Variety of heirloom peppers
Beautiful heirloom tomato
I grew this “speckled trout lettuce”, an Heirloom from Austria, in containers because it was so pretty

Seed Choices

Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.

Heirloom tomatoes are $2.99 a pound at a farmers market

Heirloom Advantages

Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases.  Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.

Chiogga beets hail from northern Italy in the 19th century

Boston Marrow

Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication  says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”

Boston marrow in amongst an award winning veggie assortment at a farm fair

Read my post Move Over Butternut-Try Boston Marrow for the custardy pie recipe and more information on this heirloom.

I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.

Boston Marrow is sold by Burpee
Boston Marrow pie
Heirloom Boston Marrow makes a delicious pie

Farmer’s Markets

Farmers Markets are a great source of heirlooms
Seen at a farmer’s market, this peanut pumpkin fascinated me

Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.

Trolling farmers markets is a great way to pick up heirlooms

Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!

Dozens of these Marina Di Chioggas are growing in my vegetable garden this summer
I am growing Porcelain Doll Pumpkin this year also which is a hybrid. Unfortunately I can’t save this seed as it won’t grow true to type like an heirloom would

Saving Seeds

An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds

Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!

Seed Exchanges

Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.

Seed Exchange

In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.

At my local library

Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an heirloom that I will be starting this spring

For seeds of this, go to Renee’s Gardens.

Lemon Verbena-Growing & Using

Lemon Verbena has always been at the top of my list of herbs to grow for its intense lemony fragrance. More pungent that lemon balm or lemon thyme, I ended up with a bumper crop last year and found many uses for it. Be sure to buy a transplant this spring and place it where it will get full sun and good drainage. Planting near your outdoor living space will ensure that you will enjoy brushing by it to release the lemony fragrance.

Lemon Verbena

Strongly scented and known for its refreshing lemony fragrance, Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora) is the most strongly scented lemon scent of all the herbs. Used in making perfumes, and toilet water, as well as a flavoring in baking, jellies and preserving, lemon verbena also makes a great herbal tea, either fresh or dried.

Steeping dried lemon verbena leaves for tea

Dried branches and leaves can be used to scent your drawers and linen closets with a light fragrance. I fill gauze bags with dried leaves to tuck in my lingerie. Introduced to England in the 1700’s, lemon verbena can grow to 15′ in height in the UK! Here in the U.S., the plant is treated as a tender perennial but can overwinter in US zone 8 or higher and reaches in the mid-Atlantic region about 4′ in height.

Growing my lemon verbena in a container keeps it happy because I can control the water it receives. Over watering a lemon verbena plant is certain death to this very fragrant herb, so only water when the soil is completely dry. Plus I can bring the container into my greenhouse to winter over as it is hardy to zone 8-9. Leaves release their refreshing fragrance each time they are brushed against or touched, making  it a pleasure to work with and near. A heavy feeder, unlike many herbs, I regularly fertilize my plant and pinch it back often to get a nice bushy shape. Full sun is best as the herb will get very spindly looking and the leaves will lack the essential oil fragrance. Tiny white flowers top the branches when the plant matures later in the summer.

I store the dried leaves in tupperware and use it for tea all winter

Lemon verbena is a heavy feeder and, benefits from frequent fertilization. Spider mites and whiteflies adore the citrusy leaves, so be prepared to fight these pests off with an organic pesticide.

Place your fresh leaves on paper towels before placing in the microwave

To dry your lemon verbena, gather a bunch of leaves and lay on paper towels and microwave for one to two minutes at high. The leaves should still be green, but be crispy to the touch. I leave the leaves alone for a day or two to fully dry and then strip the leaves off the stems and crush them with my fingers. Toss then into a plastic container to store until you are ready to steep them for a zingy tea.

The lemon verbena is dried and crispy
Lemon verbena is dried and crispy

To make tea with the fresh leaves, boil water and pour over freshly harvested lemon verbena leaves in a mug. Let steep for 3-5 minutes and then pull the leaves out and enjoy!

Lemon verbena tea with fresh leaves

Excellent for your stomach, relieving indigestion and heartburn, and for toning the digestive tract. Also, good for soothing anxiety and a good sedative for insomnia. Start those plants this spring for a fresh harvest later in the summer!

