Friday, April 17, 2015

Floral Friday: Spring Has Awaken!

Warmer temperatures this week sent the flowers out of the ground! When have we had a spring before where snowdrops, daffodils and hellebores all bloomed in one week?

What's blooming in your garden now? 



Giant snowdrop! The flower was 2 inches across!

Same giant snowdrop, 7 inches tall!


"Little Holland"

A robin helping me clean out my gutters.

Beautiful blue scilla.

To view last week's Floral Friday, click here.

Feel Good About Eating Ramps: Grow Your Own

Ramp bulbs ready for shipping at Cricket Hill Garden.
Photo used with permission.
Ask about ramps, and you'll likely get a mixed reaction: chefs tend to love them, but others worry they are being over-harvested in order to meet demand.

The first official "green edible" to rise in spring, ramps are in high demand at foodie restaurants, which rely upon foragers to supply. 

Because ramps are not grown in mass production they are often harvested from the wild to meet demand. It also adds to their mystique: Offered for a limited time window in early spring (usually April), ramp bulbs offer a tangy, garlic-onion flavor to spring menus. 

Ramps, or allium triccocum, have grown steadily in popularity over the last several years, especially with foodies. They can be found as far south as Georgia and as far north as Quebec. But foragers - who can sometimes get up to $10-$20 a pound from restaurants eager to offer them in dishes - are harvesting wild ramps at unsustainable rates. Ramps spread best by underground rhizomes, so removing them all will diminish the plots. 

"It's a lucrative plant to forage but indiscriminately harvested," said Dan Furman, co-owner of Cricket Hill Garden in Thomaston, Conn. The plant itself takes seven years to reach maturity when started from seed, so foragers can wipe out a patch pretty quickly. According to Furman, foragers typically take about one third of the plant population when they are found in the wild, which is too high for ramps. 

Ramps can be seen growing in the
background behind Dutchman's Breeches
in this photo from a nature hike last year.

"Ramps are harvested along stream beds but there are other fragile woodland plants that share the same habitat," he said. "If people are digging up ramps using shovels, they may also be destroying other slow-growing native plants, including trilliums and bloodroot."

Quebec has placed limitations on harvesting, banning the commercial harvest in 1995. Great Smokey Mountains National Park banned wild harvesting back in 2004. According to North Carolina State University studyramps should be limited to harvest between five and 10 percent in each plot for it to be considered a sustainable rate. Another study recommends a ten percent harvest of ramp populations once every 10 years.

He said a lack of awareness of how the wild ramps are harvested is part of the problem. "They are good to enjoy, but they have to be managed properly," said Furman. 

That's when Furman realized more people could enjoy ramps if they grew them themselves. He started with seeds and began to establish his own woodland plot at Cricket Hill Garden. Now he is able to sell ramp bulbs and seeds to gardeners wishing to grow their own supply. The bulbs he sells are close to flowering age and are shipping now for a limited time window (in order to be dug up and shipped). 

The seeds are sold year-round, stratified in order to sprout faster. (Otherwise, seeds can take six to 18 months to germinate.) The plant produces a flower spike in July (with white flowers), similar to an onion. Seeds are usually produced by August. Allowed to self-seed, the patch will gradually grow larger over time.

Specific Conditions Yield Bumper Crops - in Time

Ramps grow under deciduous trees, such as beech, birch, sugar maple, popular, hickory and oaks, according to Furman. If you currently grow trilliums, bloodroot, trout lily or mayapple, considering growing ramps. "If you have an area suitable for ramps, let them naturalize, he suggests. "They grow in a deciduous forest setting before the leaves come out, so they get full sun."

Ramps also seem to favor soils with high calcium to magnesium ratios, and are often found in areas with a soil pH between 4.9 and 7.2, according to Furman. "It's hard to create an artificial spot or to amend a site to mimic where they grow in nature," he said. In garden beds in shady spots, ramps will grow but not flourish. To get the most out of ramps, choose a well-drained site with rich, moist soil high in organic matter, said Furman. 

Ramps in the wild are often found along banks of seasonal brooks and streams, which will be very wet in the spring but can be dry by late summer.  For best results, he recommended adequate moisture throughout all seasons. "It's a fragile native plant," he said.

The tops are edible as well as the bulbs, which is a more sustainable way of harvesting ramps by leaving the bulb alone. In late May to early June, ramps go dormant, with the foliage totally dying back by June, according to Furman. As the foliage starts to wither, the bulb swells, doubling in size - a perfect time to make pickled ramps. 

