Annual Performance Review, 2014.

It’s time for my Annual Performance Review!

I know, I’m running a bit late this year – there’s been snow on the ground for a couple of weeks now and I cleaned up my garden eons ago.  This is an entry that I ought to have done months ago, but everything kind of got away from me.  Still, it’s never too late to talk about plants that worked, so here are my recommendations for the best of the annuals in my garden this past growing season.  Bear in mind that my soil is the kind of compacted clay that only plastic garden gnomes truly thrive in, and I live on the Prairies, which means that it is blisteringly hot and dry during our summer days, with nighttime temperatures that plummet and hover around the freezing mark.  (I exaggerate, but only slightly).

My flowerbeds are primarily filled with mature perennials – I’ve been working on these beds for just over a decade now and many of the plants are nearly that old (and, sigh, some badly need divisions that I did not manage to get around to even though the weather held beautifully this autumn).  I do like to throw in a few annuals every year, however, just for an extra punch of colour that lasts the full growing season…well, if the rabbits don’t get to them, that is.  This year, I went heavy on the full-sized petunias – truly, they’re not my favourite plants (we sold GAHzillions of them when I worked in the garden centre years ago and now the sight of them en masse stresses me out.  I have a petunia tic, I swear).  But I got a super deal on some really healthy specimens and, to my surprise, they didn’t end up as rabbit fodder.  ‘Picobella Red’ and ‘Pretty Grand Midnight’ did their jobs admirably well, and stood up nicely even though I didn’t water pretty much all summer and the weather was hotter than usual.  Unoriginal, perhaps, but steady, reliable workhorses…which is what you need sometimes in the garden (and in life!).

I only did up two containers this year – and both of them featured the same plants, the combination of which hands-down takes the award for Best Annuals.  If you’re into the whole “Thriller, Spiller, Filler” thing, you’ll be disappointed, because I omitted the filler (actually, the spiller and the thriller had that job covered nicely, anyway).  My goal was to showcase an amazing begonia, the ‘Pegasus’ hybrid from Proven Winners.  If you’ve been following my blog for awhile now, you know I have a thing for begonias, and this one totally made my jaw drop when I uncrated it. ‘Pegasus’ isn’t grown for flowers, but for that incredible foliage.  If you’re a fan of coleus (have you been growing/drooling over the Under the Sea collection from the University of Saskatchewan or are they just a little too off the wall for your tastes?), you’ll appreciate the sophisticated patterning on the leaves of this begonia.  This is a plant that will complement any other – I’m already dreaming of new combos for next year…something in white, perhaps, that will absolutely glow in the shade?

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This year, I paired ‘Pegasus’ with ‘Supertunia Black Cherry’, a petunia hybrid with an attitude.  These fierce beauties didn’t stop blooming even though I occasionally often forgot to water and they were located in a mostly shady spot. They even went through several light frosts, which didn’t faze the begonias, either.   And that colour makes me just plain happy.  🙂  These supertunias also performed beautifully in a sunny spot well-suited to them, in the front of one of my perennial beds.

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Do you grow any annual flowers?  Which ones are favourites in your garden?  Are there any you don’t care for at all?

Finally…just for fun…do you start your annuals from seed, or do you pick them up by the flat from the garden centre? 

Look for ‘Pegasus’ begonia and ‘Supertunia Black Cherry’, as well as other new Proven Winner annual selections such as Salvia longisicata x farinacea ‘Playin’ The Blues’, Sutera hybrid ‘Snowstorm Blue Bubbles’ and ‘Vermillionaire’ Cuphea in garden centres in 2015.  ‘Pegasus’ will be on my list, for sure!  (Although Proven Winners generously provided me with a few annual plant selections from their upcoming 2015 catalogue to trial in my zone 3 garden, I was not compensated to review them.  My opinions of how they performed are my own).

 

Raised bed gardening – the hoop tunnel is up!

I’m a little late with this post…even here in Alberta, I think most gardeners have their veggie seeds in and even most of the transplants planted out – although they may still be holding out on the tomatoes and pepper seedlings outside of the greenhouse.  I had promised way back at the end of March to offer up some notes on a lecture I had attended about raised bed gardening and here we are at the end of May and I’m just getting around to it now.  While it may be too late to apply some of these ideas this year, there might be a few things on this list to consider for the future!

