Looking for Something?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Repotting seedlings -- plus a genius "duh!" trick to pack soil in flats

When we gardeners start seeds in pots and trays the goal is always to graduate those wee sprouts to the great outdoors. Sometimes the journey requires a bit of middle ground, when seedlings are too big for their first vessel, but the time is not yet right (whether due to temperature, delayed ground preparation, storms or other facts) to transplant to their final home.

Follow these tips to successfully repot seedlings:

• Wait until a seedling has a set of "true leaves." You'll notice that the pair of leaves which first emerges from a seed often has different characteristics in shape from the leaves that follow. For example, the first leaves from a tomato seed are slender ovals without any of the scalloped edges of later leaves. The second pair of leaves will be the true leaves. By the time a seedling produces these it is sturdy enough and has a root structure that can withstand repotting.

• Handle a seedling by the leaves, not the stem. If a leaf breaks off during transplant the seedling can grow another. If the stem breaks ... bye, bye.

• Moisten soil thoroughly in the original container and in second pot before you transplant.

• Turn first pot over in your hand to gently remove the soil plug. With a pencil or other slender tool probe around the seedling to separate it and its roots from the other plants. If there are many seedlings in one cell, as with this chunk of alyssum, start from the outer edges.

• Prepare a hole in second container to accept the seedling. (Pencil works well here, too.)

• Still holding the seedling by a leaf, deposit it into the hole and with pencil carefully bring dirt next to the stem.

• Keep transplants in steady conditions for the next couple of days -- keep soil consistently moist and don't subject them to extreme temperature or light changes.

I purposely sowed the tiny pepper-grain alyssum seeds close together knowing I would separate them into individual cells after sprouting. Other times you get extra sprouts unexpectedly when you thought you planted just one seed. Now, just because you have two (or more) seeds growing in a space doesn't mean you have to keep them all! It may be more appropriate to use another desk tool -- scissors -- and cut one seedling at the ground so the other can thrive.

Here's a look at two tomato sets I treated differently:

1. I could have done my pencil method to easily separate these first tomato seedlings a couple of weeks ago with no concern about roots, but I didn't get around to it. (The story of my life!) Because of decent stem spacing I decided to see if I could slowly, gently pry the root balls apart. This worked. I placed each in a new pot and backfilled soil around the roots.

2. This is the second set. Two tomatoes are ahead in age, with a third smaller sprout right next to them. Seedlings so close in space like these will also have roots inextricably bound. In such cases it's better to use scissors to nip all but the most robust start. Cut your losses instead of risking damage to all. 

Finally, here's my "duh!" moment. Do you know how many years I've filled seed pony packs and then patted down the dirt with a spoon or ice cream scoop (for reals!) or trowel or fingers, always making a huge mess? Well, that's a silly question; even I don't know how many years. But from now I will simply press down on another seed container when filling my trays. "Duh" indeed.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A roundup of savory rhubarb recipes

Have you outgrown your childhood nickname? (Come on, Litto Witto, Sassy Pants, Silly Billy and Snuffy -- let's unite!)

Well, rhubarb needs to cast aside its nickname, too. Sure, "pie plant" aptly defines the plant to unimaginative gardeners and cooks, but rhubarb can be so much more. Instead of always designating rhubarb to dessert fare, where a healthy dose of sugar tempers its tartness, unleash rhubarb's pucker alongside meats, pasta and other savory dishes.

I cooked these three recipes for my family -- and we love them! Click on each name or photo to get the full recipe at the source.

Rhubarb chive flatbread.
Photo from bhg.com

Whole stalks of rhubarb are arranged on an easy-to-make yeast bread. The rhubarb delivers a creamy, tangy jolt when you eat the bread, with a texture almost like the filling in a danish. This is prettiest with the reddest stalks of rhubarb. I chopped purple chive flowers along with the green chives to go into the dough. I thought I'd be extra fancy and place whole chives and flowers with the stalks of rhubarb. These flowers burned to a crisp (certainly hastened by the oil oil I drizzled on top), although the chopped blossoms incorporated into the dough were just fine.

Linguine with rhubarb, garlic, black and pepper

Photo from bhg.com

Delicious! This dish also has parsley and parmesan cheese. I chopped the rhubarb extra fine to make this an easier sell to my family, but I won't bother with such disguising next time.  Plus, I think the bigger pieces will retain extra crunch. My husband wondered if there was chicken in there. Nope, all vegetarian. To refine the cooking instructions, I recommend sprinkling the parmesan in gradually. I should have known better than to add it to the pasta all at once; it formed a blob all at once. Imagine that.

