What Gardeners Do in Winter

“Oh, you’re a gardener, so what do you do in the winter?  You don’t grow food right?” 

I love this question because there are so many cool things gardeners do in the cold months.

Awesome October harvest
Awesome October harvest

November means cooking up yummy dishes from soups to pies from autumn’s harvest. The more you store in your root cellar, garage, basement and fridge from the year’s bounty, the more bang for the buck you get from your garden. If you get into fermenting and canning, your benefits go up even more.

If you planted a mid-summer crop of potatoes, December is a great time to harvest them. How cool is it to have friends over for dinner for the holidays and servethem fresh potatoes you harvest last week! So cool.

ferment your harvest
Home make kimchee from early winter harvest

December also brings opportunity to share your bounty. You can gift those you love with home grown and dried herbs or fruits.  One year we gave everyone popcorn we grew.  Another year, it was kimchee we made from fall grown cabbage.

December also brings the first of the seed catalogs and these are one of the best things to read while sipping a cup of hot tea/coffee/coco on a cold wintry day in January and February.  This is the time to dream about what you will grow next year .. oh, but wait .. we also do our seed inventory and reflect on what worked and what didn’t during the year with things like:

  • Did we use up seed of our favorite tomato variety?
  • Did anything new we tried do great or horrid, or just so-so?
  • Was there a whole crop fail? This is the time we chat with each other to see if everyone in our community had a bad year with that, or if we need advice on what might have happened in our garden.
Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from some of our recommended companies.

Reading seed catalogs lets us dream of warmer days in spring and plan what we want to do next year in the garden. They also provide useful information and are great resources.

A creative winter garden project is designing the next phase of our garden.  Whether it be the next phase of our long range garden plan (this is the year I put in blueberries and asparagus!) or so a new garden follow-on layout from spring and summer.  Maybe you expand it into fall and winter if you have not yet ventured into four season gardening.

collards are sweeter after frost
Winter collards harvest during snowmageddon

Likely the most rewarding is the continued harvest.  My favorite winter harvest story is from a few years ago during a winter storm dubbed ‘snowmageddon’. It was the biggest snowfall I’d ever been in.  We dug a path to the collards, buried deep in the snow to harvest some for dinner, and honestly they were the sweetest collards I’ve ever eaten.

Harvesting in winter can be less dramatic, simply have a few things in a simple hoop house or cold frame that could be harvestable in winter and certainly when they get a warm day or two to grow a bit and provide more food offerings.

grow food from seed
Young seedlings under lights in winter

Winter is also the time to start early spring and some summer crops.  Your brassicas can be started indoors to be hardened off and planted our as soon as the ground softens up.  Some summer crops like basil and peppers that take a long time to germinate and get growing also benefit from being started in late winter.

I’m also in mid-swing with teaching The Foundations of Organic Gardening Course, which empowers people to be successful gardeners.

Winter is a great time study, dream, muse, plan, order seeds, start seedlings and chat with other gardeners.

Growing Great Blueberries

Enjoy home grown blueberries
Blueberries ripening on the bush

Blueberries are very satisfying and easy to grow.

They can cost a pretty hefty amount at the store and are really easy to grow here in the mid-Atlantic area of the US.

Blueberries are native here, so even if you choose to grow cultivar varieties which produce larger fruit like I do, you can be assured they like this climate.

Blueberries are beautiful in the landscape, having white or pink flowers in spring and bright red, yellow or bronze foliage in autumn.

There are two types of blueberries: high bush & low bush.   Low bush are generally grown in northern climates like Maine and Canada. High bush are generally grown further south and the ones mostly grown in Virginia gardens.

A question I am often asked is: Should I buy them in a container or bare root?

Either is fine.

It is best to only have bare root plants shipped vs. container grown because shipping container grown plants is pricey.

Blueberry in autumn.
Blueberry in autumn.

Bare root plants are grown in the nursery for a few years (a good company will tell you how old the plants will be that you are ordering) dug up in the dormant months, kept cool and shipped in spring.

Container grown plants would be obtained locally.

Currently, we do not have a good source of container grown blueberries locally. The nursery we liked  is going out of business because the owners are retiring. Many local nurseries sell blueberry bushes for short,  limited time in early spring. Be sure and ask them if their plants are sprayed with

grow fruit at home
Heavy fruit load not yet ripe

loads of chemicals that could kill your pollinators, including the neonicotinoids that have been so much in the news lately.

To get a great selection, we recommend ordering bare root from RainTree Nursery. They sell 2-to-3 year old blueberry plants that are good sized, at least 18” tall and bushy.

When buying blueberry plants, be sure to buy at least two varieties for pollination. Also check the ripening dates, choosing two bushes each of three varieties can extend your harvest and give you a very healthy crop.

