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  • March garden tips & tasks

    If your fescue lawn looks a little skimpy, overseed early this month. Fescue grows best when the weather is still cool.

    Clip dead stems from perennial herbs – thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary. Pruning encourages vigorous new growth.

    Prune nandinas, flowering quince and other airy shrubs by reaching in and removing about a third of the branches at ground level.

    Remove mulch or leaves that may be covering perennials in garden beds.

    Prepare a new garden bed: Have the soil tested (check with your county’s Extension service). Remove grass and dig or till soil 8 to 10 inches deep and mix with soil amendments and organic matter to improve drainage.

    Add fertilizer lightly to perennials as soon as you see new growth. Too much fertilizer may result in lanky growth.

    Herb transplants that don’t mind cool weather -- parsley, cilantro, sage, oregano – can go in the ground now.

    When you cut daffodils to bring inside, cut the stems at an angle and place them in water right away. Change the water in the vase daily to keep them fresh longer.

    Save the date - Middle Tennessee garden events

    The Perennial Plant Society's annual Plant Sale will be April 8, opening at 9 a.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale offers newly released and hard-to-find perennials from top local nurseries -- more than 450 varieties of perennials, vines, grasses, shrubs and annuals. The event supports local scholarships for Tennessee horticulture students and monthly gardening programs, open to the public, at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. For information visit www.ppsmtn.org.

    The Herb Society of Nashville's annual Herb Sale will be April 29, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale will offer heirloom vegetables, rare varieties of perennial and annual herbs, handmade pottery herb markers and more. To learn more, visit herbsocietynashville.org.

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Will old seeds sprout?

I have packets of lettuce and spinach seeds left from two, three and more years ago. If I plant them this year, will they grow?

seed-packets-oldSeeds of many vegetables can remain viable for at least a couple of years, but if you want to be sure they’re still good, you can perform a simple test that garden author Judy Lowe describes in her book, Month-By-Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky:

Place ten seeds, evenly spaced, on a wet paper towel. Roll the towel up with the seeds inside and seal it in a plastic bag. Place the bag in a warm spot, such as the top of the refrigerator.

Begin checking the seeds after three days to see whether any seeds have sprouted. After fifteen days, you’ll have the germination percentage (for example, if eight of the ten seeds have sprouted, you have an 80 percent germination rate).

“If the rate is 50 to 70 percent, you’ll know to sow the seeds more thickly than usual,” Lowe suggests. “When the germination rate is less than 50 percent, buy fresh seeds.”

Put your backyard birds on the map

Each year, scientists collect data on wild birds, based on reports from people who enjoy watching them in their own landscapes. The Great Backyard Bird Count, held each February, is a citizen-science project sponsored by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology and the National Audubon Society that provides data that helps investigate a variety of questions about bird populations, migration patterns, diseases and more.

tufted-titmouse-wood-thrust-shop-s-poe

Tufted titmouse on a shelled peanut feeder. Photo courtesy The Wood Thrush Shop/Photo by S. Poe

This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count is Feb. 17 – 20. Anyone can participate. Create a free online account at eBird (http://ebird.org), a real-time, online checklist program, and for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see.

How to attract birds to your yard? “We like to say that 80 – 90 percent initially is the type of habitat you’re in – open field, more wooded, if there’s water source nearby – these are all the main contributing factor to what type of birds you’ll see,” says Jamie Bacon at The Wood Thrush Shop in Nashville. Bird feeders – and the seeds you put in them — also help bring in the winged visitors. “As far as feeding birds, sunflower seed is the no. 1 attractant to songbirds. Pretty much all the songbirds with sunflowers,” Bacon says.

My story on the different types of bird feeders to use in your landscape is online now at Tennessean.com. To learn more about the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit the Web site, http://gbbc.birdcount.org.

 

Kale for cool-season gardens – and a seed giveaway!

Kale 'Wild Garden Frills'

Kale ‘Wild Garden Frills’

I’ve never grown kale, but I want to try it in my kitchen garden this year. Is it better to start with seeds or transplants? When is the best time to plant it?

'Darkibor' kale

‘Darkibor’ kale

Kale has become a culinary star for its flavor and its reputation as a nutrient-dense superfood. Fortunately, it’s a vegetable that’s easy to grow. It’s also one of those early-season garden favorites that thrives in cooler weather, so you can plan to begin planting it in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked (in Middle Tennessee — USDA Hardiness Zone 7a, where The Garden Bench calls home — that could be late February or early March). It’s even better as a fall crop. Plant it again in late summer to grow and harvest into winter.