Slow cooker pulled pork with rhubarb sauce

Throw a pork roast into a slow cooker with a mixture of rhubarb, spices, honey and worcestershire sauce on top, and walk away. The rhubarb breaks down almost completely. Shred meet and rhubarb together and serve on rolls for sandwiches. This won't have the vibrant color that a pulled pork sandwich made with commercial barbecue sauce will, but it is still nightly tasty. To the leftovers I adjusted the seasoning with chili powder and cumin and used in a Cafe Rio-type salad with greens, black beans and rice.

How have you used rhubarb beyond pies?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Another bouquet of seed reads

One of my favorite things to do is read books with the children in my life. Here is another round-up of gardening-themed books to inspire you and your listeners. Click here or here to read two other posts on this blog about more garden book favorites.

Zora's Zucchini 
By Katherine Pryor, illustrated by Anna Raff

Elementary ages. Three days into summer vacation Zora is bored, well, out of her gourd. While riding her bike she spots free zucchini starts at the hardware store. (Adults will be amused by the original sale sign crossed out to plead FREE!) Zora comes home with 12 zucchini starts and plants them all. This oversupply sets up the rest of the plot as Zora must figure out how to not let the food go to waste. The book's end notes posit that "about one-third of the world's food is wasted, which means that all the water, work and time it took to grow that food is also wasted." The story is a great springboard for discussion on what to do with extra food.

The Tiny Seed
By Eric Carle

Preschool and up. Carle's signature collages depict a journey through seasons as an autumn wind propels seeds across oceans, mountain tops and deserts. Children will enjoy identifying the tiny seed on each page. Naturally, the tiny seed outshines its travel companions and grows into something amazing.

The Watermelon Seed
By Greg Pizzoli

Preschool and up. This light-hearted story isn't really about gardening but invites a discussion about what a seed needs to sprout. Children who know that seeds need soil and sunlight will laugh at Crocodile's plight when he fears a swallowed watermelon seed will grow inside of him. (His dread of becoming a fruit salad is delightfully illustrated.) Use this tale to reassure children just learning about seeds that no, they won't become human seed pots.

My Garden
By Kevin Henkes

Preschool and up. A girl thinks her mother's garden is nice but too much work. If she had her way flowers would always bloom and change colors and patterns to her liking. She wouldn't have to shoo bunnies from the lettuce because the bunnies would be chocolate and she would eat them. This book is a great launching pad for a creative writing or art project of what listeners would want to grow in their own gardens.

If You Plant a Seed
By Kadir Nelson

Preschool and up. Beautiful illustrations, with few words on each vast spread, relate the story of a rabbit and mouse who balk at sharing the fruits of their labors. The book covers gardening basics with the parallel to planting seeds of selfishness vs. seeds of kindness. Get this one just for the actual-size, intense stare-down of visiting birds.

A Gardener's Alphabet
By Mary Azarian

Preschool and up. Bold wood cut illustrations and sparse one-word or phrase entries take the viewer from A to Z. The meat, for grown-ups, is in the artist's introduction. She considers gardening the most difficult of the arts, with its demands of design and color skills, knowledge of plants and climate; and all at the mercy of fickle weather. Sometimes it's better to give up and go on a trip! Yet, "The garden provides such an intriguing challenge and is such a source of wonder and joy that to not garden is unthinkable."

The Curious Garden
By Peter Brown


Tokyo Digs a Garden
By Jon-Erik Lappano, illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka
Elementary ages. These two books follow the same theme of living in industrial scenes practically devoid of nature. In both a boy is an agent of change but with different reactions in their towns. Read together, these books frame a thoughtful comparison how our attitudes toward nature ultimately influence its survival. We may get what we deserve.

In The Curious Garden, a boy explores abandoned elevated train tracks and is surprised to see a few lonely, bedraggled flowers -- the only plants in the area. They need a gardener. The boy makes mistakes at first, but he nurses the patch to health. The restless garden yearns to explore and spreads through the city. The townspeople likewise come to life with renewed interest and appreciation for cultivating nature.

Second, Tokyo lives with his grandpa in a small house surrounded by tall buildings. Grandpa tells stories of how things used to be: deer in meadows, salmon leaping from streams. It's all gone. The city had to eat something after all, the grandfather shrugs. Tokyo receives three seeds from a strange woman; she promises him they will grow into whatever he wishes. It takes some searching to find a piece of ground, but sure enough -- when Tokyo plants them the seeds sprout and change the landscape overnight. The return of wildlife inconveniences people so much that they question, What are we going to do? Says Tokyo, "I think that we will just have to get used to it."

What are some of your favorite books?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Herb hairstyles and how to groom them


Herbs are among the most easy-going plants around, but left to their own devices they can become a mirrored, botanical gallery of your worst-ever hair days. (You have them, right? I'm not the only one?)

I must excuse the annuals from these style crimes. Because basil, cilantro and dill last only one season in most climates, they don't develop the same crazy growing patterns that can befall perennial woody herbs like sage, thyme, lavender and rosemary.