 

Loving Basil

Amazel Basil

Basil, one of my top herb favorites, is getting some bad knocks lately. Normally a cinch to grow, Basil has been plagued by fatal downy mildew, which makes it unusable.

Downy mildew disfigures the entire plant
Downy mildew disfigures the entire plant

The latest malady to hit ornamental and food plants is Basil Downy Mildew, which has appeared in the last couple of years and is sweeping through the country like wildfire. It starts with leaf yellowing, which looks like a nutritional deficiency and then spots appear and can make the entire plant inedible. Under the right weather conditions (wet, warm weather), Basil downy mildew can spread rapidly and result in complete loss of all your Basil plants. Although Peronospora belbahrii, the pathogen that causes Basil downy mildew, cannot survive our mid-Atlantic winters, it can be reintroduced on infected seed or transplants or by windblown spores. So, it is here to stay.

Mildew disfigures the entire basil plant
Mildew disfigures the entire Basil plant

Disfiguring my Basil plants by late spring/early summer, I despaired of growing this stalwart of my kitchen again. See my post African Blue and Downy Mildew for more information on this scourge.

Using Basil in many of my dishes, I always like to have some growing Basil plants on hand, but it can be hard to keep alive indoors.  I had almost given up growing it in any form and was buying the hydroponic plants at the grocery store as needed. Dried Basil is not the same flavor and addition to my cooking that I wanted.

A healthy hydroponic basil plant
A healthy hydroponic basil plant

Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea this tasty herb was so good for you!

I was delighted to find a new cultivar of Basil called Amazel, a game changing plant, which is resistant to Downy Mildew. Growing in my greenhouse now, it will be planted outside as soon as the frosts subside so I can enjoy it fresh from the garden. Amazel is a hunky vigorous plant that I already have cut back twice in my greenhouse since January for pesto. Once I cut it back, fresh shoots sprout up and are ready in about 10 days to use again. I am back in the green with Amazel Basil from Proven Winners!

Amazel has excellent resistance to Downy Mildew, which will keep plants growing and producing for home gardeners throughout the entire season. Unlike typical basil, Amazel is seed sterile and therefore continues to produce leaves and shoots even after starting to flower unlike other basil varieties that focus most or all of their energy into seed production.

Amazel Basil
Amazel Basil from Proven Winners

For other basil varieties that are resistant to Downy Mildew, go to my African Blue Basil post. I am back to pesto making again!

African Blue Basil
African Blue Basil

Trio of Cauliflower Recipes- A Super Veggie

Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad
Cauliflower at the supermarket
Cauliflower at the supermarket

Cauliflower is in. Kale is out.

Come on….admit it, you are eating way more cauliflower than kale. Searches for cauliflower rice recipes are up 135 percent on pinterest in the last couple of years. I wrote about Cauliflower being an up and coming veggie in 2016 at Gardening Trends for 2016.

Cauliflower, Purple of Sicily
Cauliflower, Purple of Sicily from National Garden Bureau

Flower Power-Cauliflower is the next Kale

Traveling to lots of nurseryman’s and flower shows, cutting edge gardens, and keeping up with my blog, gives me a good handle on what is up and coming in the gardening world. Some of these are trends have been around and are still going strong, like Cauliflower!

According to the National Gardening Bureau who names the ‘plants of the year’, 2017 marked the year of the Brassica. Brassica vegetables, including bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas, and turnips are popular around the world today and are enjoying a renaissance.

Growing Cauliflower (taken from the National Gardening Bureau)

Cauliflower

Cauliflower plants prefer to grow without heat stress and do best in fall or in areas with mild summers.   Popular types include the standard white varieties and more exotic colors and shapes also available to home gardeners. In recent years cooked cauliflower has become popular as a replacement for potatoes or flour in many recipes (like mashed potatoes or pizza crust).White types are most often self-blanching- meaning inner leaves cover the curds and protect them from the sun. Varieties include Flamenco F1 (summer production), Toledo F1 (fall production), Snowball, Snowbowl F1, Symphony F1.

Romanesco types are a special type of green cauliflower.  The head is a collection of spiraled florets and will be a great way to teach your kids about the Fibonacci numbers (math during dinner!).  Romanesco is great for roasting – it is a bit drier than regular cauliflower. Varieties include Veronica F1, Romanesco. Another plant that is modeled on the Fibonacci number is the Sunflower.

