Natural & Organic Gardening

  1. Summer Tree Care

    Summer tree care helps landscape trees look great all season.

    Trees are the ultimate givers, offering summer shade, protection from wind, and cleaner air.  They also beautify our landscapes, often providing food and serving as habitats for wildlife.  But, even in the face of all that generosity, we often ignore them.  Our trees deserve better, and summer is a good time to turn over a new leaf and focus on tree care.

    Summer weather stresses trees.  Drought is hardest on very young or old specimens but ultimately affects them all.  Storms threaten stability and bring weak or diseased limbs crashing to the ground.  Lawn and garden equipment damages tree bark, while untreated pests and diseases can decimate entire communities of once-healthy trees.  Fortunately, it takes only a little observation and a bit of care to help trees withstand those stresses, enabling them to continue giving for decades to come.

    Inspect Your Summer Trees

    Healthy trees will have vibrant foliage, growth, flowers, and fruit.

    Start by taking a good look at all the trees on your property, using binoculars, if necessary, for large trees.  Check for limbs that are dead, cracked or otherwise compromised.  If damaged trees are large or need anything more than minor pruning, call a tree expert to perform the work.  This may seem expensive, but corrective pruning helps trees withstand summer windstorms and prevents potential property damage and personal injury caused by falling limbs.

     Check Trees for Pests and Diseases

    Tent caterpillars on the upper branches of a black cherry tree.

    If you seek expert advice or help with pruning, ask an arborist or tree surgeon to check for pests and diseases.  Pernicious pests like the emerald ash borer and the Asian long horned beetle can wreak wide-scale havoc, killing scores of trees in a single area, if infestations aren’t promptly controlled.  Bag worms, fall webworms, and early season tent caterpillars can cause significant damage to foliage, which stresses trees. Wasting diseases, like verticillium wilt in maples, can sometimes be arrested, if affected trees are treated in time.

    If you don’t have expert help, check with your local cooperative extension agent to find out which pests and diseases are most prevalent in your area. Some municipalities employ professional arborists who can also provide this information. Take a good look at tree bark and foliage for telltale problem signs.  Follow the expert’s advice on treatment or prevention of pest or disease outbreaks.

    Water Summer Trees Wisely

    Summer tree irrigation is especially important for newly planted trees.

    All trees need regular water, though mature specimens, with broad, healthy root systems are best able to tolerate extended droughts.  Young trees are a different story and need water every few days, if rainfall is sparse or nonexistent.  The best way to water tree roots is low and slow irrigation, positioning the water source close to the ground.  This means soaker hoses circling trees’ bases.  For newly planted and very young trees, property owners can also buy “tree bags”, water-holding, heavy-duty plastic bags constructed to wrap around the trunk.  Small holes in the bottoms of the bags allow water to seep slowly to the roots, a process that takes several hours, depending on the size of the bag.  Refilled every day or two during drought spells, the bags can be life savers for immature trees.

    Protect Trees from Mechanical Injury

    Tree rings protect trunks from mechanical injury, but beware “mulch volcanos”!

    Power string trimmers are great garden time savers, allowing landscapers and homeowners to keep bed edges neat and tidy.  But repeated blows to trees from trimmers can penetrate tree bark to the point where young trees may die.  Trimmer injuries may not kill older specimens outright, but create entry points for damaging pests and diseases.

    The best way to separate trimmers and tree trunks is to mulch tree rings around trees, a technique that also conserves soil moisture and keeps weeds under control.  Spread high quality mulch in a circle with a radius of at least 2 feet around the base of the tree.  Keep the depth at about two to three inches and do not let the mulch touch the trunk.  So-called “mulch volcanos”, where large amounts of mulch are hilled up around tree trunks, contributes to the spread of bacterial and fungal diseases.  Always aim to create a moderately deep “mulch doughnut”, rather than a mountainous mulch “volcano”.

    Tree Planting and Fertilization

    Tree planting is also best done in spring or fall, when weather conditions are less likely to stress young saplings.  However, if you must plant in summer’s heat, “water in” the tree by filling the planting hole part way with water before installation.  If the surrounding soil is poor, thin or compacted, fill in around the tree’s root ball with a mix of the removed soil and an equal amount of high-quality, fertile planting material, like Fafard® Premium Topsoil.  Once the tree is planted, remember to water well, especially in hot, dry weather.

    It is best to fertilize trees in the spring, just before the first flush of growth.  This growth slows down in summer, so the season is not optimal for fertilization.

    Sitting under a tall shade tree with friends, family or just a good book, is one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon.  Timely summer tree care is the best way to ensure that you will continue to enjoy that experience for many years.

    Plant new trees in spring or fall. Spring planted trees need extra care through summer.

  2. Growing Eggplant in the Garden

    Eggplant come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.

    Eggplant is a staple in African, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines, where growing temperatures are hot. Think beyond the standard purple varieties you find at the grocery store. Green, ivory, rose, and magenta types of various shapes and lengths exist, and the best are mild and have few seeds. Some are even ornamental. The biggest challenge to growing them is battling a few common pests. Once these are tackled, plants will reward you with lots of fruits for Szechuan eggplant, eggplant Parmesan, ratatouille, and baba ganoush.

    African Eggplant

    The Indian ‘Petch Siam’ is a round, green eggplant favored for curries.

    There are many unique types of eggplant grown in Africa, most being variants of the African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum). The ‘Striped Togo’ is an ornamental variety of African eggplant sold in the US, which has small, egg-shaped fruits of electric orange with green stripes. They are edible but have a very strong flavor, so most opt to add stems of the pretty fruits to late summer and fall arrangements. ‘Turkish Orange’ (Solanum aethiopicum ‘Turkish Orange’) is another African variety with fruits that age to brilliant orange red. These are larger and edible when green.