Thyme in need of pruning.
The thyme comb-over. Strands of least season's stems compete for attention with this year's new green growth, making the plant look straggly, sparse and well, silly. No, this isn't fooling anyone.  The solution: cut the plant back by at least half this spring to allow the plant to grow into a bushier shape. 

The unwieldy no-style sage, with nary a trim in a decade. 

We're not talking Crystal Gayle's luxurious below-the-waist locks. This is more like never getting a cut AND never brushing. Perma-bedhead. If you never prune a woody herb it will still produce green shoots at the end of last year's growth, sure, but its stem structure will also get larger. Eventually you will have a plant that is more wood than herb. 

This woody mess is a sage plant after I started hacking away at stems. I brought it home from the nursery in a 2-inch pot probably 10 years ago. I always cut away spent blossoms, but I should have pruned far lower. Yes, it had new growth this spring at the very edges, but I was surprised how much bare wood it sported.  It has clearly outgrown its space in a rock border by my garden box. 

Solution: Time to go in favor of starting with smaller plants again.

This picture shows the length of bare wood before green begins.

Size of the rootball from a 10-year-old dug up sage plant.

The oregano mullet, with last year's faded extensions.

Oregano, also a perennial herb, differs from thyme and sage in that it doesn't form woody stems that continue to get larger each season. Oregano can grow tall but it flops over and hugs the soil; it almost looks like a ground cover this way. Its new leaves start low to the ground beneath last year's stems. Solution: Cut out those stems.

Oregano spreads, but not nearly as invasively as mint. Mint is that bear of a guy at the beach: hair with no boundaries! If you grow mint, do so in a container. If you want mint in the ground, plant it container and all.

The best way to style herbs is to harvest them all season. Pinch off flower heads from annuals like basil to encourage round, bushy growth. Cut back perennial woody herbs by half at least once a year: in fall, spring or both. 

My last herb style shows how these plants truly can grow anywhere: the parsley tuft in the ear, I mean, crack in the sidewalk. It's staying!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Rhubarb leaves as weed barrier and mulch

The large size of rhubarb leaves makes them easy to place between garden rows or around the base of plants as a weed barrier and mulch.

That's what I discovered when I looked at rhubarb with new eyes after a destructive storm forced my harvest of more stalks than I would typically use at once. What to do with it all? And could the leaves be useful somewhere, other than just in the compost bin? We had a fierce windstorm in my neighborhood this week that brought trees crashing down through roofs and sent debris all over tarnation. My home was spared (this time!) but the wind shredded many plants and outright obliterated the wood chips around our garden boxes. That layer of mulch is gone!

I always love when one garden issue -- in this case, the oversupply of rhubarb -- becomes the solution to other garden problems: replacing mulch and blocking weeds. I overlapped the leaves on the ground between garden boxes. I also put them around the base of strawberry and raspberry plants. The quails are back in my yard with their telltale pits in the soil. Rhubarb leaves are now the rugs those birds can't dig under. 

Increase the effectiveness as a weed barrier by layering the rhubarb leaves and adding new ones as you harvest more stalks. The leaves break down quickly. On the left is a a freshly cut leaf. The one on the right was cut two days before.

When I harvest a rhubarb stalk I hold it in one hand and swing a knife at the leaf base with the other hand like I'm wielding a sword. (Can't imagine where I got that idea!) Easier and way more fun than using a cutting board. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Homestead Heritage

I know a lot of you already follow our one year cross country trip on our travel blog www.livingagoodstory.com but we recently visited a place that I thought the readers of backyard farming would be interested in. It is called Homestead Heritage and it is located near Waco, Texas. According to their website they are "an agrarian- and craft-based intentional Christian community. Its literature stresses simplicity, sustainability, self-sufficiency, cooperation, service and quality craftsmanship. It also strives to live in peaceful coexistence with the land, other people and other faiths." 
They grow all kinds of crops on the property and raise livestock. There is an amazing aquaponic greenhouse with a great system. There are fish in tanks that provide fertilized water for the plants. They grow the fish food within the system. There was even a papaya tree in the greenhouse.

In addition to the greenhouse, they grow many different grains and vegetables on the property and then grind the grains in there gristmill that runs one water power.

While we visited we were able to watch them make pottery, and there was a blacksmith shop that makes amazing tools, and iron works.

We had some pie at the cafe and it as some of the best we have ever had. You can shop at the barn to buy all of the handmade products that they make.

We loved visiting the homestead and felt so relaxed while we were there. Everyone was so nice and it was fun to watch them make all of their handmade products. We spent 45 minutes alone in the pottery shop watching the artisans make bowls. If you are near Waco, Homestead Heritage is a must-see for all you backyard farmers.