Without further ado (I’ve “ado’d” enough with this one, I think!), here are a few key ideas about growing veggies in raised beds from Janet Melrose, the garden animator for the Calgary Horticultural Society and facilitator for the Community Garden Resources Network in conjunction with the CHS.  I’m not transcribing the whole lecture – I’d encourage anyone who lives in Calgary and area to attend any of Janet’s talks, as she has a ton of excellent information about gardening in the Chinook zone.

*On raised beds versus inground gardening:  Raised beds have warmer soil and warmer temperatures at the growing height and are less susceptible to cold traps and early frosts; however, the soil in raised beds is typically drier due to wind and heat exposure, which makes watering an issue.

*On combatting dry soil (also weeds!) with mulch:  Straw is an excellent mulch in raised veggie beds.

*On maximizing the limited space available in raised beds (and I’ll add that this goes for container gardening or any small space gardening):

  1. Sow fast growing crops
  2. Sow a limited number of crops
  3. Practice intensive gardening
  4. Sow crops with the largest production value per plant (my suggestion:  zucchini! LOL)
  5. Grow vertically
  6. Use the edges of beds for plants that trail
  7. Grow crops that have more than one edible part
  8. Plant crops that you can harvest more than once per season

Above all, grow crops that you like to eat and can use up!  I was laughing about this one because I’ve been guilty in the past of planting crops that I don’t necessarily need – for a couple of years now, I’ve grown beets and while I love them, we get about a gazillion pounds of them from our summer CSA share and by October I don’t really want to see another beet for at least a year.  Why on earth have I been growing them as well?  This year they were crossed off my planting list!

Another thing Janet recommended for raised bed gardening is something I’ve had on my mind for a couple of years now:  using row covers and hoop tunnels.  While construction was supposed to take place last year, I didn’t get around to it until a month ago (the story of my life, it seems!) but I’m quite pleased with the results!  (I must thank my hubby for all of his help with this – for the build, of course, but mostly for listening to me endlessly blather on about it).  😉

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We used hula hoops for the frame (they’re cheap and strong and already circular in shape, plus they come in a wide range of funky colours) – the ones we bought were just stapled together, so once the hardware was removed, they were ready to go.  We had some old fibreglass tent poles which we took apart and jammed into the ends of the hula hoops to use as “stakes” to put them into the bed, but you could always do without that step.  The poles served to give the hoops a lift, offering additional height – not necessary with most of the crops I’m growing but if you’re planting vertically, it may be useful.

The upper stabilizer is just  a piece of PVC piping (again, very inexpensive), trimmed to fit the eight foot bed and fastened with zip ties.  We debated about adding more piping to each end of the tunnel but decided the whole thing was sturdy enough to skip that step – although we may put them in later on if we feel it is necessary.

Here it is with the row cover in place…the fabric is water permeable (but hopefully not hail permeable!).  I could have used any number of items to hold down the fabric – most gardeners buy pegs specifically for that purpose, but I had some large metal paper clips at home and so I just popped them on.  They will rust, of course, but they work very well.

My hoop tunnel with row cover - BCG - 21 May 2014

Do you grow your veggies in raised beds?  What are your tips and tricks for good harvests?

 

New year ramblings.

I hope you’re enjoying the first week of 2014!  For me, it’s been a whirlwind of activity while I try to catch up on projects that should have been completed in 2013 (I truly put the “pro” in “procrastination”!).   I don’t understand how I can know about a writing deadline for weeks in advance and yet still scramble a day or even hours before the submission deadline to get the piece in on time.  I once read that panic begets creative spark…but I’m starting to think it just begets more panic.  If I made New Year’s resolutions (and I don’t, because someone would be sure to hold me to them and therefore suffer certain disappointment), I would resolve to tackle my projects in a less pressured atmosphere.

Ahem.  Who am I kidding?  Writing should be an extreme sport, filled with dangerous pitfalls (arrgghh, she’s out of caffeine!), ticking clocks (aka Deadlines of Doom), and immense struggle against overwhelming odds (restrictive word counts).

Or something like that.