"Ramps are quite delicious," said Furman. "They have a pungent, garlic-oniony flavor." You can sauté them with bacon or make a ramp pesto from the tops, as Furman does. 

There's even a new cookbook dedicated to the art of cooking ramps - appropriately named, "Ramps: The Cookbook."

For more information on growing your own ramps, visit Cricket Hill Garden's website here.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Make This Year's Garden the Best Yet

Although overgrown in this photo, this garden holds special memories.
Many gardeners can often attribute another person for getting them into gardening, such as a father, mother or grandparent. This is also true for me.

Growing up as a child, I never noticed if weeds were growing in the borders of my grandfather's garden. Instead, I discovered secret hiding places in the privet hedge where my best friend Tricia and I would pretend we were Native American Indians living in the woods. I'd lay in the sunshine among the tomato and cucumber plants, a portion of his garden that bordered Metro North railroad tracks. My skin would get scratched as I looked for warm, juicy raspberries that often didn't make it into the house for eating.

I think many of us lose sight of what gardens should be. Gardens should not be regimented, distinct borders of ugly shrubbery and great expanses of lawn. If it doesn't look like a spot you would be comfortable spending time in, then something might be wrong.

Gardens should be a retreat. This can have different meanings depending on who you ask. Maybe it's a spot to observe and enjoy wildlife. Maybe it's a spot where you can entertain friends and family. Maybe it's as simple as having a special chair to read a book in.

By no means was my grandfather's garden perfect. His garage would often get infestations of carpenter bees - large, scary carpenter bees. He would never have won a design prize or have been featured in a gardening magazine. His garden was functional yet a respite at the same time. There was seating so family could spend time outdoors. There was a small, grassy area where we could play catch. He grew his own food, and not just vegetables. He had large sour cherry trees and grapes which he used to make wine. He would even feed birds in the winter.

And even though his garden was practically on top of the railroad tracks which shuttled Long Islanders into the city, the roar of train tracks and the occasional train horn faded into the background. In Queens, New York, his garden offered a place to enjoy the fresh air. His garden was welcoming, and that made all the difference.

As we embark on another spring in our gardens, make this the year where your garden becomes the restful spot you desire, crave and deserve.

Click here for another way my grandfather's garden influenced my own.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Floral Friday: This Week is All About Snowdrops

Not even a delayed spring could keep the snowdrops from blooming. They are peaking now in my garden.

What's blooming in your garden today?

Click here for current datelines or here to return home.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

'Groundbreaking' Ideas to Apply in Your Garden

Book Review

Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden
By Niki Jabbour

Courtesy of Storey Publishing
Lacking creative ideas for the garden? Author Niki Jabbour seeks to inspire vegetable gardeners by sharing the experiences of 73 different gardeners in her most recently published book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens. Insightful gardening suggestions pair well with Jabbour's journalistic style of short story/interview presentation. It's useful for the reader to see how gardening concepts and practices are implemented into real gardens for better results.

Specific varieties of vegetables are provided with most plans, which will please the reader who wishes to duplicate the ideas in his or her own garden. But general ideas of what to plant, such as a companion plant pairing for a fig tree as described in "Beautiful Balcony Edibles," is also helpful. And there are many possibilities to learn new things, as I did in "The Circle of Life" section. (I never knew the leaves of comfrey could be used as a natural fertilizer in the garden.)

Getting the most out of your garden, sometimes in a limited space, is a central theme that runs throughout the book. This is done by using space wisely and interplanting, both common concepts throughout the garden plans Jabbour profiles.

This isn't a book that will be read cover to cover in a few sittings. Instead, it's a reference to spark ideas for your own garden and interests. For this reason, gardeners ranging from the amateur to the experienced will each take away something different from this book. In addition, the illustrations used in the book are creative and accompanied by whimsical fonts.

One personal note: I originally purchased this book for my Kindle but found it difficult to follow, especially the section "About the Contributors" which was riddled with hyperlinks to make finding their garden plans later in the book easier. Also, the illustrations and copy flow were much easier to follow in the print edition. When comparing the two versions, some of the illustrations didn't even make it into the Kindle edition. When I found the book at my library, I checked it out to finish reading and abandoned the Kindle edition. In this case, reading the actual book was more enjoyable than reading it on the Kindle.

Groundbreaking Food Gardens retails for $19.95 and is published by Storey Publishing.

To read more book reviews, click here.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Floral Friday

It's finally spring! The snowdrops are blooming in the garden along with the fuzzy willow.