    Several African eggplant varieties are popular in Brazilian cooking and classified as Gilo (or Jiló) eggplant. They are small, bitter, harvested green, and include the small, pear-shaped ‘Comprido Verde Claro’, and round, more bitter ‘Morro Redondo’. Due to limited demand, these unusual eggplant have yet to be adopted by American seed companies, so they are hard to find in the US.

    Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Eggplant

    ‘Black Beauty’ is the most common eggplant variety grown in the US.

    The common eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena), is the most familiar eggplant to western palates and gardens. It has been grown and selected for hundreds of years in southerly regions of Europe and throughout the Middle East. One of the best from the Mediterranean is the classic Italian heirloom ‘Rosa Bianca’, with its broad, short, mild fruits covered with thin, lavender and cream skin. The French heirloom ‘Ronde de Valence’ is another unique but delicious eggplant that is deep purple, grapefruit-sized, and almost perfectly round. For a large-fruited, heat-tolerant eggplant, choose the Iraqi variety ‘Aswad’ (meaning “black” in Arabic), a new offering from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Its dark, pleated fruits can reach a massive 3 lbs.

    Eggplant ‘Gretel’ (Image by AAS Winners)

    One American eggplant with a classic pear shape and purple-black skin is ‘Black Beauty’. The 1902 heirloom from Burpee has large fruits with good flavor. Two more American varieties include the AAS winners ‘Gretel‘ (2009 winner), which is petite and has white fruits, and the compact ‘Fairy Tale’ (2005 winner) with its small stature and white-striped purple fruits. Both are very productive and good for small-space gardening.

    Asian Eggplant

    ‘Pingtung Long’ eggplant

    Eggplant varieties from Asia are noted for their elongated shape, low seed count, and mild flavor. Many were bred in Southeast Asia and have an unusually high tolerance to heat and drought. The brilliant purple ‘Machiaw‘ is a tender, mild, thin-skinned variety that always produces well. For exceptional heat tolerance, choose ‘Pingtung Long‘ an heirloom from Taiwan that produces loads 16″-18″ long magenta fruits through the hottest days of summer. The dark purple ‘Orient Express‘ is an early, tender variety popular in many gardens. Finally, for something more unusual, try the Indian ‘Petch Siam‘, a small, green, striped eggplant favored for curries.

    Growing and Harvesting Eggplant

    Flea beetle damage on an eggplant leaf.

    Growing eggplant is not too complicated. Provide them with full sun, warm summer days, good soil with adequate drainage, a little vegetable fertilizer, and water, and they will grow well. (Amend their soil with Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting, and they will grow even better!) The biggest challenge to their success are two common pests: flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles.

    These two pests will destroy plants if given the chance. Flea beetles are tiny, shiny black, and invade in large numbers, hopping from leaf to leaf sucking the juices from the foliage, leaving behind a mass of pock marks. (Read more about these pests here.) To reduce populations, clean old plant debris in fall (where these pests overwinter), till beds in spring, and plant eggplant in late spring to early summer to avoid spring hatches of this pest. Spraying with insecticidal soap or pyrethrin sprays will kill adult beetles and protect plants from summer damage.

    Striped Colorado potato beetles lay masses of yellow eggs on the undersides of eggplant leaves in spring. Brownish orange larvae emerge that aggressively feed on leaves. As they grow larger, they cause more damage and can completely defoliate young eggplants. The best protection is to inspect plants for egg masses and remove them on sight. The beetles and larvae are also easy to remove by hand. (Learn more about these pests here.)

    Most fruits are ready to harvest when they are fully colored and firm to the touch, while giving slightly when pressed with a finger. Fruits that are too old begin to turn yellow. At this point, they are too seedy and strong to eat.

    Eggplant are delicious, easy to grow, and make a great addition to any summer garden. Add them to pasta sauces or your favorite eggplant dishes! They also freeze well for winter storage.

    Orange ‘Striped Togo’ African eggplants in a harvest bowl with tomatoes.

  3. 3 Steps to Growing Great Roses (With No Fuss)

    Strike it Rich® is a glorious Grandiflora with exceptional disease resistance. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Got rose problems? Over 20 common pests and diseases plague roses, threatening the beauty of many a rose-filled yard and garden. But, rose growers can take heart. You can have the beauty of roses without the burden of doing constant battle with pests and diseases.  It all comes down to choosing resistant varieties and giving them the right care. Here are the three key steps to growing great roses without the fuss.

    1) Pick a winner.

    This is the most important step! Old roses are often the most fragrant and beautiful, but they are more often maintenance nightmares. Classic Hybrid Tea and Grandiflora (and other) rose varieties were bred for their voluptuous, iconic flowers, with little consideration for the plants’ overall vigor and disease resistance.  Consequently, they’re susceptible to a slew of diseases including blackspot, powdery mildew, and stem cankers.  They’re also easy marks for rose chafers, Japanese beetles, rose slugs, and a host of other insects that prey on roses.

    ‘Carefree Beauty’ is a wonderful shrub rose that will resist many common rose diseases. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    In recent years, breeders have developed and introduced new hybrids that resist diseases and pests.   Most familiar of these are a number of “landscape” roses (such as the Knockout series) noted for their tough shrubby growth and abundant, relatively small, typically scentless flowers.  Rose fanciers who are looking for something with taller stems and larger, more fragrant blooms will also find plenty of low-maintenance roses to choose from, however – including several Hybrid Tea and Grandiflora cultivars that rival anything in their class.  Notable sources – and cultivars – include:

    The German firm Kordes:  Their Grandiflora rose ‘Eliza’ produces a succession of lightly fragrant, double pink blooms on tall stems.  The repeat-blooming climber ‘Moonlight’ carries nicely scented peachy-yellow flowers.  ‘Yankee Doodle’ is a tall, vigorously growing Hybrid Tea with intensely fragrant, double, apricot-pink roses.