Blueberry bush in bloom
Blueberry bush in bloom

Popular varieties include the old time ‘Jersey’, which has bright yellow leaves in autumn and ‘Bluecrop’ which has red fall color.  Another yellow fall colored variety is ‘Bluegold’, which is popular with smaller space gardeners because the bushes are more compact at 4’ high. Most highbush blueberries are 6’ high. ‘Bluegold’ and ‘Earliblue’ can start your blueberry season off, then follow on with ‘Blueray’ for mid season and ‘Elliot’ or ‘Libery’ for late season fruit.   We also really like ‘Patriot’ and ‘Northland’ as they has done very well for us.

growing blueberries
Blueberries that made it to the bowl

Container gardeners might like to try the cute ‘Top Hat’ that only grows to 18”. You can choose a variety that grows to 4’ for container culture and use a larger container.

In ground, space your blueberries as far apart as their listed mature height.  So, if a variety is listed as 6′ high, plant them 6′ apart, or a little farther, if you have room, for good aeration and light.

Three important notes about growing blueberries:

  1. Choose a sunny location. Although blueberries grow in partial shade, they need full sun to produce lots of berries.
  2. Plant them separate from your annual vegetable garden because they have different soil requirements. Blueberries want acidic soil, unlike your annual veggies.  A good mulch for blueberries is pine needles.
  3. Plant your blueberries where they will naturally get plenty of water because they are shallow rooted plants. You can dig swales to capture water for your blueberries in heavy rains.

One last note, invest in a few post and bird netting so you get your crop instead of the birds.

Hope this inspires you to try growing some blueberries at home, whether you want to eat them fresh or make summer blueberry ice cream, they are an easy and satisfying perennial crop to grow.

Mix it up! Companion Plant your Annual Vegetable Garden

Make the most of your garden space by mixing flowers and herbs with your annual vegetables.

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape incorporates flowers and herbs along with vegetables.

Pairing the right plants together, those that gardeners have observed grow well together, allows plants to do some of your garden work for you. This accomplishes several functions as we can see…

One classic example showing some ways plants work together is the native American corn/beans/squash combination:

Poll beans climb up the corn stalk, so the corn is the support, or trellis, for the bean.  So the corn just saved you from building a pole bean trellis. The bean is a member of the legume family of plants. This plant family are what are called ‘nitrogen fixers’, which means they capture nitrogen and store it in nodules on their roots, making it available for other plants to take it in. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so in exchange for the support the corn gives the beans, the beans feed the corn. The beans just saved you from having to add something to feed your corn. The squash plants wind all around the base of the corn and beans, providing them shade cover to keep moisture in the soil longer for all of them. The squash just saved you from watering as much or putting down mulch to hold moisture in the soil.  A couple nice additions to this already cool combo are:

  • Sunflowers in the mix to also support beans and provide seeds for humans and birds.
  • Nasturtiums attract a ‘beneficial bug’ called hoverflies.  Beneficial bugs are so named because they prey on other bugs that like to eat your food, although, in a diverse ecosystem, all bugs are beneficial to maintain balance. Hoverflies like to eat bugs like aphids and thrips.  Nasturtiums repel loads of critters who want to eat your crops including: cabbage loppers, worms and weevils; squash, cucumber and bean beetles and more.  In addition, the leaves and flowers are edible!

Companion planting is a good way to design your garden beds. See what plants go together and plant in those combinations. Start with simple combinations and then get more complex over time. Good places to start are:

  • tomatoes/lettuce/onions/marigolds/parsley
  • peppers/basil/marigolds/chamomile
  • peas/carrots/lettuce
  • bush beans/potatoes/flax
  • cucumbers/radishes/nasturtiums/dill
Squash & Nasturtiums. Nasturtiums are good companions for not only cucumbers, but also squash and melons.

Another reason to use companion planting is it makes a beautiful garden, as these photos show, and remember, beauty is food too!

Container gardeners, you can do this too!  The same combinations apply, either in the same container, or containers that are next to each other.

I’ll write more companion planting, so check back.

Container Garden your Way to Yummy Food

grow great tomatoes at home
Container Grown Gold Roma Tomatoes

Happy Spring!

Tis the season we starting dreaming of gardening – what don’t have much time or space to garden?

No problem – Container garden.

Container gardening is a great place to start gardening and easy to add if you are an experienced gardener.

For the new gardener, it allows you to learn on a small scale. It is often where I recommend people start gardening, especially those who feel overwhelmed by gardening for the first time.

Experienced gardeners (and all of us really) can enjoy the convenience a container garden can provide, consider…

 

… 5 Reasons why container gardening is a great idea:

  1. It doesn’t take much space
  2. You can move the containers to where the sun and rain are
  3. You don’t have a big area to maintain
  4. You can grow loads of food
  5. You can grow food year round

Lets take a peek at each of these 5 reasons.