Romanesco Veronica
Romanesco Veronica from NGB

Novelty Types are also a lot of fun for the garden. Try a purple or orange variety! They have a similar flavor but add an unexpected pop of color to a veggie tray. Varieties include Graffiti F1 (purple head), Cheddar F1 (orange head), and Vitaverde F1 (green head).

Cauliflower Cheddar Seminis  from NGB

 

The rise of cauliflower, a cruciferous vitamin packed veggie, that has a unique ability to absorb flavors from other ingredients, rather like a chameleon, has been a long time coming. From cauliflower grilled steaks to peanut butter brownies, cauliflower has landed on top of the heap for a lot of people. California Pizza Kitchen is even offering a cauliflower crust option on their pizzas. And for people who are on Keto diets or who just want to cut down on carbs, this is a great alternative.

I have grown cauliflower called Purple of Sicily
I have grown cauliflower called Purple of Sicily
Cauliflower peanut butter brownies
Cauliflower peanut butter brownies

Cauliflower Peanut Butter Brownies

I tested making these brownies and they were some of the most flavorful moist brownies that I have ever had! Forget these have cauliflower, they are really good.

Ingredients

  • 2 Cups Steamed Cauliflower Florets I steamed these and smashed them into a 2 Cup measuring cup, and place them in the food processor
  • 1 1/4 Cup Dark Chocolate Morsels Melt these in a microwave and stir until creamy
  • 1/2 Cup Cream Cheese, softened
  • 4 Tbsp Peanut Butter, smooth or chunky I only had on hand chunky, but the food processor makes it smooth
  • 1/2 Cup Almond Flour You can use regular flour also
  • 1 Tsp Baking Powder
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1 Cup White Chocolate Morsels
  • 1/2 Cup Peanuts (optional) I used unsalted
  • 1/2 Cup Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Peanut Butter Morsels

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9x13 container

  2. In a food processor, process the 2 cups of  cauliflower until completely smooth – this is important as if it is not smooth; it will result in a grainy textured brownie

  3. Add the cream cheese, peanut butter, eggs and sugar then blend again until smooth
  4. Add the almond flour, baking powder, vanilla, and melted chocolate morsels, and blend well

  5. Spoon ½ the mixture into the container, then scatter the Peanut butter morsels, white chocolate morsels, and peanuts over the layer

  6. Spoon the remaining mixture into the pan spreading to cover all the morsels,  then bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes, until an inserted fork is clean

Basically, it’s the vegetable for the perfect time. I grow it every year with varying success and I had good luck with the Purple Sicily variety last year.

Cauliflower comes in several colors
Cauliflower comes in several colors

Full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, this is a power vegetable. The sulfur compounds it contains, which give off that sharp smell when steamed, may prevent some types of cancers and fight other kinds.

A tower of cauliflower
A tower of cauliflower

My next top recipe for Cauliflower is Cauliflower Gnocchi, which is one of Trader Joe’s most popular frozen foods. I wanted to make my own and searched on-line and used a recipe that I found with some revisions. My inspiration was finding riced cauliflower at Sam’s Club. And to simplify, I don’t boil the gnocchi I broil it. With so many people on paleo or keto diets, this one should satisfy that carb craving with very little carbs at all.

Cauliflower Gnocchi

Not boiled, like other gnocchis which can take a lot of time and mess, these are broiled to make a succulent cheesy bite; they are quite delicious and makes 4 dozen

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 6

Ingredients

  • 3 -12 Ounce Bags Riced Cauliflower Steamed
  • 2 Cups Shredded Cheese, mixed varieties You can use any type you want, I had on hand cheddar and swiss, the recipe called for mozarella
  • 1 Cup Parmesan Cheese, Shredded
  • 1/3 Cup Almond Flour, extra for rolling
  • Kosher Salt, to taste
  • 2 Eggs Lightly beaten

Instructions

  1. Steam riced cauliflower until tender, I used an instant pot on 3 minutes

    After steaming, dump out onto a clean dish towel and squeeze the moisture out
  2. Cool slightly, and dump on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. This is important to do, so the gnocchi sticks together. Transfer squeezed cauliflower to a large bowl

  3. While the cauliflower is still hot, add 2 Cups of shredded cheese, eggs, almond flour, and  1 Cup of parmesan cheese. Season with salt and mix together with your hands.