    Rosa PINK KNOCK OUT® is a classic, disease-free Knock Out rose planted for its strong disease resistance. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    The Explorers Hybrids from Canada:  This collection of rock-hardy roses includes the Rosa rugosa hybrid ‘Jens Munk’, which bears 2.5-inch, double, medium-pink flowers on shrubby plants.  It also includes several outstanding, repeat-blooming climbers.  ‘William Baffin’ produces several flushes of dark pink flowers beginning in late June, and ‘John Cabot’ covers itself with double, fuchsia-red flowers from early summer to fall.  Both can grow to 10 feet or more.

    The Iowa breeder Griffith Buck:  Among his many outstanding introductions are the pink-flowered Hybrid Tea ‘Earth Song’, and the shrub rose ‘Carefree Beauty’, with large pink flowers.

    Weeks Roses: Many Weeks introductions are graced with fine fragrance, good looks, and remarkable disease resistance. The introduction Strike it Rich®, bred by Tom Carruth, is a testament to their rose-breeding prowess.

    Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’ is a tough rugosa rose that grows well in coastal gardens. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Anything of Rosa rugosa parentage: These rough and tough roses include the bright pink ‘Hansa’, dark red ‘Linda Campbell’, bright yellow ‘Topaz Jewel’, and the intensely fragrant, white-flowered ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’.

    The French rose breeder Meilland:   ‘Francis Meilland’ is a Hybrid Tea with double, silvery pink roses on tall stems.  The similarly hued double flowers of the Grandiflora ‘Mother of Pearl’ have a light, sprightly scent.  Dark red, heavy-scented, fully double flowers crown the 4- to 5-foot stems of the Hybrid Tea rose‘Traviata’.

    2) Choose the right soil and the site.

    Roses thrive in full sun and rich, healthy, humus-rich soil.  Before you plant your rose, amend the soil with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. It adds rich organic matter for increased water-holding capacity and porosity. Follow up by adding fertilizer formulated for roses. This will encourage strong growth and flowering.

    Ample air circulation helps too.  Plant your prize rose in a hole that’s at least twice as wide as its root ball, and amend the backfill and surrounding soil with compost and organic fertilizer.  Then apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch to keep the roots moist and cool (and keep the soil microorganisms happy!).  Plants should be well spaced to allow air flow.

    3) Maintain!

    If you see rose rosette “witches brooms” remove your roses. There is no cure for this contagious disease. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Prune out all diseased growth in spring and throughout the growing season (dip pruners in a 10% bleach solution to reduce the chance of accidentally spreading disease from rose to rose). Be on particular lookout for the red “witches brooms” that signal the presence of rose rosette disease, a destructive disease for which there is no cure. Roses that have contracted rose rosette disease should be quickly removed from the garden.

    Thin stems in spring and summer to encourage air circulation and discourage diseases.   Tolerate modest insect damage, but treat plants with the appropriate OMRI Listed® insecticide if insects reach high levels.  Rake and remove fallen vegetation, which may harbor disease-causing fungal spores.  Apply rose fertilizer and a layer of compost each spring.  Plant “companion” perennials (such as members of the parsley and daisy families) that harbor beneficial insects.  And remember to water during dry spells!

    The right rose in the right place (with the right maintenance) will provide years of beauty with a minimum of grief.  It will also astonish your acquaintances who think that beautiful roses require lots of care for great looks.

    Rosa ‘Red Cascade’ is a rare old-fashioned miniature climbing rose that is disease resistant and prolific! (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  4. Delicious Gardening with Edible and Ornamental Plants

    Variegated pineapple sage and golden marjoram will brighten up any landscape while also adding valuable flavor to dishes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening with edible and ornamental plants makes gardening a little tastier and more valuable. Not many of us have the time and space for immense ornamental landscapes any more, but lots of us take great pride in our shrubs, perennials, and annuals.  At the same time, we want to eat better, fresher food, and that urge has led us back to the garden.  Limited space means that we have to grow ornamentals and edibles side-by-side.  Fortunately, it is easy to do, and the results can be just as beautiful as an ornamental-only landscape.

    For most of horticultural history, average people grew food from necessity, with little thought to purely ornamental plants.  Inevitably, though, some gardeners noticed that certain edible plants and herbs sported lovely flowers or foliage that added a dimension to the vegetable garden.  Others even transplanted flowering specimens from the wild into corners of their home vegetable plots.  Eventually, as great civilizations (Egyptians, Ancient Persians and Greeks) grew wealthy, ornamental gardening came into its own, with immense ornamental landscapes designed, constructed, and documented in detail by artists and writers. Gardeners today are able to take the best from both worlds, mixing the edible and ornamental for increased garden value.

     

    Feathery fennel is beautiful and tasty. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Add Ornamental Vegetables

    The vegetable gardener’s mantra—“Grow what you like to eat”—is a good place to start if you have decided to take the plunge and mix some edibles among your ornamental plants.  The feathery fronds of bronze or green fennel make a lovely addition to any garden and also attract swallowtail butterflies, but if you don’t like fennel, growing it may waste space that is better used for other plants.

    Just about everyone loves fresh tomatoes and peppers, which are easy to grow and come in many varieties.  They also thrive under the same conditions as horticultural divas like roses—at least 8 hours of sunlight per day, rich soil and fairly consistent moisture.  The problem is that most tomato plants—especially indeterminate types that keep growing and producing all season–need some kind of support.  Typical wire tomato cages are not the loveliest addition to an ornamental garden.  Solve the tomato problem by training the plants up a simple bamboo stake or decorative tuteur or trellis that can hold its own among the flowering plants.

