Spring Garden Archaeology

Viola_tricolor-wikiIt’s spring.  Well, it’s close enough to spring that I’m pretending it is spring and getting a start tending emerging plants in the nursery.  For the most part this is pretty straight forward now that I’ve finally found a marker that creates plant tags that survive the winter still readable (more about that below).  But there are always those exceptions.  Those exceptions require what I refer to as garden archaeology…the excavation and identification of the anonymous plant.

For instance, there is usually at least one tray of seeds that were planted in haste in the fall with missing markers.  Maybe the markers blew away, or I committed the ultimate gardener sin of assuming I would remember what I planted, or the cats made toys of the things.  Regardless, now I’m looking at a tray of small seedlings with no clue what they are.  Eventually, of course, they will get big enough to identify, but that’s not the point.  I’m out here now with my gloves and spade and ready to DO something with them.  Frustrating.

Or there are the mystery plants that show up as visitors in other plant pots.  Again, late season oversight.  Flower heads that were not snipped off and set seed.  At the time, I just admired the swaying seed heads not thinking about the inevitable results.  Some plants, most plants really, are pretty polite about it all.  It’s only with plants like catnip that you can end up with an unintended seedling invasion.  So, lots of excavating to remove early weeds and pot up volunteer seedlings…maybe pot up volunteer seedlings.  Depends on how badly I want more catnip. Oh, and don’t get me started on the mints.  Lovely plants, but they are definitely travelers.  Their lines of rhizomes running out from their pots to their neighbors, where they wriggle up through the pot drain holes and show up green and minty in a new location.

The first year of the nursery, and before I found my perfect plant stake marker, spring was much more exciting.  It was a lesson in early plant development identification because nearly ALL the plant stakes had faded to the point of invisibility.  On sunny days I would hold the faded markers to the sun to see if I could make out enough of an ink shadow to figure out who was living in that pot.  Sometimes it worked.  Mostly, it was a case of recognizing emerging plants, or waiting until they got big enough to be distinctive.

But despite the challenges, or probably because of the challenges, this is one of my favorite times of the year.  You will generally find me hopping around staring intently at trays of plants looking for evidence that they are emerging, or to see how much bigger they have grown in the past 24 hours.  It is such a magical, joyous time of year with all the new life erupting.  What’s a little archeology when compared to that?

How to Grow Artichokes In the Northwest

Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are a treat both in the kitchen and in the garden.  They are a member of the thistle family and if allowed to bloom, produce gloriously large, purple flowers that bees will make a “bee” line to enjoy.  If you want to enjoy artichokes on your plate, you can harvest them as soon as they reach about the size of a softball, but before they start to flower.  Either way, they are a tall, architectural statement in the garden, reaching about 5 feet tall with dramatic spiky leaves.

In our area (South Puget Sound) it can be challenging to get this perennial to behave  perennial-ish.  But with a little careful planting and care, you can enjoy your plants year after year.

Artichokes need sandy, fast drain468ing soil in sun.  Because they are so tall, some shelter from high winds is also a good idea.  Aside from this, they require regular water, particularly if you are growing them for the fruit instead of flower.  When first planting, amend the soil with an organic compost.  Plant starts in late spring and mulch well with straw to protect the roots and crown.  As they grow, fertilize with a balanced all-purpose organic or fish fertilizer.  Artichokes should be spaced 3×3 feet apart to allow them room to spread out.  Be sure to keep them well weeded to avoid nutrient competition.

The following spring you can detach any healthy offsets from around the edges of the crown and plant them on (or share with lucky friends).

Then in the fall, when the leaves are turning yellow, cut the plant back to about a foot from the ground, tie the stalks over the root crown and mulch heavily to protect the plant from frost.

Artichokes do best in areas that do not have wide swings in temperature, but with a little extra care you can enjoy them here too.

How to Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, make the range of flowers, fruits and veggies we enjoy possible.  Without them we would not be able to grow most fruits and vegetables and a large number of flowers would no longer be seen.  It is important to provide pollinators with what they need in our gardens.  We can do that by providing many types of flowers and bloom times that are attractive to bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

What do they get from these flowers?  pollen and nectar.  Pollen provides proteins and fats for the pollinators and nectar is their source of energy in the form of sugar.  Hybridized plants maximize some characteristics of garden plants but in the process are often left sterile and useless to pollinators so select species plants whenever possible.

Because the different pollinators have different equipment and needs when foraging it is best to provide range of plants with different bloom times and flower shapes through the growing season.  There are over 4000 native bees in North America with different tongue lengths and plant preferences.  Bees are attracted to flowers that are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow (which they see as “blue”).  Butterflies prefer flat topped flowers like the umbriferous flowers (lady’s mantle, fennel, etc) so that they can perch daintily on the flower top while eating.  Hummers are drawn to red tubular shaped flowers that better fit their bills.

It is also important not to use pesticides in your garden.  It is a destructive force on pollinator population and the ecology of the garden in general.

Just a hint…bees love most flowering herbs.

Happy Gardening!!

Bugs Are Our Friends…Well, Some of Them

Unwelcome bugs munching on your lovely plants are an unfortunate reality for any gardener.  Take a stroll through most garden centers and you will find all sorts of chemical solutions to remove or discourage them from sucking and nibbling on tender leaves.  But what if you don’t want to use chemicals?  Is there an organic solution to insect control?

Yes there is, if you embrace the idea that some insects can actually be your friends in the garden.  Insects such as parasitic wasps, hover flies, lacewings, ladybugs, spiders (yes, I know…not an insect), nematodes and mantids can all help protect your garden.

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Putting the Season To Bed

Our first hard frost arrived a couple days ago, coinciding with a break in the rain.  Chilly early mornings with the sun glinting off the ice encrusted plants is beautiful, but for me it also signals the final end to the growing season.  After that frost, watching for new growth and late breaking blooms is pointless.  The plants are bedraggled and clearly ready for a long nap.  But until frost hits and the leaves blacken and wither, there is a little part of me that clings to the summer past, not quite ready to release the green year for the bare winter and admit that another cycle is done.

Now that frost has arrived it is the time to tend to the garden tools, protect plants with thick layers of mulch, and starting dreaming of the spring yet to come.  And all of a sudden, the reluctance to release the prior year gives way to anticipation of the coming.  Seed catalogs arrive and hours are spent pouring over the possibilities.  Drawings and garden journals reappear to be reviewed and updated while the garden sleeps.

For many people the conclusion of the year comes December 31st, or on the winter solstice.  For me, it is that first hard frost.


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