The lockdowns this year have really opened up my social calendar for more gardening time. So, I have made the most of this by experimenting with plants I have never grown before. There has been no time to write about gardening because all spare time has been spent in it. This year I decided to experiment with sesame. I like sesame seeds and tahini (sesame paste) and it is an important ingredient to humus and baba ghanoush. The seeds are used in so many other recipes that I know I will be able to use them if I am blessed with a large harvest.
I have never seen sesame as a seedling at any store but I did see the seeds online when I mail ordered all the other seeds for this year. I had no idea if it could grow here in the Mid-Atlantic climate. Sure, I have a growing zone chart but no charts for humidity and rainfall. I decided to experiment anyway. I started a few seeds in the greenhouse and they did not take well to transplanting. I then sowed some seeds directly into the raised bed and I waited. After a while I did not see anything happening. Experiment over.
Well, I was wrong. A few months later I notice a strange but pretty flower growing between pumpkin vines and a tomatillo. A few sesame plants are growing strong in the raised bed. They were hiding all this time. They are visible now because they are a taller and have flowers and seed pods.
Sesame could be an ornamental plant that just happens to be edible. They have light purple/pink delicate flowers that remind me a little of foxglove. I would not hesitate to plant some of these in a regular garden bed to add interest and height.
Now that we are all stuck at home, gardening has become more popular than ever. Regrettably, this has led to a shortage in seeds and seedlings this year. However, not every vegetable needs to be replanted every year from seed. There are many vegetable and fruit plants that are perennial in most areas of the US. One of these is the asparagus plant.
Asparagus is one of the first plants to emerge from the ground in spring. And it is only these new sprouts that are really edible. As the plant gets taller it gets too tough and woody to eat. It develops fern like leaves and sometimes make poisonous berries if the plant is female. In full growth it is impressively tall and many people do not recognize it as asparagus.
Asparagus comes in many different cultivations but most commonly they are grown as green or purple. White asparagus is just regular asparagus that had the new sprouts covered up and kept from sunlight while they grew.
I planted purple and green asparagus many years ago and left them to grow full each year for a few years. This year is the first time I have tried to harvest any sprouts. I purposely left the plants alone so the root system would be able to grow and strengthen. Now that they are established roots, the plant will provide sprouts for many springs to come.
Asparagus is really one of the easiest plants to grow. I started with some bare roots from the garden store and planted them in a shallow hole. From there they have taken care of them selves for many years. They are in a back corner of the garden that I did not have time to properly maintain until this year. They have competed with the weeds every year and they are still thriving. I clear the dead woody stalks every spring but the plant itself requires no effort from me at all. It has survived wet years, dry years, cool years, and hot years.
Spring has sprung and it is time to get the garden growing again. This spring has brought some extra challenges in the form of a pandemic virus and stay at home orders in most of the country. My state will allow us away from home for exercise, work, and buying necessities. Most retail is closed unless they sell necessities.
While the necessary stores include garden centers since they sell food bearing seeds and plants, I decided to mail order new seeds for this year and only start plants from seeds instead of using seedlings. (Yes, I know the stores are open but that is where all the people are right now.) I have challenged myself to do my civic duty and buy what I really need while not going out as much as possible. I bought seeds from sellers on a couple of sellers on Amazon. One of the more interesting sellers is Seed Needs who donates a portion of their revenue to charities. I also had some purchases from Burpee and Gurneys. Bupree and Gurneys and a few other companies have been in the mail order garden supply business before the internet existed. I still get the beautiful glossy catalogs from them, but I order online now.
Normally I do not mail order so much. I like to go to the stores and find the plants and seeds I want for the season. I have just kept my vendor list to the bigger well-established nurseries and vendors with very good ratings. Many nurseries also offer direct shipment of the seedlings. I chose only seeds instead due to cost. One of my reasons to garden is that it provides some frugal exercise and food. That means I should keep the costs as low as possible. Also, to be honest I have a greenhouse and open evenings so I have no excuse to not just buy seeds and start them myself.