    This technique not only makes a virtue out of a necessity, but it works for other vining plants like beans, cucumbers, and even squash.  For a lovely garden backdrop, try scarlet runner beans trained up a trellis.  The flowers are a brilliant red and the beans are delicious either raw or cooked.

    Pots of tomatoes and peppers show off the beauty of these valuable garden vegetables.

    For a successful edible/ornamental combination, don’t neglect adequate plant nutrition.  Give both types of plants a good start by enriching your garden soil with a rich soil amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend. Not only will it add needed organic matter for better water-holding capacity, it will also enrich the soil for better overall performance.

    Add Beautiful Fruits

    If fruit is your idea of the perfect edible crop, and you want a beautiful ornamental plant, try growing blueberries (Vaccinium spp. and cultivars).  These shrubs feature lovely pinkish-white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, followed by neat, green oval-shaped leaves.  The tasty blue fruits appear in early summer and scarlet leaves announce the arrival of fall.  Blueberries like the same acid soil as rhododendrons and azaleas and would complement them well in a mixed shrub or shrub/perennial border.  Smaller varieties can even be grown in containers and can hold their own among the pots of geraniums and snapdragons on a porch or terrace.  The same holds true of strawberries, with their white flowers and brilliant red fruits, grown in the pockets of decorative ceramic or terra cotta strawberry pots.

    Blueberries are attractive, fruitful garden shrubs. Their fall foliage turns scarlet for a late-season show!

     

    Add Ornamental Herbs

    Herbs have long been used as ornamentals.  Purple basil makes a dramatic edging plant at the front of a border and would provide a perfect complement to red/orange marigolds or late summer dahlias.  The strong aroma of the basil also helps deter garden varmints like rabbits and deer.  Pineapple sage, with its variegated leaves makes a lovely filler for a pot of flowering annuals.  The leaves are also the perfect enhancement for a glass of lemonade.

    Purple-flowered cinnamon basil is a dramatic beauty that looks pretty in edible and ornamental borders. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    If your ornamental landscape is mature and already filled with plants, look for “holes” where you can install a few ‘Bright Lights’ chard plants or fill in with low-growing herbs like thyme.  Start small, with a few edibles and then, when the “grow your own” bug bites, increase the number of edibles.  You will be amazed at how well it all fits together.

    Bright Lights chard mingles with Profusion zinnias in this edible and floral border. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

  5. Hugelkultur Layered Vegetable Gardens

    Garlic, herbs and squash have been planted in this newly planted garden hugel. (Garden by Annalisa Vapaa)

    Looking to create truly sustainable vegetable gardens? Try a layered hugelkultur garden! These raised gardens layer in organic material to create deep reserves of truly rich soil for vegetables. They also allow gardeners to use yard waste, such as leaves, grass clippings, logs, and branches, for no-waste vegetable growing.

    Hugelkultur

    Over time, hugel gardens naturally develop deep layers of organic-rich soil.

    Hugelkultur (meaning “hill culture” in German) is a European planting style that uses permaculture methods to create fertile planting beds rich in organic matter and microorganisms. Designed for food production, the raised “hugel” gardens rely on a base of hardwood logs, branches, compost, and topsoil which, as they slowly decompose, increase fertility and water retention.

    Hugels can be as small or large as desired and should be sited in sunny spot that’s flat and spacious. They can be built from reclaimed materials from your own property or a friend’s yard. This will help you save money and increase the garden’s sustainability. Here are the materials and directions for making one.

    Materials:

    1. Hardwood Logs (Decomposing logs hold more water and break down faster.)
    2. Trimmed Branches
    3. Grass Clippings, Leaves, or Leaf Mulch
    4. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend
    5. Fafard Premium Topsoil
    6. Straw
    7. Vegetable and Herb starts

    Directions:

    Outline the Bed: Create the hugel base by lining up your hardwood logs. Place larger logs along the outside and smaller logs along the inside. (You can also dig out a furrow to deeply set your logs, but this is not necessary. Large logs can create substantial outer supports for hugel beds. Some hugels are even outlined with rocks, logs, or even woven willow wattle for extra support.)

    Layer in Branches and Smaller Logs: Line up smaller branches within the log frame—trim large or unwieldy branches for a tight fit. A 2-foot layer is recommended.

    Compress Branches: Press and stomp down branches to reduce air pockets.

    Layer in Leaves and/or Grass Clippings: Layer in your leaves, leaf mulch, and/or grass clippings, being sure to pack everything between the branch layers.

    Add Compost: Add in a thick layer of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Poke the compost down into any remaining pockets. Good soil-to-wood contact will help your branch layer break down faster.

    Add Topsoil: Add a final layer of Fafard Premium Topsoil and rake and shape your hugel to form an attractive mound. (Some hugelkulture guides recommend pyramidal hugel beds, but these are prone to erosion and difficult to plant. A rounded mound with a flatter top is better.)

    Water: Gently water in your hugel for at least an hour to allow moisture to seep deep down. This also encourages settling and will reveal any areas that might need extra topsoil. Let the hugel settle for a day or two before planting.

    Add Straw Layer and Plant: Cover the hugel with a 2- to 3-inch layer of straw, leaves or grass clippings to hold down the soil and reduce weeds. Simply move areas of straw aside to plant in your vegetables and herbs.

    Hugel beds will slowly break down over several years as the wood layers decompose, and as they break down, they will lose loft. Each year it helps to add a new layer of compost and straw to further enrich the beds and keep them weed free. In time, they will take on the appearance of more traditional bermed garden beds with the added benefit of very deep organic matter.

