Standard

AURICULA PRIMROSES

When we think of primroses, the first thing that comes to mind are the ‘Pacific Giant’ hybrid primroses we see in garden centers.  Actually hundreds of species of Primula are in existence, and some species have been brought into gardens and significantly developed.  The auricula primroses, members of the species P. auricula, have been grown in gardens since the 1500s.  They have evergreen leaves that curl around in a way that resembles the ear of a bear.  When first cultivated, they were called ‘Bear’s Ears’.  Charles l’Ecluse (known as Clusius) is the first person known to have grown auriculas in a garden.  This was after 1573; he grew two kinds.  The first auriculas grown in England are illustrated first left above, in a woodcut from Gerard’s Great Herbal of 1596.  By 1639, at least 15 different colors and even striped forms were grown.  Auriculas were a popular plant beginning in the early eighteenth century when keen collectors began to grow and exhibit them in competitions.  These growers were called ‘florists’.  Several specialized classes of auriculas came into existence over the following centuries.  Potted plants were (and still are) exhibited in flower on black painted shelves in a stage-like display.  The black background highlights the beautiful colors of the flowers.  Auriculas do have an extremely wide color range, much greater than practically every other kind of flower.  The second picture shows a tawny-colored auricula, a color popular in the 1600s.  Auriculas were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, but curiously, are not well-known today.

Auriculas are native to the Alps and prefer gritty, moist, well-drained soil with a good amount of humus.  They are tolerant of alkalinity and extremely winter hardy to USDA climate zone 3, or even zone 2 if covered with snow all winter.  This means they are perfectly suited to growing all over Montana.  They are shade plants, especially when grown at lower altitudes.  The individual plants are small, only about 8 to 12 inches tall when blooming.  The engraving third from left depicts a garden auricula from 1908.  A gardener must watch that vigorous neighboring plants do not overtake them.  Being evergreen, they grow rather slowly.  I found that a mulch of sharp grit, about the diameter of turkey grit, is excellent for them and will discourage slugs.  Auriculas thrive when grown organically and enjoy soil amendments such as bone meal, composted manure, kelp meal, wood ashes, and grit for excellent drainage.

The classes of exhibition auriculas are usually grown in pots and are smaller and less vigorous than garden auriculas.  The pots used to grow them are taller than average, as the plants have a long tap root.  Growers commonly use an organic soil potting mix with added grit, bone meal and wood ashes.  Grit is especially important for drainage, but also for itsmineral content.  Indeed, the flowers have a wonderful mineral-floral fragrance unlike any other.  The last picture above shows a double exhibition auricula.

Auriculas are available from specialist growers as plants or seed.  I grow mine from seed planted in a fine, fast-draining seedling mix, covered with glass and placed in a shaded cold frame.  I plant seeds in late fall or winter, so the seeds have a cold period before they sprout in the spring.  The plants are usually large enough to pot on by midsummer.  Mature plants are best divided  midsummer.  I would urge gardeners to try auriculas; they are beautiful and rewarding to grow.  If grown in the garden, they might be best appreciated in raised beds, where their delicate flowers can be observed.

Advertisements

SOIL PH FOR GROWING VEGETABLES

Standard

FullSizeRender

 

Soil pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity.  This measurement can range from a very low pH of 1.0 to an extremely high pH of 14.0.  7.0 is considered neutral and several vegetables will thrive in soil with a neutral pH.  Some vegetables do prefer a more acidic soil while others prefer a more alkaline soil.  Fortunately most will grow and produce well in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5.   Areas with high rainfall, such as coastal Washington, tend to have acidic soils high in organic matter, while areas with lower rainfall, such as most of the mountain valleys in Montana, tend to have alkaline soils low in organic matter.  Here in the valleys of the Flathead region, where most of us garden, soils tend to be somewhat to highly alkaline.