My social calendar has really opened up this spring and I will need something pass the time. To pass the time, I am experimenting with new plants like radish and beets and peanuts. And I am experimenting with new herbs like chamomile and marjoram.
The seeds are all started on time and I have a few cucumbers and tomatoes sprouting already. I have started the usual planters full of basil and seedlings are just starting to appear above the dirt. Beets and radish are "direct sow" which means the seeds are started in the garden not in the greenhouse. They are also sprouting well.
Every year I have some left over seeds from the last year. Now, seeds get less likely to sprout as they age. So while there is little chance old seeds will sprout, I usually put them in some dirt to make sure. I have nothing to lose by trying. I have already bought the seeds and the money is a "sunk cost". If they do not sprout I have no seedling; I put them in the trash, I also have no seedling. But, if I plant them there is a small chance I will get a seedling if. So the first direct sow and attempted starting in the green house include old seeds from the prior year.
I am happy to report that my plan to overwinter the fig tree has worked. I have cleared the straw away and the tree has not died down to the ground for the first time. Even better, the whole plant stayed alive. This also includes the parts that were above the straw. The fig is growing new leaves months before it did last year and there is already a green fruit forming. I left the metal rods and the hardware cloth so later this year I can use it to support bird netting.
The asparagus has started to send up sprouts too. I have both a green and a purple variety. Both seem to sprout at the same time. I have very aggressively cleared out that back section on the vegetable plot to give them more room to spread this year.
The strawberry raised bed has comeback amazingly well. There are many flowers and some green fruit starting to develop. We built a very low-tech solution to keeping the birds from eating all the berries. We have two long thing PVC pipes with each end stuck in a cinder block at each corner. They crisscross in the middle above the raised bed and are zip tied together at the crossing. And over that we have zip tied some bird netting.
The garlic which stayed green all winter has started growing in height faster and faster. Garlic benefits from some weeding and some fertilizer in the spring. One of my first tasks this spring was to add some fertilizer pellets after removing the weeds. The garlic is just starting to produce flower heads called scapes. Soon I will pull these off the plants to promote the bulbs to grow better.
The plants are not the only ones who need some help over the winter. One of my previously stated reasons for gardening is that it provides exercise. But there is much less work outside in Winter. So, like some of the plants, I bring the workout inside.
This is not a fitness blog so I am keeping this post pretty short. Working-out does not mean you need to spend a lot of money on a fancy gym membership. I manage to get enough exercise over the winter inside my home. Most of my exercise involves free weights. They are not expensive and do not take up much space. In addition, I have a yoga mat for stretches and floor exercises. I can do all these workouts in a floor space large enough to lay down in. This added with a treadmill or stationary bike seems to provide plenty of winter exercise to keep me ready for spring.
Working-out does not mean I have to become a “gym rat” or get super pumped over the winter. I am only looking to maintain the level of fitness I am already used to. This only requires a little work over the winter so the spring is not a huge shock to my body. Usually Spring brings a lot of work. There are planters to carry, plots to till, bags of dirt and fertilizer to lift, the last of the fall leaves to pick up, and maybe even some mowing. I am not giving medical advice here. And I am not a medical professional but I find that spring can be very hard if I approach it unprepared. I have found personally that some minor preparation over the winter prevents a lot of sore muscles later.
I have many reasons to garden. When I am asked why I bother with all this work many different reasons come to mind. No one reason seems more important than any other. However, it seems to me that the benefits have always been worth the work. Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to write these down and share.
The most obvious benefit of vegetable gardening is the harvest. Frugality is one of the most common reason for wanting to garden. Seed packets, seedlings, and supplies are often much cheaper to buy than whole produce.
Gardening does not have to be all about vegetables and food. I grow many ornamental plants. Like produce, flowers are very expensive if bought already cut and arranged. I have used garden flowers to make indoor arrangements and even frugal gifts.
Of course, frugality must consider the value of a person’s time. Gardening does take some time. But I find many people overestimate the amount of time gardening really takes. Many plants do not require daily work to produce a good harvest. Even watering is only a few minutes a few days per week. I work a full-time job and have an active social life. I still have time for a day or so of gardening in a week.
