PLANTING SPRING FLOWERING BULBS AND NATIVE WILDFLOWERS

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PLANTING SPRING-FLOWERING BULBS

 Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, glacier lilies and crocus are adapted to most Montana climate zones (USDA zones 4 and 5).  Tulips are very hardy and adapted to the cold eastern Montana climate (USDA zone 3).  All should be planted in fall, usually in October or November.  You can plant spring-flowering bulbs until the ground freezes, but they will bloom better if you get them in before November 15, when soil is in the 40 degrees to 55 degrees range.    

SOIL PREPARATION

Bulbs prefer a well-drained location in the garden.  Tulips, hyacinths, crocus and grape hyacinths need full sun.  Daffodils and glacier lilies (trout lilies) like part shade, though daffodils will grow in full sun in Montana.  Daffodils are deer and rodent proof, but the others, especially tulips, need to be in a place protected from deer and voles.  The new wire baskets from Vole King are flexible and easy to place around your bulbs before you plant.  When a vole chews into the wire, its nose is poked by the wires curling back after being cut. 

Dig your bulb bed to 10 or 12 inches deep.  Sandy loam is the best soil for bulbs, but you can improve your soil by adding gypsum to break down clay, or peat moss, compost and bone meal.  Bone meal degrades into the soil while it adds phosphorous, which will promote good blooms.  Mix bone meal well with the soil in the bottom of the bed for best results.  PH should be about neutral for these bulbs, but hyacinths and tulips will tolerate more alkaline soils.  Plant tulips and daffodils at 5 per square foot, hyacinths and glacier lilies at 3 to 4 per square foot, and grape hyacinths and crocus at 8 to 10 per square foot.  After planting, backfill the soil but do not pack it down over the bulbs.  Water well. 

PLANTING DEPTH

The general recommended planting depth for bulbs is: 3 times the height of the bulb deep, pointed end up.  Tulips, hyacinths and daffodils should be planted about 6 to 8 inches deep; Grape hyacinths, crocus and glacier lilies about 4 inches deep. 

HEIGHT WHEN IN BLOOM

Our tulips grow to about 20 inches tall and bloom midseason.  Our daffodils bloom early and grow and bloom to about 16 inches.  Our hyacinths and glacier lilies bloom at about 10 inches, and bloom early.  Our grape hyacinths bloom about 6 inches high and bloom midseason.   Crocus bloom at 3 inches high and bloom very early. 

AFTERCARE

Leave foliage on your bulbs and let it die down naturally.  This feeds the bulbs so they will flower well the next year.  Most bulbs, especially tulips, like dry conditions after foliage dies down.  In some climates, or if summer bedding is planned for that location, people dig and store their tulip bulbs and replant them in fall.  Here in Montana, you can leave the bulbs in the ground if you give no additional summer water.  Do not water them until October to give the roots a boost before winter.  Spread bone meal over your bulb beds every October.  Glacier lilies like to grow in moist soil, but can tolerate dry soil conditions for a short period during late summer. 

 

PLANTING A WILDFLOWER MEADOW

 

A wildflower garden or meadow will attract and feed native pollinators, beneficial insects and birds.  Maintenance and watering is generally less than most gardens of ornamental plants, which require frequent watering and weeding. 

 

NORTHERN REGION WILDFLOWER MIX is a blend of annual and perennial flowers adapted to the Montana climate.  Flower height varies from about 8 inches to 5 feet.  This taller mix contains both native and introduced species.  Plant one pound for 2,000 square feet.

 

MONTANA NATIVE WILDFLOWER MIX contains only seed from plants native to Montana.  This shorter mix is a combination of annuals and perennials.  Flower height varies from 8 inches to 24 inches.   Plant one pound for 2,000 square feet.

 

The best time to plant wildflower mixes is in fall.  You can sow the seed mid-October into November and even into December.  If the soil is prepared the seeds can be spread right over the snow, but birds or rodents may eat some of the seeds.  Winter temperatures will stratify the seeds and help them to germinate at a higher rate than if planted in the spring.  