Before you amend your existing soil to plant vegetables it is a good idea to test the pH.  An easy way is to purchase a test kit.  Most of them are easy to use and give fairly accurate readings.  Your county extension agent can do a soil test also.  Once you have determined your soil pH and which crops you intend to grow, you can amend your garden soil.  Adding lime will increase pH and make acidic soils more alkaline; adding sulfur will lower pH and make soils more acidic.  Organic matter usually helps reduce alkalinity.  Aged manure, pine needles, compost and coir dust are a few amendments that will help do this while they improve soil structure and encourage beneficial soil micro-organisms.  If your garden is divided into separate beds or raised beds, it is easier to adjust the soil in each bed for what you plan to grow.   I rotate my vegetable crops in a four-year rotation plan, so I try to keep a basic soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5.  This way I can grow almost every vegetable, but I slightly adjust pH each year before growing a particular plant.  For example, I add sulfur before growing potatoes.  Conversely, I add a small amount of lime before planting any of the Brassica family (Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.).   Having soil pH correct for each crop will reduce pest and disease problems as well as increase yields.

Here is a listing of pH tolerance ranges for specific vegetables.  (The optimum pH for each is usually the median between the two extremes.)  I have listed vegetables preferring more acidic soils first and those preferring more alkaline soils last:

Potatoes, 4.5-6.0; sweet potatoes, 5.6-6.5; horseradish and rhubarb, 5.5-6.8; butternut squash, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins and watermelon, 5.5-7.0; cucumbers, garlic, winter squash, and tomatoes, 5.5-7.5;  celery, 5.9-6.9; soybeans and strawberries, 6.0-6.8; onions, radishes, shallots and spinach, 6.0-7.0; beets, any of the Brassica family, peas, summer squash, Swiss chard, and zucchini, 6.0-7.5; okra, 6.0-8.0.

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES

Standard

FullSizeRender (11) FullSizeRender (6)

 

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

Standard

photo (133)

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!

Starting Seeds Indoors

Standard

photo (127) photo (128)

Many of us get a good feeling from planting seeds and watching them grow when outside it is still dark and cold.  But inside, we are planning for spring planting.  We can start the varieties we want—perhaps a favorite is not available locally as a transplant or as seed; we can raise it ourselves from seed!

Most everyone I know has good luck starting seeds in a sterilized seedling mix.  It may be difficult to find an organic seedling mix; and it must be sterile or seedlings might dampen off from fungi present in the air and abundant in unpasteurized soil mixes.  A mix I make is soil free: 6 parts sterile (pasteurized)peat moss + 3 parts fine perlite + 1 part washed coarse sand.  If you are unsure if your mixture is sterile or not the mix may be heated in an oven at 160 degrees for one hour.  Do not allow the mix to heat above 180 degrees.  A mixture including compost would need to be sterilized by heating to use for seedlings.

Several types of containers might be used to start your seedlings.  In the first picture above, I used a milk carton cut laterally, providing two useful containers.  Shown are pepper seedlings.  Peat pots work well for plants that are difficult to transplant, because they minimize transplant shock and biodegrade into the soil.  Be sure to keep them quite moist once planted, because if the peat pots become too dry, roots will not penetrate the container.  Some plants that benefit from being raised in peat pots and are difficult to transplant are: portulaca, nasturtiums, sunflowers, poppies, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins.  Peat pellets also work, but they sometimes are so hard that roots have difficulty growing in them.

Timing is another important factor in raising seedlings.  Your transplants should be big enough to mature and produce in your season, but not too big, or they will not take off well and will take up a lot of room in the house.  Here is a basic seed planting guide, categorized month-by-month, of which seeds to plant at what time for success in northern climates of 100 to 170 days.  (Adjust timings to your local climate):

In January plant impatiens, begonias, geraniums and salvias.  Late January or early February is a good time to start eggplant, peppers, onions, petunias and pansies.  March is probably the best month to start cole crops (brassica family).  April is a good time to start tomatoes and balsam; late April or early May for pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, and nasturtiums.