I suspect my REAL resolutions for 2014 will be to practice more Shinrin-yoku, take up meditation, and make a few regular trips to the spa.  😉

While procrastinating taking a break on New Year’s Day, my hubby and I headed out to Paskapoo Slopes for a walk.  We really ought to have brought our snowshoes for the outing, as the snow was fresh and powdery and downright perfect.  We followed coyote tracks in the wooded areas, and even heard the yips of one somewhere out on the west ridge, near the ski hill.  It was one of those bright blue sky-vitamin D days, and once again I wondered why we humans don’t come with a built-in solar panel to trap and conserve sunshine for later use.

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When we got back to the apartment after our walk, there was an e-mail waiting for me from a fellow community gardener.  She was bursting with excitement, having just placed her veggie seed order for the year.  I can’t think of a better way to spend January 1st, can you?  It made me think that I’m slow to the punch, though, and so I’ve since cracked all those seed catalogues of mine and gotten myself worked up about a few things I simply MUST HAVE even though I’m not sure I have any space for them.  Because we have shares in an excellent CSA program throughout the year, I’m going to focus less on greens and root veggies such as carrots and beets – we truly get them in abundance from the farm and there’s no need for me to grow more.  That leaves the door open for more herbs, I think…and Brussels sprouts.

Yeah, well, I opened up my trap in the middle of Christmas dinner this year and announced I was going to try to grow Brussels sprouts.  (My Mum had served them with her amazing rouladen and it got all of us to talking about our love/hate relationships with the little green brassicas).  My hubby, the Meatatarian, hates them with a passion usually reserved for…well…cabbages and beets, but I’m a huge fan.  They’re one veggie we never get enough of from the CSA share, so why not grow them myself?

Except…I don’t know if I have room.  They’re a big space-stealer, and I’ve already planted nearly half my plot with garlic (we won’t talk about how I got carried away with the garlic last fall).  Still, I feel committed and eager about giving them a go, so where there’s a will….

Plus, my plotmate at the community garden has some extra seed for ‘Jade Cross’ that she wants to share with me.  I think my fate is sealed.

What are your must-have seeds and plants for 2014?  Are you planning to try anything new?

Cicer milkvetch seed pods.

I am fascinated by the black mature seed pods of Cicer milkvetch (syn. chickpea milkvetch, Astralagus cicer), an aggressively-spreading legume that was originally introduced to North America from Europe with the idea that it would serve as a good foraging and hay crop.  Cicer milkvetch is now naturalizing in many areas, and while the plant doesn’t have a provincial designation as of yet in the Alberta Weed Control Act, it is listed as one to watch on the Alberta Invasive Plant Council’s website (check out the fact sheet for cicer milkvetch here).   The black seed pods rattle loudly when you shake them, and supposedly contain large orange seeds (although I haven’t opened up any cases to confirm).   I think they would make interesting accents in a floral craft project.

I know many of you use plants in crafting and art – what types of projects do you like to make?   Do you gather plants from your garden, or forage for them in the wild?   

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Cicer milkvetch, West Campus Park, northwest Calgary

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Aggressive?  Who, me?

Fairybells.

Before an absolutely wicked thunderstorm chased us out of the Cross Conservation Area last Thursday afternoon, my hubby and I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the aspen forest. The wildflowers have all pretty much finished blooming, and the warm, rich scent of decaying foliage was in the humid, still air. Brown and yellow leaves crunched underfoot and any Saskatoon or currant berries left on the shrubs were shriveled and inedible. (I did manage to find some still-plump chokecherries, though). I guess it all means autumn is really and truly here. I adore this season, but it seems as if I merely blinked, and summer had completed its cycle. It saddens me….

Another sure sign of fall in Alberta is the ripening of the berries of the wildflower fairybells:

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A member of the lily family, rough-fruited fairybells (also called rough-fruited mandarin – Prosartes trachycarpa, formerly Disporum trachycarpum) are a common sight in the damp understorey of the forest.  While their green-white flowers are not quite showy enough to make much of a statement at the height of the summer, you cannot miss the nearly neon red berries that appear at this time of year.  Until I started doing some reading, I didn’t realize the berries were edible, although I’m sure their velvety coating and large, often-numerous seeds (there may be up to 17 in a fruit) must give them a bit of a strange consistency on the tongue.  I haven’t tried one myself, but historically, they were eaten out of hand by the Blackfoot people of the First Nations.  The berries apparently taste like apricots, which REALLY makes me wonder why the Blackfoot called them “dog feet” plants.  I think I much prefer the name “fairybells” – there’s a suggestion of magic and whimsy there that “dog feet” just doesn’t convey….  😉

How are you marking the change of season in your part of the world?