 

Prepare your spot in full sun, if possible, or part shade.  Remove weeds and grasses, cultivate lightly then rake the area smooth.  Mix the seed with coarse sand to spread it evenly, in a ratio of 3 parts sand to 1 part seed.  After you broadcast the seed, press it into the soil in the same way you would if you were planting grass seed.  If it does not rain or snow within a week, water the area well.  It is not necessary to add fertilizers, as wildflowers generally prefer a soil of low fertility.  

 

Every summer, you can gather seed from your wildflowers and sow it right in the same bed to perpetuate the show of flowers, or you can start a new bed. 

 

 

 

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ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

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ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

By James Sagmiller

The benefits of gardening organically are many.  First, food grown without dangerous pesticides and herbicides is safe for us and our children to eat.  Second, using organic methods protects our natural environment: soils are healthy, waters are protected from dangerous runoff, insects, birds, and water creatures are all unharmed by dangerous chemicals.  With organic methods, your soil becomes alive with organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, which, through a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, increase a plant’s ability to uptake moisture and nutrients.  These fungi, along with beneficial soil bacteria, create an ideal, sustainable environment for crops—exactly the opposite of degraded soils exhausted through repeated use of chemical fertilizers. 

At first, planning to “go organic” might seem difficult, but I assure you the rewards are worth the time taken to learn easy ways of gardening organically.  Siting, fencing, and soil building are first steps.  Find a location for your garden that receives full sun, preferably one with wind protection.  If a site is windy, you can put lattice or privacy webbing on your fence to slow down the blast.  Shelter belt plantings of native trees and shrubs are excellent too.  Because deer are so prevalent nowadays, an 8-foot high fence is the best way to shield your garden.  Other methods are less effective.  I made my fence out of game fencing and 10-foot metal posts.  A 6-foot fence that hides what is on the other side will work also; if deer cannot see what is on the other side, they will not leap over.  Deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough! 

A soil test is very helpful before you begin your garden spot.  You can immediately see what nutrients you have in your soil and which ones you need to add more of.  It is also good to know the analysis of purchased soil amendments (marked with the letters N-P-K on fertilizer labels).   For high nitrogen contents (N on the label) choose blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and composted manure.  Amendments with high phosphorous (P on the label) include fish bone meal and rock phosphate.  Potash (K on the label) is abundant in kelp meal, alfalfa meal and wood ashes.  Keep in mind wood ashes and bone meal become alkaline (higher pH) as they decompose, and cottonseed meal becomes more acidic (lower pH).  It is helpful to have a test kit and know your soil’s pH and NPK content.  Nitrogen promotes good green growth, phosphorous promotes flowering and fruiting, and potash encourages root growth and ripening of fruits and seeds.

To kill out grass and weeds for a new garden spot, use something safe that will shade the ground.  Some options are: landscape fabric with weights on it, newspaper covered with moist, heavy organic straw, or black plastic weighted down.  It takes a few weeks to kill out most plant material, but some perennial weeds will remain and seeds will sprout again.  If you are planning well ahead, you can immediately plant a soil-building cover crop to shade the soil until you plant vegetables.  If you need to start right away, till the soil, add organic amendments, plant your seeds and transplants, then mulch. 

When you plant seeds, choose organically certified seed if possible, especially for food plants.  Heirloom seed varieties, which are all open-pollinated, are excellent for organic gardening, because being generations-old, they are well-adapted to climates where they have been grown for a long time.  Heirlooms often ripen in succession rather than all at once, frequently are more nutritious, have exceptional taste, and seed can be saved from them to plant next year.  Another plus is that many heirloom varieties were developed to last well in storage—a valuable trait for local sustainability and for gardeners who want to be self-sufficient.

Mulching your garden is important to conserve moisture and provide for living soil organisms.  Landscape fabric, organic straw, compost, or composted grass clippings work well.  (Fresh grass clippings or other fresh greens will draw nitrogen out of the soil rather than add nitrogen.) 

Be sure to include a home for pollinators in or around your garden.  Native wildflowers are best; they will attract and foster native species of bees and other insects.  Another effective tactic is to release ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantises and other pest-eating bugs in your garden at proper times.  It is helpful to provide bird, bat houses and Mason bee houses.