You can plant transplants, but it’s just as easy to sow seed directly in the prepared garden bed. Like most vegetables, kale grows best in full sun. Plant it in loamy soil that you may amend with high-nitrogen fertilizer. Sow in rows, or broadcast the seed over the area, spacing the seeds an inch or two apart. Cover with about ¼ inch of soil and keep the soil moist as the seed germinates. The seed company Renee’s Garden provides a video about planting kale that you can watch here. You can also grow kale in containers.

Portuguese 'Tronchuda Beira' kale.

Portuguese ‘Tronchuda Beira’ kale.

Thin seedlings as they begin to sprout; you can use the small, tender leaves in salads. Harvest by cutting the outside leaves of a plant as they get large enough to use; the crown of the plant will continue to grow.

Kale is a member of the same family as cabbage, broccoli and other Brassicas, and as such may need protection from cabbage worms and cabbage loopers. Row covers can keep adult insects from laying eggs on the plants as they grow.

There are several varieties of kale – smooth and curly leaf types, large, sturdy leaves and smaller, tender leaves, dark green, light green and purple-green varieties. (Ornamental kale, usually sold in fall to enhance landscapes with its frilly, brightly colored leaves, is edible but not as tasty as the leaves grown for culinary use.) There are dwarf varieties suitable for small plots and containers.

Seed giveaway – grow kale!

'Tuscan Baby Leaf' kale.

‘Tuscan Baby Leaf’ kale.

Growers at the seed company Renee’s Garden are introducing Tuscan Baby Leaf kale for 2015, a milder, more tender kale that is good to use for salads and stirfry. Owner Renee Shepherd has offered two packets of the seeds for readers of The Garden Bench.

Leave a comment at the end of this post about your favorite ways to use kale (in stirfry? Salads? Soup? Smoothies?), or just say “I want to grow kale!”). Respond by 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 and your name will go into a drawing to win a packet of Tuscan Baby Leaf kale seeds, just in time for spring planting.

 

A bountiful harvest: sunflower seeds

We grew sunflowers this year, and I’d like to save the seeds. What is the best way to harvest them?
sunflower 2As summer begins to wind down and the sunflowers begin to droop, you know it’s time to harvest. Sunflower seeds are ready to harvest when the back of the flower heads turn yellow. The seeds themselves will turn dark.

Seed-loving birds may begin to find them before you do, so if you’re planning a seed harvest, you may want to find a way to protect them until they’re fully mature. Extension services and other experts suggest covering the flower heads with brown paper bags. (Don’t use plastic bags, which may cause moisture to form around the flower head and cause the seeds to rot.) When you’re ready to harvest, use scissors or a knife to cut off the flower head with several inches of the stem.
You can harvest sunflower seeds to save for the birds to enjoy later, or for a nutritious snack for yourself and your family. Hold the flower head over a large bowl and rub or pluck out the seeds. Store them in a dry spot in sealed containers until you are ready to set them out for the birds.

Writers at the Mother Earth News website have an easy method for preparing sunflower seeds for snacking. Soak the unshelled seeds overnight in salt water – about 1/8 to ¼ cup salt for each quart of water. Drain off the water and spread the seeds on paper towels or clean towels and allow them to dry for several hours. When they are completely dry, spread the seeds evenly on a cookie sheet and bake them at 300 degrees F for 30 – 40 minutes. After baking, place the seeds in a bowl and toss with one teaspoon of butter for each cup of seeds. Season with salt, if desired.

Sunflower seeds are high in potassium, calcium, and phosphorus.

Poppies next spring

I saw beautiful poppies in gardens this spring and summer and would like to grow some of my own. When and how do you plant them?

There are several types of poppies; some are perennials, some are cool-season annuals. A few of them can be grown from seed sown in the fall, so start planning now to have a garden of poppies next year. Here’s a short list of the possibilities, according to the editors of the Southern Living Garden Book:

Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) is a short-lived perennial with cup-shaped blooms of yellow, orange, salmon, pink, white or cream. Sow seeds or set out transplants in the fall.

Oriental poppy (P. orientale) has large, crinkled blooms in scarlet, orange, pink, salmon or white that grow from bushy clumps of foliage. The blooms may be black at the base. Plant dormant roots in the fall.

Shirley poppy, or Flanders Field poppy (P. rhoeas) is an annual poppy with single or double flowers in white, pink, salmon, red, scarlet, lilac or blue. Sow in the fall by mixing seeds with an equal amount of sand and broadcast it where you want them to grow. Note: The Southern Living Garden Book says this is a “notorious self-sower,” which is usually a gentle way to say it could take over your garden whether you want it to or not.

Alpine poppy (P. alpinum) is a perennial that grows better in fast-draining, gritty soil. It has smaller flowers (1 ½ to 2 inches in white, yellow, orange or salmon. It, too, self-sows freely. Sow seeds in fall or early spring.