    Extra wood and rocks can be placed outside the hugel for added side support.

     

    Over time, hugels break down and take on the appearance of standard bermed beds.

  6. The Best Vegetables to Grow with Your Kids

    My daughter after picking her first carrot from the garden!

    I remember the first time I pulled a carrot from the ground as a child. It was like magic. A simple carrot became a hidden golden-orange gem in the Earth that I could pull and eat! I’d wander the garden, plucking a cherry tomato here, a lettuce leaf there, or snapping off a bean to nibble. It was enjoyable, and I learned to love vegetables in the process. This is why I grow delicious, interesting vegetables with my own children. I’m spreading the garden fun and veggie appreciation.

    There were two things I cared about with vegetables as a child: 1. Is it fun to eat? 2. Is it fun to harvest? These are the criteria used for this list. As an added bonus for parents, these vegetables are also easy to grow.

     

    Fun, Yummy Vegetables to Eat and Pick

    Cherry Tomatoes:  There are so many cool cherry tomatoes to try now, and the smaller, sweeter, and more colorful, the better. I recommend ‘Minibel’, which produces sweet red tomatoes on tiny plants, ‘Sun Gold’, which produces loads of super sweet, golden-orange cherry tomatoes, the unusual ‘Blue Cream Berries’ with its pale yellow and blue fruits, and the classic ‘Sweet Million’ which literally produces hundreds of sweet red cherry tomatoes on large vines. Kids also love super tiny ‘Sweet Pea‘ currant tomatoes and ‘Gold Rush’ currant tomatoes, which literally pop with flavor in the mouth. Caging your plants makes harvesting easier—especially for little ones

    French Bush Beans: My children love French haricot vert bush beans because they are super thin, stringless, and sweet. The best varieties for kids are produced on small, bushy plants. Try the classic green ‘Rolande’ or the golden yellow ‘Pauldor’.

    Asian Long Beans: These beans look like spaghetti noodles! They are vining, so trellising is required, but they love hot summer weather, and kids love to pick and eat them. ‘Thai Red-Seeded’ is a great Asian long bean for kids because it grows so well, and the super long beans double as green hair or green bean rope.

    Beit Alpha Cucumbers: These crisp, sweet cucumbers are skinless, practically seedless, and taste great right from the vine. Bring a little water for rinsing, and a little ranch dressing for dipping, and they have an instant garden snack. The new AAS-Winning variety ‘Diva’ is my favorite because it is disease resistant and produces lots of cucumbers.

    Miniature Carrots: Mini carrots are easier for kids to pull from the ground, so they get all the fun with no root breakage. Tiny round ‘Romeo’ carrots and the small conical ‘Short Stuff’ are great selections for a kid’s vegetable garden. Both also grow well in containers.

    Yum Yum Mini Bell Peppers: The name says it all! These yummy, sweet, mini bell peppers look like Christmas lights and come in shades of red, yellow, and orange! The peppers are high in vitamin C and fun to pick. Just be sure to plant your Yum Yum mini bell peppers away from any hot peppers you may be growing!

    Small Pumpkins: Kids love to harvest and decorate their very own pumpkins in fall! The little guys, like ‘Baby Bear‘ and ‘Baby Pam‘ are just the right size for kids. Extras can be processed to make Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. Be sure to give the vines plenty of sun and space and you will be rewarded with lots of fall pumpkins.

    Strawberry Popcorn: Kids can believe these cute, deep red ears actually pop up to make tasty popcorn! Strawberry popcorn is produced on smaller 4-foot plants and the ears are small too. They are decorative when dry and can be popped up in winter as a happy reminder of warmer summer days.

    Growing Your Vegetables

    Organic gardening is a must, especially when growing vegetables for children. Successful vegetables start with good bed prep and summer-long care. Choose a sunny spot, work up your garden soil, and add a healthy amount of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and Fafard Garden Manure Blend before planting. Keep your vegetable watered and watch them do their summer magic!

    When children grow their own vegetables, they eat their vegetables. They look forward to the harvest, and enjoy preparing what they have picked. Let them help snap the beans for a salad or clean the carrots before trimming and peeling them for snacking. There’s no better way to enjoy time with your kids while instilling good lifelong habits in the process.

    Picking and eating sweet ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes is always fun for kids!

  7. 5 Fast-Growing Spring Vegetables for Instant Gratification

    Spinach is a very fast-growing spring green, especially when harvested in baby-leaf form.

    “Patience is a virtue,” says the old adage, but sometimes even the most virtuous gardeners long for a little instant gratification.  Succulent tomatoes and winter squash are a great reward for a season of waiting, but not all edible plants require a long growing period.  In the “cool” growing season of early to mid spring, you can have your salad and eat it too—sometimes in as little as 30 days—as long as you choose the right varieties and provide them with a bit of sunny space.  Always check the seed packets of various varieties for specific directions and the approximate number of “days to harvest”.  Quick-growing veggies can generally be harvested in less than 55 days from sowing.  The following is a list of five of the tastiest and most popular “instant gratification” crops.

    Mesclun Mix

    Mesclun mix is very fast growing, especially if harvested as microgreens.

    This widely-marketed greens seed mix usually contains an assortment of early lettuces and other fast greens.  Depending on the seed producer, mesclun is sometimes also labeled “early spring mix” or “mixed baby greens.’  Some vendors offer a variety of mesclun mixes to suit different tastes.  No matter what the mix, the tiny seeds produce a crop of tasty small leaves in about 30 days, which is lightening fast by garden standards.

    Mesclun is easy to grow in containers, raised beds or conventional garden beds.  Sprinkle the seeds over moist soil and do not cover because lettuce seeds need light to germinate.  Water deeply using a gentle spray.  Sprouting should occur relatively quickly.  The young greens can be harvested when the leaves are four to six inches long.  Succession planting every two weeks in spring and fall ensures a continuous crop.