Most gardeners new to organic gardening have anxiety about controlling pests and diseases.  Healthy, thriving plants, combined with preventative methods are the most effective ways to begin.  A diversity of crops will help confuse damaging insects (the scent of marigolds, for example confuses some pests).  Crop-rotation will prevent a host of pest and disease problems.  Plan your vegetable layout so that the same kind of plant is not grown in the same spot for at least 4 years.  Collars made from toilet paper rolls or plastic cups will deter cut worms.  Netting will prevent birds from eating strawberries.  Light insect fabric on row covers will protect all cole crops from cabbage loopers; and straw mulch around tomatoes will make a home for beetles, which will eat aphids off the tomatoes at night.  Garlic spray over your vegetables will confuse most damaging pests and prevent infestations if timed at monthly intervals.  Safe pesticides and fungicides, such as BT, horticultural oil, neem oil, insecticidal soap, pyrethrum, and diatomaceous earth are each effective for certain listed pests.  Always follow directions and precautions to the letter with any pesticides or herbicides. 

Take advantage of the latest technologies to assist your organic garden.  A few of these include: season-extending high or low tunnels, solar-powered heating and cooling, and frost-protection fabrics.  Using tunnels and row covers can improve yields significantly because you get a month to 6 weeks longer season of growing and harvesting!  Automatic solar vents for cold frames, greenhouses and high tunnels will save you labor and worry—especially in our volatile climate, with its ups and downs in temperature, alternating clouds and sunshine, and sudden winds that occur in a typical Montana spring.  Solar powered fans will kick on automatically when the temperature gets too high in a tunnel or greenhouse, and will not contribute to the overabundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  I wish you the best of luck and success in your organic gardening!

 

PLANTING SPRING-FLOWERING BULBS

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I have three pictures above depicting flowers of heirloom bulbs.  The double daffodil is ‘Van Sion’ dated 1620.  The hyacinth is ‘General Kohler’ a rare double hyacinth from 1878. The tulip is an old Cottage-type tulip with variegated petals.  This type of tulip was much loved in the Dutch golden age in the 1600s.  Many tulips, hyacinths and daffodils still exist from hundreds of years ago, but are quite rare now.  It is important to keep growing and propagate them so they will not be lost forever!  I am going to list methods of culture and planting for spring-flowering bulbs in this article.

The best time to plant spring-flowering bulbs is when soil temperatures drop below 60 degrees.  In Montana this may occur as early as in August, but because of our frequent fluctuations in temperatures, October or early November is the best time.   Many spring bulbs establish root systems in the fall while the soil is not yet frozen.  If necessary, bulbs can be planted right up until the ground freezes, but will bloom better if you get them in earlier.

Bulbs prefer a well-drained location in the garden.  Tulips, hyacinths, and grape hyacinths need full sun.  Daffodils, snowdrops and glacier lilies (trout lilies) like part shade, though daffodils will grow in full sun in Montana and other cool areas of the Northwest.  Daffodils are deer and rodent proof, but most others, especially tulips, need to be in a place protected from deer and voles.  Dig your soil about 10 or 12 inches deep.  Sandy loam is the best soil for bulbs, but you can improve your soil.  Add gypsum to break down clay; peat moss or compost will also help.  Bone meal is excellent food for bulbs.  It adds phosphorous, which promotes larger and more numerous blooms.  Mix bone meal well with the soil in the bottom of the bed for best results.  Soil pH should be about neutral for these bulbs, but hyacinths and tulips will tolerate more alkaline soils.  Plant tulips and daffodils at 5 bulbs per square foot, hyacinths and glacier lilies at 3 to 4 per square foot, and grape hyacinths at 8 to 10 per square foot.  After planting, backfill the soil but do not pack it down over the bulbs.  Water the bed well.  A winter mulch of evergreen branches will help protect your bulbs over winter.  Straw is not a good mulch for bulbous plants because as it rots down it attracts disease carrying organisms like botrytis and mold.