For more information about fairybells, consult Wildflowers of Calgary and Southern Alberta, by France Royer and Richard Dickinson.

Sprouting fenugreek.

Do you grow your own sprouts?

If I’m not sprouting some kind of seed or another, I’ve usually got a batch or two of microgreens on the go. I don’t have the space to go all out, so the amounts I’m growing are tiny – enough for a couple of sandwiches, perhaps, or to throw into a stir fry at the very end of cooking. I’m constantly resowing and trying new types of crops – it’s like year ’round seed trials on a miniature scale.

I’ve sprouted fenugreek seeds several times before, but I haven’t had a chance to write about them until now (partly because I keep eating them before photographing them – oops!). These guys are super-easy to sprout and pack a spicy-sweet punch that is perfect for so many dishes.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum, called “methi” in India) is a plant of Mediterranean origin, and is widely grown throughout Asia and Europe. It’s a common staple of Indian cooking, where the fresh or dried leaves and the whole seeds are used in a wide range of dishes. A member of the Fabaceae family, this annual reaches about 60 cm tall and prefers to be grown in fertile, slightly acidic soil. Apparently you have to sow fenugreek directly into the ground or containers, as plants do not like to be transplanted. It seems that many people opt to sprout the seeds or grow them as microgreens, as I do.

If you’ve never sprouted seeds before, there are some great resources online: try the information on this website for the Canadian company Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds. I’ve tried both the tray method and the jar method (and had more success with the latter with most crops), but really, the most important things to remember with sprouting is to always use organic, untreated seed, always rinse seeds with filtered water, and ensure your jars, trays, etc. are spotlessly clean. And, eat your sprouts as soon as possible! Most can only be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days.

(Speaking of eating, fenugreek sprouts are marvellous as an addition to Sweet Potato and Chickpea Hummus…and if you want the recipe for that, please check out my blog post for Grit.com.  YUM!).  🙂

Have you ever grown fenugreek (as a sprout or otherwise)?  What types of sprouts are your favourites to grow? 

Fenugreek sprouts FP

Super soilless seedling sowing.

Are you attending a Seedy Saturday this month?  Have you started any seedlings yet?  If you’re thinking about sowing seeds indoors this spring, then you’ve given some consideration to what type of seed starting medium you’re going to use.

I’ve been growing a lot of different microgreens lately and while I usually use a good quality commercial seed starting mix to sow my seeds in, I decided this week to make my own concoction of 1 part vermiculite, 1 part perlite, and 1 part coir.  There is no soil in this mix, which hopefully will reduce any instances of damping off – which actually hasn’t been a real problem so far, but I figure, why take chances?   Because I will be harvesting most of the greens right after they grow the cotyledons and two true leaves, I don’t need to worry too much about adding fertilizer (which is absent in my planting mix).

Peat moss may be substituted for coir in this mix, but as there are worldwide concerns about the sustainability of harvesting peat, I’m trying to get away from using it as much as possible.  Of course,  although coir is a very workable medium, it may not be the best alternative as far as carbon footprints are concerned – but at the moment, I haven’t been able to source out anything else.  (In their fantastic book No Guff Vegetable Gardening, Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs suggest that a ground bark-peat mix may be a viable option, but so far the only bark I’m seeing in garden centres here is for the purposes of mulching.  If anyone knows of a brand or a source, please give a shout out!).

I’m also contemplating growing my microgreens in lightweight expanded clay aggregate (LECA), which is often used in hydroponic systems.  I think it would be worth it to try some larger seeds in clay and see how they fare.   I’m also interested in growing seedlings in pumice, but that’s a project for a later date (and when I can actually find some horticultural grade pumice!).  I believe that orchid growers occasionally use pumice as a medium, although I think bark is more common.   As I haven’t yet killed the Phalaenopsis orchid my nephew gave me at Christmas (I know, I can’t believe it, either), I will eventually need something to transplant it into as well.

As an aside, while I was searching the ‘net for sources of pumice here in Calgary, I came across a few different bonsai grower forums in which they discuss the merits of growing their beautiful miniature trees in oil dry.  That’s right – you know the stuff you use to mop up the spills in the garage after you’ve performed an oil change on your car?  Yeah, that stuff.  I’m not sure you’d want to grow edibles in it, though…. 😉