Grow lots of food in a containerContainer gardens can be a various sizes and shapes and tucked into or onto most any place, making they great for small space gardening. Even if you have a large yard, growing food on your deck is convenient.

Live in a townhouse where the sun is limited. You can move your container garden around from place to place to follow the sun, getting more or less light depending on what you are growing. You can move them under the eves in a big rain storm, or under the sky if they need watering.

Many people seem to not have much time these days, so having a smaller area to maintain fits with many people’s lifestyles and still allows them to eat some food from their own place.

You can get a huge yield from a well planted container garden. Amazing really how much bounty you can haul in. You can grow pretty much anything you would grow in the ground in a container.

All those crops that grow in fall and winter can grow in containers too, so you can four season garden !

 

Want more and live local … Come to our Container Garden Workshop, April 11, 2015

Why Grow Your Health?

Grow Your Health logo 2014For three years now I have been honored to be a part of the team who put on the Grow Your Health, Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival.

There are several reasons for our participation in this local annual event:

First off, we are passionate about spreading the word of growing your own food. Gardening is a great way to get outside, off our computers for a few, and get back to our roots –  sometimes literally –  in the case of carrots and radishes. Grow Your Health is a great venue to talk gardens and empower people to garden.spring greens in deck house close up

The festival is also about local food. This local festival gets community members together with local farms and healthy food providers in a fun environment.   Connecting folks with our local farmers and practitioners enriches our local economy. It also allows each to expand their community support system. Families supporting family farms was part of how this country was built and these relationship nurture the heart of everyone involved.

The third focus of the festival is wellness, not only of our bodies through various support systems, but also the wellness of the planet that supports us all. The movie we are showing this year, GMO OMG talks primarily about the potential effects of genetically modified organisms in our food, but the business of growing these has major impacts on the wellness of planet earth.

Helping the neGrow-Your-Health-2014-kids-gardening-class-3xt generations learn about healthy practices for themselves and their planet, how to connect with the planet through gardening and knowing where their food comes from is part of the family value this festival can provide. Each year we strive to make the event better for families to attend, more fun for children and provide everyone who attends an enriching community event.

Come out and join us, Saturday, March 28, 10:00 am – 5:30 pm.

Stop by the Prior Unity Garden Booth and sign up for the raffle to win some prizes.

As part of the class lineup, Russell will be part of a Gardening Q&A at 11:00 am and Debby will be teaching Small Space Gardening at 1:30 pm.

We’ll also have spring plants and other cool stuff.

MORE EVENT  INFO

GET TICKETS – Adults $10 in advance, $15 at the door – Children under 16 FREE

deb and russ at the booth – Debby Ward,Founder & Owner of Prior Unity Garden & Management Team Member, Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food & Wellness Festival

 

Grow Your Health Festival 2015

gyh banner1

We'll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.
We’ll have baby lettuce, kale, chard and arugula plants for your spring garden.

Come celebrate spring at the Grow Your Health – Gardening, Local Food and Wellness Festival on March 28, from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm. W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax VA.

Come take classes on gardening, food and wellness. I’ll be teaching Small Space Gardening and Russell will be teaching about building healthy living soil.

Watch the movie, GMO OMG, enjoy local artisan food and stop by our booth and get your baby spring greens plants !

More info

Get a ticket NOW

Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !
Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !

Harden-off Your Babies Right

Hardening off trays of seedlings along a warm brick sidewalk
Hardening off trays of seedlings along a warm brick sidewalk

Hardening off your seedlings is an important step to insuring they bound into growth and production when put unto the ground.

Hardening off refers to how we acclimate seedlings; who have been started indoors, to their final outdoor environment, by slowing getting them used to increased amounts of sun, wind and rain. If we do not harden off our seedlings, they will experience what is called “transplant shock” and likely die, or at least not grow well and thrive. Hardening off does require a bit of flexibility and may be the most attention intensive part of starting your plants from seed indoors. The process only takes a couple of week though, and the opportunity for observation is great, so do not be discouraged. You are strengthening the babies you started.

 

Steps to Harden Off seedlings:

  1. Check the seeds catalogs and packets to find out the cold or heat tolerance of your seedling type and take this into consideration when hardening off.
  2. Ideally, only expose your plants to filtered sunlight for a hour or two the first couple of days. You can also begin on a cloudy day and leave them out for 2 or 3 hours
  3. Gradually expose them to more sun at a rate of 1 to 2 hours per day of time outside.
  4. Be sure to bring your seedlings in at night for at least a week as they are not likely used to cold nights. Bring them in if frost threatens.
  5. Do not leave them out if the weather calls for high wind or heavy rain, they are not strong enough yet to handle these conditions, yet.
  6. By a couple of weeks time, you want your seedlings out all the time and they can then be planted into your containers garden.       You can harden them off and keep them in their smaller containers longer depending upon your schedule.
More seedlings hardening off in the sun
More seedlings hardening off in the sun