  4. Form into four balls and refrigerate until firm on a cookie sheet, about 30 minutes

  5. Roll out each ball into a log abour 9" long and 1" wide on cutting board dusted with more almond flour 

  6. Slice with a sharp knife into 1" pieces and place on greased cookie sheets
  7. Brush with butter and bake for about 10 minutes. Finish up under the broiler for a minute until brown 

  8. Garnish with microgreens or other greens like spinach

Cauliflower gnocchi served with microgreens, avacado and a slab of tilapia makes a complete meal
Cauliflower gnocchi served with fresh spinach, avocado and a slab of tilapia makes a complete meal
Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad
Broccoli/Cauliflower Salad

Broccoli & Cauliflower Salad

A great potluck dish that is beautiful and simple to make. People will be licking the bowl!

Ingredients

  • 6-8 Cups Mixed colors, broccoli and cauliflower, chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 1/3 Cup Red onion, minced
  • 1/2 Cup Dried Cranberries
  • 1/4 Cup Sunflower Seeds
  • 2 Cups Shredded Cheese
  • 3 Tablespoons Cider Vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons Sugar
  • 1 Cup Mayonnaise Try Wasabi mayo for an added kick!
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Cut up all your broccoli and cauliflower in bite sized pieces

  2. In large bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar and let sit for 15 minutes

  3. Add rest of ingredients and stir to coat.

Next thing I am going to try, is Cauliflower Fried Rice. Instead of using rice, you use riced cauliflower.

Microgreens: Health Benefits and How to Grow

Have you ever been served a dish in a restaurant which was garnished with colorful and vibrant  greens? Most likely these were microgreens, know for their visual appeal, and crunch. Though minuscule in size, they are concentrated with nutrients. Studies have shown that micro greens are loaded with good stuff, such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein, and beta-carotene- many times more than the mature leaves of the plant.

Flavorful and providing a textural contrast to a dish like a soup or slab of fish, a few microgreens can go a long way.

Pea shoots garnishing a tortilla
Pea shoots garnishing a tortilla

Not to be confused with sprouts- germinated seeds that are eaten whole-a microgreen is an immature green that is harvested with scissors when the plants are about two inches tall. The stem, cotyledons (or seed leaves) and first set of true leaves are all edible. You are essentially eating seedlings! And the variety of seedlings include herbs and flowers, and vegetables. Most popular are sunflowers, radishes, peas, arugula, basil, beets, kale, and cilantro.

Countertop Gardening

Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens
Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens ready to be harvested

Pricey to buy in a grocery store and hard to find, microgreens are a snap to grow quickly in a small amount of space. Gather your supplies and you could have a variety of greens growing within a half hour of starting. The harvest time is a mere one to two weeks.

Botanical Interests seed company has an array of different microgreens available
Botanical Interests seed company has an array of different microgreens available

I use Botanical Interests seeds because they are organic and  have a wide variety of heirloom varieties.

The easiest method to grow microgreens is using a soilless method with jute pads. Soilless means no splashing up of soil to spatter the newly emerged sprouts and I prefer this way of starting to others now.

No fertilizer is needed for these quick growers; it is all included in the seed package.

Green Ease jute pads are perfect for microgreens
Green Ease jute pads are perfect for microgreens
Use two flats that fit together, one perforated for drainage, the bottom one solid
Use two flats that fit together, the top one perforated for drainage, the bottom one solid
Saturated jute pad ready to be planted with microgreens
Saturated jute pad ready to be planted with microgreens

You need two seed flats, one perforated for the top and a solid one to hold water on the bottom. Nest these together and place the pre-cut jute pad inside and fill the trays with a half-inch of water. After an hour or two, the jute pad should be saturated and you can dump out the excess water and you are ready to sow your microgreen seeds. Sprinkle them thickly on the top of the jute pad-you don’t need to cover or press them in-just sprinkle. Then spray with a mister to moisten everything and place a clear plastic cover on top to hold in moisture. That’s it! And you will be harvesting in less than a week.

After sprinkling your seeds in, mist them
After sprinkling your seeds in, mist them; I planted three varieties in each tray

To speed up the process, I placed my flats on top of seed heating mats.