    Relish the Radish

    Radishes are ready to harvest in no time!

    Radishes add a peppery bite to salads, sandwiches or all by themselves with a little sweet butter and salt.  Radish lovers can rejoice in the fact that they are also quick to grow.  For fast growth, select early spring varieties, like ‘Champion’.  Sprinkle seeds over the soil and cover thinly.  When the sprouts reach about two inches tall, thin to three inches apart.  The young radishes should be ready in about 30 days.  The best way to detect readiness is to pull one, wash it and taste it.  As with mesclun, succession sowing will provide you with a consistent radish supply.

    Baby Carrots

    Kids love to harvest baby carrots.

    Veggie lovers know that the “baby carrots” you buy in bags at the supermarket were actually sculpted from regular-size carrots at a processing plant.  In-a-hurry gardeners can have the genuine article—real diminutive carrots—in about 55 days from sowing.  Little carrots are excellent choices for container growing as well.  Pick a small-size carrot variety, like ‘Caracas Hybrid’, and sow thinly in loose soil to which compost has been added.  A product like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost is perfect for this, providing the carrots with the lightened growing medium they need to produce straight roots. When seedlings emerge, thin to one inch apart.  Water consistently whenever the top of the soil feels dry.  At the 55-day point, or even a little earlier, pull one of the carrots.  If it seems big enough, you are ready for harvest.

    Spinach

    Spring spinach

    Popeye may have eaten his spinach straight from the can, but he knew that the leafy greens are tasty and exceptionally good for you.  Spinach is also a boon for impatient gardeners.  Like other fast-growing veggies, it is also perfect for container growing, which should be music to the ears of those afflicted with deer, rabbits or other garden varmints.  For container success, pick a smaller spinach variety, like ‘Melody’ or ‘Red Kitten’.  Sow seeds about one inch apart in a planting medium that is pH neutral and enriched with plenty of compost.  When the seedlings emerge, thin to two to three inches apart.  The spinach harvest should be ready in about 40 days, depending on the variety.

    Bok Choy

    Mature bok choy

    Sometimes also known as pak choi, this Asian member of the cabbage family has become increasingly popular for home gardeners, who use the mild-flavored leaves in everything from stir fries to salads.  For speedy results and/or container growing, choose dwarf varieties that can be harvested after about 40 days, when they are less than 10 inches tall.  As with other fast growers, sow seeds about two inches apart, cover with a thin layer of soil and keep uniformly moist.  Dwarf varieties can be thinned to three inches apart.  Harvest the entire head, as you would a cabbage.

    Fast-growing vegetables are a great way to hit the ground running in spring, but most have a tendency to “bolt” as weather warms, flowering and sprouting bitter leaves when summer’s heat sets in.  Save leftover seed for the second cool season in the fall, when you can rejoice in baby greens and radishes all over again.

  8. Growing Cherry Trees

    Sour cherry trees laden with fruit.

    Nothing tastes better than firm, succulent cherries right off the tree – especially if they come from your own back yard!  Thanks to a new generation of hybrid and dwarf cherry trees, home-grown cherries are literally within the reach of more gardeners – in more climatic zones – than ever before.

    As with everything gardening, choosing the right varieties and giving them the right conditions and care are the keys to getting your backyard cherry orchard off to a good start.

    Consider planting your cherries on foot-tall mounds.

    What Cherries Want

    All cherries thrive in full sun and fertile, well-drained, slightly acid soil.  They also favor mild, relatively dry summers and chilly winters (most cherries won’t bear fruit unless they receive several hundred hours of sub-45-degree temperatures).  If you can offer these conditions, as well as a planting site that’s not overly prone to late, bud-damaging frosts, you’re likely to have good luck with all kinds of cherries.

    Start With the Soil

    Nutrient-rich loam is ideal.  If you garden in sand, apply 2 or 3 inches of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, and till it in before planting.  If heavy clay soil predominates, consider planting your cherries on foot-tall mounds or berms of topsoil amended with compost.  Higher berms (at least 3 feet tall) will also help protect flower buds from spring frost damage.

    Avoid siting cherries in warm microsites (such as the south side of a building) that encourage premature, frost-susceptible bud development.  In areas where heat and humidity are a challenge, maximize air circulation through proper pruning (see below) and generous spacing.

    Pick the Right Cherry

    Sweet ‘Rainier’ cherries require very specific growing conditions.

    As fate would have it, the most popular cherries are also the most persnickety (of course!).  Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) such as the supermarket standbys ‘Bing’ and ‘Rainier’ are good bets only where temperatures stay mainly between 90 and minus 20 degrees  F (sorry, Southern gardeners!).  Because of their chilling requirements, they also do poorly in regions with mild year-round climates.  The few sweet cherry varieties (including ‘Minnie Royal’ and ‘Royal Lee’) with relatively low chilling needs are worth a try in marginal mild-winter areas.  Wherever they’re grown, most sweet cherry varieties require another compatible variety nearby to set fruit (only ‘Stella’ and a few others are self-fruitful).  For a list of varieties that “pollenize” each other, click here.

    ‘Montmorency’ is a classic sour cherry variety.

    Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) tolerate somewhat more heat, humidity, and cold, making them a safer bet than sweet cherries for regions such as the southern Plains, lower Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest and Northeast.  Their self-fruitfulness and relatively compact size also make them a better fit for smaller gardens.  The tart fruits are excellent in pies and preserves, or for eating out of hand.  By far the most popular variety is ‘Montmorency’, but many others are available.