Florescent grow lights with an adjustable chain are a great help in starting nice seedlings; the lights can be lowered with the chain to keep the newly emerged seedlings in bright light.  This will prevent your plants from getting “leggy”.   Temperatures vary for germination: cole crops about 65 degrees, onions about 70, tomatoes about 75 and eggplant, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers and nasturtiums about 80 degrees.

Make sure your seedling mix is not too wet.  Some seeds like to germinate on the dry side, such as tomatoes and peppers.  I cover my newly-planted seeds with plastic wrap, but check them twice daily for moisture and rotate them if necessary.  Once the seeds are just up, I loosen the wrap (a little more each day) to harden the babies off to the air.  Grow your plants on in cooler conditions than you germinated them and they will grow stockier.  A cold frame is just about the best place you can put them if it is not too cold outside.  In a south-facing cold frame the soil will remain warm at night, and daytime venting will give the plants fresh air.  Keep shade cloth handy if it tends to get too hot during the day in your area.  This is a common occurrence in dry, sunny climates with warm days and frosty nights.  The second picture above shows newly transplanted seedlings in a cold frame vented for the day.  A cold frame will harden-off your plants before planting out.  Don’t forget to place open-ended containers around plants as you place them in the garden to deter cutworms.  Good luck!

Designing A Garden For Heirloom Plants

Standard

photo (92) photo (93) photo (94) photo (95) photo (96) photo (97) photo (98) photo (99)

Winter is an excellent time for gardeners to plan garden designs as there is minimal activity outside this time of year, epecially in northern climates.  As soon as soil can be worked you can begin executing your project.  In southern and low desert climates it is also a good time to plan your garden and build it because the cool temperatures make it easier to do heavy physical labor.

This last year I designed and built a garden in Early American style to hold my collection of antique roses, fruits, flowers and vegetables.  I had several goals: create a design based on historic models; maximize use of space and efficiency; minimize maintenance labor; use local materials, protect plants from predation and create the best growing conditions possible.  The first picture above depicts an American garden design plan from the late eighteenth century.  The original drawing is archived at the Essex Institute in Salem, MA.  My photo is taken from British and American Gardens of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert P. Maccubin and Peter Martin; The Colonial Williamsburg Press, 1984.  This style of design and use of space has its roots in Medieval gardens of Europe.  The plan is formal; beds are edged by timbers, are often raised or slightly raised and mud-free (and/or weed-free) paths separate beds.  This formal style is quite convenient to tend: crops can be separated and rotated; soil pH, texture and drainage can be adjusted from bed to bed, and some beds can be high water-use, while others may be medium or low water-use.  I find it convenient to place high water-use beds nearest the house and low water-use beds farthest away.

The second photo above is of my garden design for my garden in Corvallis, Oregon.  I measured the entire site, then made the drawing to scale on graph paper.  I used cut-out pieces of colored paper for structures such as the greenhouse, cold frames and porches.  I made labeled pieces of graph paper to indicate trees and shrubs.  The cut-out pieces can be moved around over the drawing until you determine where you want everything to go.  Shade is an issue in this garden, so sun-loving and shade tolerant plants were placed accordingly.

When the design was finished, trees and shrubs that cast heavy shade were removed or moved to new location; materials and workmen were sourced.  Tree and shrub roots were ground and removed.  Soil leveling was undertaken, then fences were built.  We tilled the soil, as seen in the third photo above, then raked the grass and roots into piles approximating the location of beds.  We had such a hot summer that the grass roots quickly died.  They provided immediate organic material for the soil.

We measured and drew out my design with spray paint and began to build our boxed beds.  I used 2′ x 12′ cedar lumber anchored in place with metal spikes set in concrete.  The fourth photo shows bed construction in the back yard garden.  Trenches 6 inches deep were dug to lay the timbers into.  Now we had beds raised six inches above the original soil level and 4 inches above planned level of the gravel.  This enabled us to use the native soil and amend it with 4 to 5 inches of compost, manure, greensand, wood ashes, alfalfa meal and bone meal (See the fifth photo above of the front garden).