Heating pads are just coils that heat up encased in plastic
Heating pads are just heat coils that are encased in heavy plastic

Place the clear plastic lid on top and place on top of a heating mat

Heat mats are wonderful tools for seed starting and inexpensive. I have two of them and they are in constant use in January and February. Bottom heat will jump start your seedlings even in your warm house. Seeds actually germinate quicker and healthier when supplied with warm soil or substrate (jute)—obtained through a bottom heat source. For seed germination, ideal temperatures should range from 65 to 80˚F. You could actually duplicate these conditions by placing on top of a radiator or furnace, but watch out that the soil doesn’t dry out too quickly.

In less than 24 hours, the seeds had sprouted
In less than 24 hours, the seeds had sprouted on the jute
Plant the seeds pretty thickly so the sprouts support themselves
Plant the seeds pretty thickly so the sprouts support themselves

After the microgreens have germinated, I place the trays under a four foot all-season shop light suspended by a PVC frame that is easy to put together. For about $47, you can cut up PVC to make a quick hanging frame that will suspend your light over your seedlings-much superior to natural light on a windowsill.

My PVC set up with a grow light
My PVC set up with a grow light; the trays should be a few inches from the light

Root Pouches

Another option are root pouches which are perfect for use in growing microgreens.  The Designer Line of Root pouches are made out of porous material that allows the plants to breath, and the containers come in three colors: Navy Blue, Forest Green and Heather Grey. For my microgreens, I used the Joey size at 5″ in diameter and 3″ high.

Root pouches planted, labeled,  and ready to go

Studies have shown that using grow bags made out of recycled materials, produce healthy, strong fibrous root systems on plants. Breathable material, the Root Pouch company says on its website: “Root Pouch is a family run business that turns discarded plastic bottles into a versatile, geotextitle material. The Root Pouch fabric planting container keeps plants healthy by letting excess water drain and allowing roots to breathe and grow.” Allowing air to pass through the pot, it promotes a healthy root system.

Pea tendrils ready to harvest

How to Plant

  • Fill pouch or container about 2/3 full of potting medium
  • Press your seeds ( I get mine from Botanical Interests) into top of potting medium
  • Sprinkle top with a light covering of soil
  • Firm soil with fingers, and mist with a light spray until saturated
  • Place in a warm place (heating mat) in indirect light
  • Shoots will sprout within a few days
Pea seeds don’t even have to be covered with soil-these are started in milk cartons

Harvesting

Working carefully, taking care not to crush or bruise your tender seedlings, cut the shoots right above the soil or substrate line. Begin cleaning the sprouts by laying a damp paper towel on a tray and placing it near the sink. Give tiny clumps of seedlings a dip in cool (not icy) water, and lay out onto the paper towel.

You can start them in greens containers from the grocery store

Store greens between the paper towels and place in a ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will last about a week wrapped up this way. Garnish your meals with these high nutrient-packed greens to add more vitamins to your diet.

Pea tendrils freshly washed

 

 

Garden Trends and New Plants for 2019

January, right after Christmas, means MANTS (mid-atlantic nurseryman’s show), and I attend every year to see what is up and coming in the gardening world. New plants, new products, new trends, are the things that I look for in the upcoming year. It is the CES of gardening, not as exotic or techy as electronics, but still exciting and new, and way more interesting.

Discussing new products with one of the vendors, Organic Mechanics
Discussing new products with one of the vendors, Organic Mechanics

New Plants

My favorite item to look for are new plants, or new improved cultivars of old plants. I have written about ‘Party Pesto‘ a mildew resistant basil from Burpee Seeds before and found another resistant one called ‘Amazel’ from Proven Winners.

Downy mildew of basil is a destructive pathogen that develops on lower leaf surfaces, all but rendering what’s left as inedible.

'Amazel' is a new downy mildew resistant Basil
‘Amazel’ is a new downy mildew resistant basil

‘Amazel’ is a basil that is resistant to basil downy mildew, and because it doesn’t flower early in the season, produces more foliage in July and August than most plants. The plants grow 24 to 36 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide. This is on my list to plant this year as I love basil and have had unsightly crops for the past couple of years.

Basil downy mildew
Basil downy mildew

‘Rockin Fuschia’ annual Salvia from Proven Winners caught my eye right away with glossy dark green leaves, and profuse bright pink flower wands that covered the plant. Salvias are one of my favorite plants because of the non-stop blooming and deer resistant traits, but this one stopped me in my tracks. Stockier and more compact than the taller forms, this would be perfect in a container.