    Even icebox climates such as northern Maine and the upper Great Plains now offer the possibility of fresh-off-the-tree cherries.  Recently introduced hybrids between Prunus cerasus and its shrubby cousin Prunus fruticosa produce flavorful cherries on 6- to 10-foot plants that are hardy to minus 50 degrees F.  Cultivars include ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Carmine Jewel’, ‘Romeo’, and ‘Juliet’.  All are self-fruitful.

    Choose the Right Sized Tree

    Stark® Gold™ sweet cherry can be purchased on various sized root stock.

    At 20 to 40 feet tall, full-sized sweet- and sour-cherry trees are too large for many home gardens.  They are considerably shorter, however, when grafted on dwarfing “Giselsa” rootstocks recently developed in Germany.  For example, sweet cherry cultivars grown on Gisela 6 understock mature at 60 to 90 percent of the height of full-size trees, and begin fruiting within 3 years of planting.   Gisela-grafted trees also show good hardiness and disease resistance.  Most mail-order suppliers of cherry trees offer a smorgasbord of cultivar/rootstock combinations.

    Caring For Your Cherries

    Whatever the best cherry trees for your place and purposes, they’ll need constant care to thrive.  Apply organic fertilizer and a layer of compost in spring, followed by 1 or 2 inches of bark mulch to keep the soil moist and cool and to inhibit weeds.  Prune out spindly twigs, unproductive branches, water sprouts, and other superfluous growth in midsummer (avoid pruning during rainy or humid spells).  Harvest ripe cherries and collect and discard dropped fruits several times a week, to keep spotted wing fruit flies and other pests at bay.  Rake and remove fallen cherry leaves, which may host disease-causing spores.  Make your yard a haven for beneficial insects by planting species that host them (such as members of the parsley and daisy families).  These and other measures can help keep your cherry trees happy, and your table brimming with fresh cherries.

     

  9. Easier Gardening with Ergonomic Tools

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    Something as simple as cushioned nitrile gloves can protect gardeners from blisters and ward off hand pain. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening is a great equalizer. Anyone—from the tiniest child planting sunflower seeds, to the retiree happily nurturing enough tomato plants to feed the neighborhood—can enjoy it.  But young or old, each of us has physical strengths and weaknesses.  Listen to a committed gardener for more than a few minutes and you will probably hear something about aches and pains.  These common complaints eventually led to a happy collision of engineering and horticulture.  Ergonomic gardening tools* were born.

    Coined back in 1949, “ergonomics” is the science or study of ways by which tools, utensils and systems can be made safer and easier to use.  An “ergonomically designed” garden hoe, for example, may feature any or all of the following: a padded handle, an easy-to-use shape, or an attachment that gives the user a longer reach.  Once a rarity, ergonomically designed tools are now fixtures in every lawn and garden product category, lining shelves at garden centers and big box stores.  Each gardener has to find the combination of ergonomic options that works just right.  Recommendations can help, but for most of us, trial and error still yields the best results.

    Cushioning and Padding

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    Cushioned seat and kneeler. (Image by Gardener’s Supply Company)

    A little extra padding attached to tools, equipment, or clothing can yield big rewards in comfort. For those of us who like getting close to our plants by getting down on our knees, the range of ergonomic options is large. Cushioned kneelers or garden pants with pockets for padded knee inserts ease the toll on vulnerable joints. Some padded kneelers have long handles that help gardeners rise to their feet. When the kneeler is turned over, those same handles act as supports for the padded portion, transforming the kneeler into a seat.

    Many standard garden tools, including hoes, rakes, spades, trowels and hand forks, are available with padded, easy-grip handles that provide shock absorption, and a secure grip for repetitive tasks and blister prevention.  They are especially helpful to people with arthritis or other joint or muscle problems.

    Easy-grip gloves, especially those with sturdy nitrile on the palms and fingers, make for a tighter hold on just about anything.

    Shapely Options

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomics specialists have redesigned familiar tools into new shapes that allow gardeners to dig, rake, or hoe more effectively with less effort.  Some trowels and hand weeders, for example, feature curved handles that conform to the shape of the user’s hand, providing greater comfort and ease of use.  Ergonomic rakes and cultivators may appear to have curvature of the spine, but the curves are actually designed to minimizing the effort involved in moving soil or leaves from one place to another.  Spades may have enlarged stepping edges to prevent slipping while digging holes.

    High-Rise Bedding

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    Elevated beds by Gronomics make gardening easier for those unable to bend or squat. (Image by Gronomics)

    One of the greatest ergonomic advances of the past few decades has been the updating of an old idea—raising raised beds.  Whether the challenge is poor soil quality or physical limitations, elevated growing beds offer a great alternative to traditional in-ground garden spaces.  Depending on the situation, raised beds can be anywhere from a few feet tall to waist high.  Filled with a quality growing medium, including a high-grade amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, a raised bed can give anyone great results and maximum accessibility.  The beds placed at the correct height and width have been a boon to wheelchair-bound gardeners, the elderly, or anyone with trouble bending and stooping.

    Right behind raised beds on the accessibility spectrum are lightweight containers that can mimic the look of heavier terra cotta or concrete pots.  Easier to lift and move around, these containers allow people with physical limitations and/or no green space at all the opportunity to grow flowers or edibles.  Some containers have ergonomically designed handles or wheels on the bottom to add even more convenience and safety.

    Reach Extenders

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    Long-handled pole pruners make it easier to reach branches for pruning. (Image by Corona)

    Gardeners who work from seated positions or those with limited ability to stretch and bend can get great results with extended-reach tools, including forks, spades, hoes cultivators and pruning saws, many of which also have easy-grip handles.  In the case of pruning saws, the extended reach capability may eliminate the need to climb ladders—a boon to those with balance issues. Just be sure to keep them away from electrical lines.