To plant poppy seeds, prepare the soil in a bed in full sun and simply scatter the seeds on top, or barely cover the seeds. Water the ground carefully, and kept the area moist throughout the fall.

 

Garden seeds: How old is too old?

QUESTION: How long do seeds last? If a seed packet says “purchase by 12/11,” would the seeds still be good for this year?  I’m looking at sunflowers, green beans, and other summer vegetables.

Packed for 2011. Still good? Probably, if they’ve been kept dry and cool.

It’s probably a common experience among gardeners to find packets of last year’s seeds – or seeds from two or more years ago (opened or unopened) stashed in a forgotten corner. They look too good to throw away, but is it worth wasting time and space in the garden to plant them if they may not germinate?

The good news is that many seeds last beyond the “sell-by” or “packaged for” date that’s printed on the packet, especially if they’ve been kept in favorable conditions – dry and reasonably cool. Seeds of parsnips, onions and leeks are among those that will only be good for a year, but seeds of most of the common garden vegetables can last two, three, or some, even five years. Here’s a short list from vegetable researchers atOregonStateUniversity:

Two years: sweet corn, lettuce, parsley, peppers, chard.

Three years: Bush and pole beans, carrots, cucumbers, melons, peas, squashes, tomatoes.

Four years: radishes, turnips.

Seeds of annual flowers are generally good for 1 – 3 years, the researchers say; seeds of perennials can last 2 – 4 years.

You can test the viability of a packet of seeds by placing a few in a moist paper towel in a warm room for a few days to see if they germinate. Seed Savers Exchange provides detailed instructions here.

If you have seeds left at the end of the season, the best way to store them is in a sealed jar with something to absorb moisture (rice or powdered milk are two suggestions). Store the jar in the refrigerator or a cool area in the house, such as a basement.

 

Sweet surprise: sweet potato vines

QUESTION: The ornamental sweet potato vines I grew in large pots last summer produced potatoes – to my surprise! Can they be replanted to produce vines next year?

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) ‘Blackie’

Yes! The sweet potatoes that are grown for their ornamental vines don’t have much taste, but U.T. Extension agent David Cook says you can save the tubers to produce the same foliage next year. Here’s how to do it:

If the potatoes haven’t already frozen (and by now, you may find that they have, unfortunately), dig them up and store them packed in straw in a dry, cool place. When the weather begins to get warm again, the tubers may begin to sprout. Cut them into sections just as you would cut a seed potato, with at last one “eye” per section. Allow them to dry for a few days, and plant them in the ground after the frost date has passed (mid-April here in Middle Tennessee).

Ornamental sweet potato vines come in a variety of fancy-leafed “flavors.” ‘Blackie’ is an easy-to-find favorite, with purplish-black, deeply lobed leaves. ‘Ace of spades’ has heart-shaped leaves. ‘Tri-color’ is variegated with green, white and pink foliage, and the variety called ‘Marguerite’ has golden-green leaves.

The vines grow fast, and are a striking addition as a “spiller” in a container, draping elegantly over the sides. I learned last summer that rabbits find the leaves tasty. If your garden has a resident rabbit (as mine does), you’ll find the vines will start to disappear, so be warned.

Don’t worry about the daffodils

It’s only January, and the daffodils in my yard are already coming up! How do I keep them from freezing?

Early risers: daffodils can survive winter.

It may seem too early for this unmistakable sign of spring, but it’s not unusual for the shoots of early daffodils to begin pushing up through the ground. In some places, they started coming up before Christmas. The best thing to do is: Nothing. In fact, there is nothing you can do. Spread some pine straw over the daffodil bed if it makes you feel better, but really, even that is an unnecessary step, says Anne Owen of the Middle Tennessee Daffodil Society.

We’re at the mercy of the weather fluctuations, but generally, a blast of cold weather won’t hurt the daffodils, Owen says. The worst that could happen is that the weather turns warm and stays warm enough for long enough that the daffodils bloom; then the flowers might succumb to a snap of extreme cold. If we get a freeze while only the leaves are up, they should survive without a problem.

Good reading

It’s a good time to sit down with a stack of seed catalogs (or a list of seed company URLs) and plan this year’s kitchen garden. Here are some of my favorites (where I indulge in a little wishful thinking):

Seed Savers’ Exchange (Unusual varieties not found at the big box store seed kiosks)

Seeds of Change (Seeds, supplies, and live plants, too)

Territorial Seed Company (Try out the online garden planner)

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (“Particularly suited to the Mid-Atlantic and similar regions”)

Renee’s Garden (Pretty as a cottage garden)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Recipes included!)

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds (Straightforward, with tidy line drawings; more tips and entertaining reading at the website)

Brent & Becky’s Bulbs (One of the best sources for bulbs, say those in the know)

Burpee (for sheer volume, and all those luscious pictures!)