Salvia 'Rockin Fuschia'
Salvia ‘Rockin Fuschia’
Truffula Gomphrena
Truffula Gomphrena

Gomphrena  Truffula also caught my eye because these are long bloomers, dry well, and last a long time as a fresh cut.This a tough and durable airy annual. I have written about ‘Pink Zazzle’ Gomphrena, another gomphrena. which I love and is a great looking plant, but I have trouble keeping it alive as it needs dry conditions with perfect drainage.

'Pink Zazzle' Gomphrena
‘Pink Zazzle’ Gomphrena

I was ready for another Gomphrena with easier care. Truffula is a large multi-branched plant which mounds up and is literally covered with flowers and I hope this one fits the bill.

Another plant that appealed came from Terra Nova Nurseries, Artemisia Makana. A soft grey pillowy plant that you could sink into, Makana would be wonderful in mixed containers.

 Artemisia Makana from Terra Nova
Artemisia Makana from Terra Nova

NewGen Boxwood is high on my list of shrubs to try this year. Boxwood blight/leafminer resistant, attractive, and deer proof are all traits that I am looking for in my landscape design business. Introduced by Saunders Brothers who spent years developing it, NewGen will definitely  be on my list this spring.

Sandy’s Plants was introducing a new Arum ‘Pamela Harper’ with a beautifully patterned leaf. An under-used shade perennial that bears wonderful red berries in the fall, deer won’t browse on it. A great ground cover that will add beauty with foliage and berries, I will look for this one in the spring.

Sandy of Sandy's Plants in Virginia
Sandy of Sandy’s Plants in Virginia
Pamela Harper Arum

A New Invasive

The MD Department of Agriculture had a large display on the dreaded Spotted Lantern Fly which is moving south from Pennsylvania into Maryland. A scourge for crops, especially hops, grapes, and fruit trees, I have seen this insect in Pennsylvania and they are expected to hit us home in Maryland soon.

Spotted Lantern Fly
Spotted Lantern Fly

An invasive with no known predators and laying eggs in the host plant Tree of Heaven, another invasive, I am not looking forward to this onslaught. But it looks like the MD Dept of Agriculture is on top of it with tons of information to give out.

The spotted lantern fly is actually a beautiful insect
The spotted lantern fly is actually a beautiful insect

New Products

Root Pouch makes great seed starters
Root Pouch makes great seed starters

I have written about Root Pouches before and they continue to wow me. Great for Micro Greens which continue to be a huge health trend, these sustainable alternatives to plastic pots, are useful for many situations.

Root Pouches
Root Pouches

Hydroponics continues to be strong and I can see a Millennial having one of the new hydroponic carts on display in their apartment growing greens and herbs. No soil required is attractive, and growing a lot of edibles in a small space with no additional watering is the perfect solution for busy people. Fresh healthy greens at your fingertips all year round!

AutoCrops' hydroponic set up called LF-ONE
AutoCrops’ hydroponic set up called LF-ONE

Garden Trellis & Fence, Co. was a new vendor this year. They solve the problem of tall-growing plants and vines. The trellis system allows you to plant large plants in a smaller footprint using their easy put-together(no tools!) trellis system. How many times have you planted a tomato and it grows quickly to the top of the cage and then drapes over becoming this huge cumbersome plant? Supporting your tomato plants to grow up rather than out sold me on this hot dipped galvanized trellis system that won’t rust and can be left in place all year-long.

Garden trellis system
Garden trellis system

 

New Services

Best Bees
Best Bees

Have you always wanted honeybees on your property but were afraid of the upkeep and the work involved? Best Bees is for you! A company that installs and maintains beehives on residential or commercial properties, they will make sure you have honeybees that you can watch and enjoy the honey benefits but not lift a finger! Yes, it costs money, but if that is your dream, then you can use this company’s services.

You can even get a custom paint job on your hive to duplicate your house
You can even get a custom paint job on your hive to duplicate your house

Another unique service is Bower & Branch, an online service that delivers ordered plants to a local garden center for pick up. Trees, shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses are available. Their plants on display were beautiful and you can get unusual things that a local garden center won’t carry. How many times have you lusted for a plant but it isn’t available locally? I can see the benefits of this right away. I need to try it!