There are other costs to consider on top of time and seeds. Of course, many of us have to pay for water. This expense can be reduced by using underground ollas to provide water to the roots or rain barrels to catch rain water for later use. Fertilizer and potting soil costs can add up too. However, this can be reduced by home composting kitchen waste for fertilizer.
The produce you grow yourself will very likely be the freshest you have ever eaten. The entire travel time from the backyard to the kitchen is about 5 minutes for me. Even buying local will not give you travel times this short. Of course, I find that fresher tastes better.
Gardening gives me a practical reason to get up and move around. Not every task will be heavy work like building raised beds or new flower beds. But the basic maintenance of a garden can provide a good deal of exercise without the gym membership fees. Even the simple task of pulling some weeds will exercise the legs and back. Then there is raking and mowing and harvesting that all involve standing, stooping, and lifting. This is all done outside in the sun and sometimes the heat or cold. After many years of gardening I find I do not need a gym membership anymore. And who needs hot yoga when you have outdoor work to get done in 90-degree heat?
You meet the neighbors
I met nearly all my neighbors for the first time while doing yardwork. And if you really think about it, when else do you have the opportunity to even see each other, let alone strike up a conversation? It is common in our modern society to live in a house for many years and never cross paths with the people next door to you. It has become normal to stay inside watch TV and ignore the world outside and all the people in it.
Many neighbors we met while we were each working on our own yard work. This provided a good foundation for building relationships that have lasted years. I am not by any means a “prepper” but there are advantages to knowing the people who live in your area. One of these is the increased security of knowing your closest neighbors.
Improves curb appeal
Gardening is one of the simplest ways to add curb appeal and improve your property value. We purchased the eyesore of the block. There had been nearly no yard maintenance for at least a year prior to us moving in. One of the first tasks was to simply clean up the yard.
Better curb appeal is all about presentation and will affect the property value. A house with a well-maintained yard is going to look better than the same house with an overgrown yard of tall weeds. People partially value things based on how others act about that thing. If someone values a place enough to clean it up and make it look the best it can, others will value it higher as well.
Gardening can increase the property value of other houses around yours. Please see the previous point about relationships with the neighbors. We met a few neighbors who came out just to thank us for cleaning up the front yard. They knew that our efforts made the whole block and their homes look a bit better. In addition, the bandwagon effect caused some neighbors to start giving more attention to their own yards.
Each year to get into the holiday spirit I put up a small Christmas Tree. I am familiar with the debate on whether a live tree or artificial tree is better. Artificial can be used over and over, but the production requires manufacturing facilities and they eventually go into the land fill. The live trees are biodegradable but they are cut at the base and will die. Also, dry pine needles are a fire hazard.
I have skipped this debate by using small potted plants in the place of a tree. Some years I use a small potted evergreen but this year I went in a different direction. This year I started planning ahead for what I want to plant in the spring. One of these plans is for more lavender in the birdbath garden. From there I went and looked till I found a small potted lavender plant already trimmed into a tree shape.
If you do not like lavender a rosemary plant works very well. Other plants such as small evergreens work great too. There is really no rule here on what type of plant someone may want to dress up. It could even be cactus if that is what someone wants to use. Personally, my only rule is that I plan to relocate the plant outside in the spring.
The secret to turning a potted topiary into a Christmas tree is just decorations. Each year I reuse the same miniature ornament set I picked up at a craft store years ago. This set came with tiny plastic ornaments, battery powered LED lights, a plastic bead strand, and a little star for the top.
The plant sits in a bowl to catch any water that runs through. It gets moved occasionally to sit with the other plants in the grow lamp. The rest of the time it sits in the dining room being festive. It also has its own hardware cloth cage to keep the cats from digging in the dirt.
I have noticed it has grown a bit since I first bought it. There are shoots of new growth sticking out at the sides. I could trim these to keep the plant in a tree shape or let it go since we are only a few days away from Christmas. After the holidays I will remove the decorations and store them for next year. Then I will put the plant in with the citrus trees under the grow lamp. As soon as it is warm enough, I will plant it in the garden.