But even though the flowers are starting to appear, we still have some chilly mornings, as seen in the photos I took of raindrops frozen onto the rose bush below.

What is blooming in your spring garden?

The Gardener's April Calendar

Daffodil bulbs emerging from the ground.

The snow is almost gone and spring is delayed by at least two weeks here in central Connecticut, but everyone I talk to is ready for the temperature to stay warmer and put this miserable winter behind us. The tasks start to pile up this month in the garden as a result. Here's some of the tasks I plan to work on this month.

Cleanup and Maintenance 
- I've been sweeping up the black oil sunflower seed shells that the birds have dropped underneath the feeder over the winter. The seed will inhibit the growth of other plants, and I've ruined two areas of grass with that in the past already. I'm hoping that sweeping it up will help this time. (Can't hurt, right?)

- Give birdbaths a good scrubbing. I use SOS or Brillo pads to do the job.

- I'm still cutting down old growth from last year and raking up leaves. Try not to walk on soil that is too wet because this can compact it.

- You can create new paths (and even garden beds) by layering cardboard on top of grass and then covering it with mulch.

Pest Control
- This year I'm trying a new product to discourage the groundhog and voles from eating my plants. (I've had lots of damage in the last two years.) It's called Repellex Systemic, a powder that you sprinkle around your plants. It has to be applied as the plants grow so it will be absorbed by the plants and make them taste like hot pepper. It provides protection for three months. My local organic garden center conducted a trial last year and had great results using it. Hoping the same happens in my garden, but just in case I plan to ...

The violas that were sowed in February are ready for bigger containers.
Garden Structures
- ... repair fencing and trellises. The garden hasn't grown in yet and some areas are more accessible because of it. I'm going to try and block off a gap between the partially fenced in back garden and the black walnut trees to try and keep the groundhog out. I plan on buying a roll of welded wire fence from the hardware store to achieve this.

Most importantly, it's easy to get overwhelmed this month. Remember: slow and steady. If you do a little bit in the garden every day or every other day, you'll have less work to do when the season kicks into high gear.

- Sow peas! I still haven't sown mine as I type this. The grow beds were still covered with snow. I plan to soak mine in water overnight (this helps germination) and then plant them in the soil. The time window for getting peas in the ground is small because they stop producing when the temperature gets too warm.

- Have you started your tomato, eggplant and pepper seeds yet? Now is the time. I try not to start them too soon or they get leggy. With all seeds started indoors, keep the lights above them fairly close. There's usually a 3 inch gap that I leave from the top of the plants to the lights.

- Keep sowing seeds as the month goes on. I have all my seeds sorted into file folders so I know what to plant next. I've fallen behind with some, but I just keep on sowing.

- Sow bread poppy seeds if you weren't able to do so in March.

- The pansies I started in February are now blooming and ready to be moved outside. I'll harden them off gradually to get them accustomed to the temperature change. This also frees up room under the growlights to start zinnia and cosmos seeds (among many others).

Pussy willows are blooming now.
- Pruning paniculata hydrangeas is a good garden chore for the first warm day of spring when gardeners need an excuse to be outside. "You take about a third of the plant off to increase branches in the growing season," said Chris Valley in a hydrangea talk last summer. When pruning, make sure the cuts are uniform so the entire plant grows at the same rate. "After five years, take out the main branches to reinvigorate the plant and spur new growth."

- As soon as the buds begin to swell on the roses, I trim them. (I've also heard it's safe to prune with the forsythia blooms.) I trim out old, diseased or damaged canes and try to remove canes that will impede air flow.

- Prune out old, dead branches on honeysuckle vines. When done in spring, the plant sets new growth more easily.

- Prune clematis. Margaret Roach has advice here.

- Scatter bulb fertilizer around emerging bulbs. I like to use Espoma's Bulb Tone.

- Top dress roses and other perennials with compost. Top dress rhubarb with well-rotted manure.

Fruit Trees
- I have better luck with my fruit trees if I purchase honey bee lures. These use a pheromone to attract bees to the flowers (especially important for my pear trees, which aren't as attractive as apple tree blossoms).  Last year I used Peaceful Valley's lures, and they worked really well! I also have a mason bee house to encourage these non-stinging bees to set up residence in my garden. I found a few on my crocus blossoms today.

The soil is getting warmer and the growing season is upon us. Onward!

I live in Central Connecticut and garden in Zone 6b.

To read more recent stories, click here.