Bower & Branch is an e-commerce solution for independent garden centers
Bower & Branch is an e-commerce solution for independent garden centers

The Year of the Pepper

In the veggie garden this year, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash all bombed. Rotting zucchini plants were everywhere and tomatoes that peaked early and then languished was the norm.  The mid-Atlantic had record rainfall and it seemed every day there was a chance of showers. And shower it did! Non-stop for five solid months, it was mud season all summer.

Raised beds would have helped with my veggies garden as they help with drainage

From May through July 2018, much of the East Coast, especially the Mid-Atlantic, experienced rainfall up to 300% of normal according to NOOA. The soggy summer was described this way by NOOA, “in June and July, the epicenter for heaviest rains became focused over the Mid-Atlantic, as monthly rains near Washington, D.C. through central Pennsylvania easily eclipsed 200% of normal”. The rains here in Maryland have been so heavy that May to July was the wettest in the state’s 124 history. This pattern continued into October. Also, the heat was turned up so I call this summer our “tropical rain forest year”. It felt heavy and humid every day which translates to Heat + Humidity = More Disease. 

Mad Hatter is one of my favorite varieties; If you keep them on the plant, they turn red

The wet weather affected my vegetable garden yields greatly, and any vining veggies, like cucumbers, squash, and melons, totally succumbed to disease from wet conditions.  But to my total surprise, my pepper crop reveled in the rain and heat and broke all records for producing quantities of peppers. We have been eating peppers at every meal- sweet, hot, and slightly hot are all producing prodigiously even into the end of October.

Piles of peppers

I used all AAS Winners (All American Selections National and Regional Winners) for seed which have been tested for garden performance all over North America from a panel of expert judges. Reliable new varieties that have proved their superior garden performance in trial gardens is the way to go for me. Like a stamp of approval from experienced gardeners, my AAS peppers included: Cayenne Red Ember, Hungarian Mexican, Escamillo, Mexican Sunset, Habanero Roulette, Mad Hatter, Pretty N Sweet, and Mama Mia Giallo.

I grew some bell peppers for stuffing also

Growing all my plants from seed, I planted about 20 different transplants out in May and forgot about them for the next two months. Peppers thrive on neglect and yes, I neglected them while I constantly tried planting new cucumbers and squash to no avail. I didn’t harvest one. But when I totally despaired of my vegetable garden, the peppers started to come in and are still producing.

Growing some of my peppers in containers was the best choice I made this year. The ones in containers excelled and when frost started to hit in late October, I whisked them into my greenhouse, where they are still producing.

I placed my containers of peppers in my greenhouse

Peppers 3 Ways

What to do with all this bounty? I have tried these three ways this season.

Drying peppers
Piles of dried peppers; I store in the freezer as I found that they got moldy otherwise

Freeze Drying

Wash peppers and let dry. Cut in half and lay on a dehydrator tray and dry for about 24 hours. Store the dried peppers in plastic freezer baggies, and store in freezer. Pull them out as needed.

Freezing

Wash peppers and let dry. Chop peppers up into pieces and place in freezer bags. I like to mix red and green pepper together. I freeze them in small quantities that are recipe-ready.

Place chopped peppers into freezer bags squeezing any excess air out

Blackened

My favorite treatment by far: Wash your peppers and dry. Heat up some canola oil in a fry pan until hot and sizzling. Dump your peppers in one layer and stir to flip them to all sides until blackened. Squeeze juice of one lime into the pan and sprinkle with kosher or sea salt. Eat by biting the pepper right off the stem that will include the seeds. Delicious! Watch out for the hot ones!

Saute and blacken
Ready to eat

 

Bee Catnip-Mountain Mint

Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.

Mountain Mint flower
Mountain Mint flower

Wildlife Value

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Dwarf Tomato Project

I like growing a variety of tomatoes, especially heirlooms which can get quite large
I like growing a variety of tomatoes plants, especially heirlooms which can get quite large; These are all from full-sized plants

Tomato Plant Lingo

Pruning, staking, pinching, tying up branches are all jobs that come with a good tomato harvest. Particularly indeterminate plants which are simply plants that continue to grow quite large and fruit continuously until frost. Determinate plants, or “bush” plants grow to a more compact height (4-6 feet high), stop growing when the fruit sets on the terminal or top bud, and ripens the entire crop at once, approximately over a 2 week period and then dies. But what if you could have a compact plant, 3 to 4 feet, that produces all season long? Intrigued when I heard about a project for developing dwarf tomato plants,  I wanted more information and seeds to try them. More space to grow more varieties? Deal me in!

Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms with a towering heirloom tomato plant
Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms with a towering heirloom tomato plant

I grow tomatoes in a pretty large space, 60′ x 40′, and when empty it looks like I could fit a lot of veggies in that wide open area. But once I start planting out my 12 to 15 tomato plants (sometimes more), along with squash, lettuce, beans, and other assorted cutting flowers, the space shrinks considerably and I run out of room. A fully grown caged tomato plant turns into a monster with branch tentacles that reach out of the cage in all directions so that it is hard to pass between plants. I was ready for some compact plants. And I love to try new varieties. Go to Pushing the Tomato Envelope to see some suggestions.

 A rainbow of dwarf varieties-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
A rainbow of dwarf varieties-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier

Dwarf Tomatoes Are Here!

Thanks to the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, a 2006 brainstorm between Craig LeHouillier, a tomato hobbyist, and Patrina Nuske Small, an Australian gardener, citizen scientists pitched in and are working on an all-volunteer, all-amateur, open-source worldwide non-profit breeding effort. A team of everyday backyard growers from all over the world in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere collaborated which meant that two generations of experiments could be done in a single calendar year-thus cutting the time of development in half.

tomato
Tomatoes need pruning, tying up and supporting to help in air circulation to reduce disease

Great Taste

The goal of the project was to develop great new dwarf varieties on sturdy and compact plants with high yields and colorful fruits and of course – great taste. There are lots of space-challenged tomato lovers who would jump at the chance at growing any of these varieties as long as the taste remains the same high quality either in containers or in a garden. Described as sweet and mild, tart, smoky, rich, and even salty, the taste of the new varieties will please any tomato lovers palate.

Dwarf tomato plants in grow bags-courtesy of Craig Lehouillier
Dwarf tomato plants in grow bags-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier; Notice the crinkled or “rugose” leaves

Craig LeHouillier

Craig LeHouillier, known as Tomatoman and for his introduction to the world – the luscious Cherokee Purple tomato– and Patrina Small were the driving force behind the project of crossing colorful tasty, indeterminate heirloom tomatoes and the few available dwarf tomato varieties to produce unique hybrids. Six to ten generations were planted out to stabilize a new variety and volunteers grow these new varieties for carefully selected seed companies to distribute. The new varieties are great-tasting, open-pollinated tomatoes that require less space and are easier to take care of.

Criag LeHouillier and wife Susan-photo courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
Criag LeHouillier and wife Susan-photo courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
Craig is author of Epic Tomatoes
Craig is the author of Epic Tomatoes

Attributes

Dwarf tomatoes have crinkly dark-green leaves, termed “rugose” and grow about half of the height of an indeterminate tomato, around 3 to 4 feet.

Dwarf tomato plant showing the crinkly foliage
Dwarf tomato plant showing the crinkly foliage

There are early, mid-season, and late season fruit options so you can enjoy dwarf varieties all season long, just like in the larger heirlooms. The central stems are thicker than other tomatoes and the fruit comes in the 3 to 18 ounce range. So, these aren’t dwarf fruit! Colors range across the tomato spectrum with orange, stripes, yellow, amber, bi-colors, stripes, blacks (purple & chocolate), pink, red, white and green (when ripe) shades; A veritable rainbow! For more information about the project, go to Dwarf Tomato Project.

Rainbow colors of dwarf varieties, courtesy Craig LeHouillier
Rainbow colors of dwarf varieties, courtesy Craig LeHouillier

Sources

So where can gardeners pick these up and what kind of selection is available? According to Craig LeHouillier, “We have 60 in seed catalogs (mostly between the four companies Victory, Sample Seed Shop, Heritage Seed Market and Tatiana’s TOMATObase).  Probably another 5-6 coming out next year, and dozens in development”.

I have already ordered my seeds as it is time to start those seeds right now!

Heritage Seed Market

Sample Seed Shop

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Victory Seeds

Tatiana’s TOMATObase