Some plants cannot be brought in during the winter. Some are planted in the ground but still benefit from a little help over the winter. One of these is our fig tree. I have had this tree for many years and each winter it dies down to practically nothing. This means it has to start all over again in spring. This year I decided to try to help it keep some of its size over the winter.
I took some metal plant supports a friend of a friend gave us. I also took the familiar hardware cloth and florist wire from the indoor plant project. I placed four of the plant supports around the fig and drove them deep into the ground with a sledge hammer. I then took the hardware cloth and florist wire and created a low cage around the base of the fig tree. I only had enough hardware cloth for the two longest sides. The two other sides I created with multiple rows of florist wire. I also tied a line of wire around the top of the supports to add more strength to the whole structure. I then stuffed this cage with leftover straw from the fall decorations and some oak leaves from the yard. Hopefully this adds enough protection and insulation from the elements that the fig will start out bigger in the spring.
I did drive the four plant supports rather deep. And that is OK as I do not plan to remove these for a long time. While I do plan to remove the insulating straw and leaves in the spring, these metal posts will serve as great supports for a tall covering of bird netting come summer.
Just in time for another DIY Wednesday post, I realized we had found another use for a part of the old grill. Like all grills this one had a large grate they you place the food on to cook. We have used this part to solve a utensil storage problem we had. Now instead of an unorganized drawer of hard to find cooking utensils we have a hanging storage rack.
This was not the hardest of upcycle projects so this post is rather short. We simply cleaned up and painted the grate. We then attached it with some spacers so it was not completely flat against the wall but it is secure. This does not move or swing or even wiggle. We then took some heavy gauge copper wire and turned it into hooks.
From these hooks we can hang most of out utensils and of course a braid of garlic from the garden.
Not all the gardening comes to a halt in winter. I addition to growing garlic and other winter crops, some of the plants come inside. I have dwarf citrus trees that I knew would not survive a winter outside. Also, both the lemon and cumquat had large unripen fruit that I did not want to waste.
I will give one warning here. Indoor gardening requires a little more advance planning and some additional gear compared to outdoor gardening. I planned out where the plants would sit. I cleared a warm spot in one corner of the house. Being inside will keep the plant from freezing to death. But plants need more than just warmth to live. They also need light. Even inside near a window, there would never be enough sunlight during the darker winter months to keep citrus plants growing strong all winter.
The solution was to set up a grow lamp.
Grow lamps do not have to be expensive to work well. I saw plenty online for a lot of money. Instead I bought one for about 20 bucks at the local garden store. It is a simple LED bulb on a clip-on heat lamp base. But something tells me the plants will not care how the lamp looks compared to how it works. The LED bulb means it never gets hot and it does not use a lot of electricity. I can leave this lamp on during the day and not worry about the power bill. And the fruit trees will still get enough hours of light to stay alive and maybe mature some fruit.
An additional preparation I had to make was to protect the plants from cats. Anyone with house cats will know that some like to dig in potted plants. This will kill the plant. It will also make a huge mess. In order to prevent this. I built some screens to keep the cats out of the dirt. These are built onto the planter with chicken wire or hardware cloth and florists wire. I cut the chicken wire and hardware cloth into strips and connected them over the pots and around the plant with small pieces of florist wire. This forms a small cage over the pot and around the base of the plant. I then fastened the “cage” to the pot with more florist wire. This last step prevents the cats from lifting the barrier off the plant and digging under it. I made sure to tuck in the ends of the wires so there are no sharp parts sticking up.
The cages are not very attractive but they are functional. I suppose I could have painted these a darker brown to make them blend in if the look really bothered me. Also, I do not think the plant is concerned with the look over the function of the cat barrier cage.
The cats do still get something from this indoor garden arrangement. I have been able to extend the lives of their cat grass by placing it in the lamp light. And, I often find a cat “sunning” itself next to a fruit tree.
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