    Seating

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    (Image by Pure Garden)

    Older gardeners sometimes find it easier to sit than to kneel or bend.  Folding garden seats or stools are inexpensive, lightweight and come even have pockets for garden tools. Wheeled garden scooters can roll along paths, carrying the gardener from bed to bed and providing secure seating for weeding or harvesting.  Some scooters can also accommodate small garden trugs or equipment trays.

    Watering

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    2-Liter Dramm long-spout watering cans are easy to handle. (Image by Dramm)

    Traditional hoses tend to be bulky to lug around and cumbersome to coil and store.  Newer hoses, either coiled or straight, are made of lighter materials, making them easier to carry, more flexible and less likely to kink.  Sprayer nozzles are available with padded, easy-grip handles as well.

    There are also many ergonomic watering cans. Most have a streamline design with a long pour spout to take the strain off of hands and backs. More lightweight models that hold more water are best for gardeners that suffer from arthritis.

    The advice for gardeners with any kind of physical challenge is to pay attention to their bodies.  Aches and pains are a signal to rest the affected muscles and engage the greatest muscle of all—the brain—to figure out better ways to familiar chores.  With a little help from ergonomic tools, anyone can make and maintain a garden.

    Tools

    The right tools make gardening a whole lot easier!

     

    *All tools mentioned are examples and not endorsements.
  10. Yes, Peas! Growing Edible Pod & Tendril Peas

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    ‘Golden Sweet’ snow pea is one of many delicious edible pod peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The tendriled vines of peas produce delicious pods in cool spring weather, and their roots naturally fortify soil with nitrogen. Once warm weather comes on, they can be pulled and replanted again in late summer for a second crop in fall. Peas are easily stored—by freezing or canning—making them a great choice for gardeners that preserve the harvest.

    There are many edible pod and tendril types to try.  Some create long vines, while others are bush-forming and better suited to small spaces. Fortify their soil, choose a sunny spot, and plant at the right time of year, and they’re a cinch to grow. At least 8-10 weeks are required to raise plants from seed to harvest. Harvest can last for several weeks. Once summer heat comes on, vines stop producing, and slowly turn brown and die.

    Edible Pod Peas

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    Classic ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are the snap pea standard. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Snow and snap peas are the two edible pod peas of choice. Snaps are crisp and plump and snow peas are more delicate and slender. Both are very sweet and can be eaten fresh or cooked.  Snaps are favored by most growers, but snow peas are gaining more garden ground.

    Two snow peas stand out when it comes to flavor and performance, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ and ‘Golden Sweet’. The productive and vigorous ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ consistently gets high reviews by gardeners. It produces super sweet, 4- to 5-inch-long flattened pods on bushy, disease-resistant plants that only reach 2 ½ feet. The pale yellow pods get top marks for flavor and are produced on vigorous 6-foot vines that require trellising. First discovered in India, this variety is also more heat tolerant than most, which extends its window of harvest.

    Snap pea culture is dominated by the ever-popular ‘Sugar Snap’ (1979 AAS Winner) and ‘Super Sugar Snap’ varieties. This is because both are crisp, sweet, and prolific. The “super” in ‘Super Sugar Snap’ comes from the fact that these peas are more compact, earlier to produce (60 days), and bear more heavily over a shorter window of time. Reportedly, the mildew-resistant, 5’ vines yield pods that are not quite as sweet as the classic ‘Sugar Snap’.

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    ‘Patio Pride’ is a new, super compact snap pea perfect for containers. (Image by AAS Winners)

    Original ‘Sugar Snap’ peas became a household name for a reason. Nothing has come close to their quality since they were first introduced over 35 years ago. Young pods are relatively stringless, super sweet, reach up to 3 ½ inches in length, and are produced after 62 days. The 6-foot vines are heat tolerant (but not mildew resistant) and produce peas over a long period.

    The 1984 AAS Winner, ‘Sugar Ann’, is a super early producer bearing sweet peas in only 52 days. Another compact, early gem is the 2017 AAS Winner ‘Patio Pride’. It only takes 40 days for the ultra-compact, 6- to 12-inch vines to produce plump, edible pods. These can be harvested early or allowed to mature a bit at which point they can be enjoyed as shelling peas.

    Tendrils

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    ‘Sugar Magnolia’ peas produce loads of edible tendrils. (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

    Pea tendrils can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in stir fries. Heavily tendriled peas are semi-leafless and referred to as “afila” peas. Their sweet flavor and novel looks have made them popular in restaurants. Only recently have they become available to gardeners.

    The new tendriled variety ‘Sugar Magnolia’ produces a wild mess of green tendrils on 8-foot vines in addition to bearing good-tasting purple snap peas after 70 days. ‘Feisty is another vigorous tendril pea that has monstrous vines that can reach 30-feet in length. Harvestable tendrils are produced in 50 days and sweet pea pods are produced after 60 days.

    Cultivating Peas

    Garden produce.

    A bountiful harvest of sugar snap peas.

    Cool weather, full sun, and fertile soil are required for great pea production. For best results, amend garden soil with a 1:3 ratio of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to garden soil and lightly feed with an all-purpose organic fertilizer for vegetable gardening. Turn the soil gently to make sure it is light and friable.

    Most peas need trellising. The lightweight vines will grow well on a moderately sturdy trellis consisting of bamboo posts fixed with tightly fitted trellis netting. Even bush varieties can benefit from a low bamboo and twine support system.

    Once your spring pea crop is spent, remember that you can plant a new crop again in fall. These sweet summer treats are healthy, delicious, and well worth the effort.

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    A sturdy bamboo trellis fitted with taut trellis netting is perfect for peas. (Image by Jessie Keith)