After soil preparation, planting could begin.  The sixth photo above is a shot of the back garden two weeks after planting.  Vegetables grew quickly in the wonderful, organically amended soil.  The front garden was finished and planted a few weeks later (the seventh photo above).  The front beds were planned for bulbs, perennials and shrubs that use little or no additional water in our climate.  I do have to water the rose bed bordering the fence; watering deeply but infrequently once the roses are established.

The last photo shows one of the large 3′ x 3′ wooden tubs newly planted with ‘Blue-Podded Blauwschokker’ peas, which date to the sixteenth century.

The entire construction project took six months, from design to planting.  For a labor force we had two people working part time and one person working full time.  The garden is planted with heirloom plants dating from the ancient Greco-Roman period through the Oregon Trail Era (1830-1869).  Also included are a few more recent varieties, dating before and up to 1925, when the house was built.

 

IMPROVING YOUR SOIL

Standard

photo (91)

The quality of your garden soil is an important consideration in growing heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers as soils come in a wide variety of textures and materials.  Soil texture describes the size of the mineral particles in your soil.  Soil particles in order of size, from smallest to largest, are: clay, silt, fine sand, medium sand and coarse sand.  The ideal garden soil (for most plants) is a loam soil, which carries particles of clay, silt and sand, plus organic matter.

Soil structure refers to the way soil particles bind together to form clumps.  In soils with good structure the spaces between particles are large enough to ensure good drainage but do not dry too quickly.  The best garden soil, loam soil, drains fast enough for root health but retains enough moisture for continued satisfactory growth.  Adding amendments to soils will improve its structure and provide food for beneficial microbes.

Another consideration to address before you add amendments to the soil is to test the pH— the measure of acidity to alkalinity in your native soil.  A pH of 7 is considered neutral and many plants are adapted to this condition.  A pH above 7 is considered alkaline while a pH below 7 is considered acid.  A pH test can serve as a guide to which plants you might be able to grow with ease and others that might be more difficult.  It is easier to make soils more alkaline, but difficult to acidify them.  Even though you may add sulfur or aluminum to your soil to acidify it, the subsoils beneath will remain alkaline and eventually the alkalinity will return, especially if your water is alkaline.  This makes it difficult to grow plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas (which prefer acid soil) in regions with alkaline soil and water.  Adding lime or crushed shells to acid soils will increase soil alkalinity.

One consideration in growing heirloom plants is to research soil amendment ingredients and practices used in the 19th century, as most of the plants still in existence from that era and before were selected under those soil conditions.  I am an organic gardener using these time-tested methods and believe that building your soil is crucial to long term success.  By amending your soil with such things as greensand, sulfur, bone meal, kelp meal and manure, you will enrich it and create a productive environment for soil bacteria.  You can choose from composted cow, hog or horse manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal and guano or chicken manure to add significant nitrogen to your garden soil.  These all contain small levels of potassium and potash.  Bone meal, hoof and horn meal are excellent sources of potassium.  Kelp meal, wood ashes and greensand are significant sources of potash.  Greensand also contains many trace minerals.  Keep in mind that bone meal is somewhat alkaline and wood ashes are quite alkaline.  Home made compost is always valuable and usually contains a fair amount of nitrogen with smaller mount of potassium, potash and trace minerals.  Another option to improve soil is to plant cover crops and till them under.  Clover, rye, lentils, field peas, vetch and buckwheat are some examples.

This is the time of year to plan for improving your soil.  As soon as the ground thaws you can test the pH and as soon as soil becomes workable (not too wet to dig) you can add amendments.  It is important to learn as much as you can about what type of soil each plant you plan to grow prefers, for long term success.  For example, brassicas (cole crops like cabbage) have fewer pest problems and greater production in slightly alkaline soils.