The general recommended planting depth for bulbs is three times the height of the bulb deep; pointed end up.  Tulips, hyacinths and daffodils should be planted about 6 to 8 inches deep, grape hyacinths and glacier lilies about 4 inches deep.

Leave foliage on your bulbs and let it die down naturally.  This feeds the bulbs and helps them to flower well next year.  Most bulbs, especially tulips, like dry soil conditions after foliage dies down.  In some climates, or if summer bedding is planned for that location, people dig and store their tulip bulbs and replant them in fall.  Here in Montana, you can leave the bulbs in the ground if you give no additional summer water.  Do not water them until October.  To give the roots a boost before winter, spread bone meal over your bulb beds before you water.  Glacier lilies and a few other bulbs like to grow in moist soil, but can tolerate dry soil conditions for a short period during late summer.

GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES

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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.

 

April Gardening Calendar

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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Growing Asparagus

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Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis) is a popular vegetable today and was quite popular in the nineteenth century.  The photograph above is of an antique variety, ‘Giant Asparagus’ an engraving from The Illustrated London News, dated 1851.  An asparagus knife is shown alongside the plant.  This year, I grew another old variety of asparagus from seed, ‘Connover’s Collosal’, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century.   It is difficult to find plants of heirloom varieties of asparagus, so one has to start them from seed.  However, the process is slow, as the plants take three to four years to reach the size for harvesting.  (If too many shoots are cut from very young plants, productivity may be reduced, or the plants may die.  But if the plants are allowed to become established, an asparagus bed will last twenty years or more, even up to fifty years!)

Late March into early April is an excellent time to start asparagus from seed.  Use a sterile medium, cover the seed about 1/4 inch deep and place the pots in a warm location (77 degrees is optimum).  The seeds should come up in about ten days.  You may direct seed into a bed if soil temperatures are above 50 degrees, it will just take a little longer for the seeds to germinate.  Asparagus plants begin to grow slowly and will not be ready to transplant out for about three or four months.  Meanwhile you can prepare a bed for them.  An ideal spot is in full sun with a bed large enough to accommodate the number of plants you need.  It is usually recommended to plant five to six plants per person.  Since the plants are perennial (USDA climate zones 4-9) they benefit from a well-prepared bed.  Peter Henderson, in his book Gardening for Profit published in 1867, recommended planting transplants nine inches apart in rows three feet wide for commercial growers, or two feet wide for home gardeners.

Once you have established how many plants you need, you can make the planting bed.  Henderson recommended trenching the bed two to three feet deep with about three inches of rotted manure mixed into the soil.  A deep sandy loam is best for them as they are native to alluvial soils.  Bernard Mc Mahon, in Mc Mahon’s American Gardener, published in 1857, recommended double digging two spades deep and placing several inches of rotted manure in the trench, then spreading another layer of rotted manure over the surface.  He directed gardeners to mix this second layer of manure with the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches.  My young plants, now a year old, have spears a little larger in diameter than a toothpick.  The young plants may be grown in a temporary (sunny) rich bed for another year, then moved to their permanent location.  Place the crowns of the plants two inches below the soil surface.  Keep the beds weeded to ensure quick, even growth.  Mc Mahon recommends three years from planting (which would be four years from sowing seed) before cutting can begin.  Dress the bed every spring with rotted manure, bone meal and wood ashes.

If your family really enjoys asparagus, plant more than five plants per person; I plant twelve per person.  If you plant two-year transplants, spread the roots out like the spokes of a wheel and cover with about one inch of prepared soil.  Water well.  As the plants grow, cover them with more soil until you have them two inches under.  Do not use fresh manure as it will burn them and (heaven forbid) do not use chemical fertilizers, especially on newly planted asparagus.  Wait two years to begin cutting.  A summer mulch of three inches of straw is excellent, will protect the plants in winter and the spears will come up earlier in the spring if the ground is not frozen too deeply.

When you cut asparagus spears get them into the refrigerator right away or cook them immediately because they lose flavor as quickly as sweet corn does.   Considering how expensive asparagus is, I find the start up work well worth while.  Enjoy!