The secret to growing poppies

If you read much gardening literature, you’ll eventually come across some plant for which the consensus seems to be that anyone can grow it, it’s totally foolproof, and yet you, no matter how hard you try, cannot get the job done.

For me, for the longest time, it was poppies.

Oriental Poppies, by Greenlamplady (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I love poppies (Papaver sp., mostly). Their delicate petals and vibrant colors fill me with longing. Everything I read promised they were easy to grow. I even read about a local woman who bought a sackful of breadseed poppy seeds from the bulk bin at the local market and threw them out into her garden, and next year her side yard looked like Giverny.

Claude Monet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Poppy Field in Argenteuil, by Claude Monet. {{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

I tried the same technique and discovered that lady must be holding something back. I tried different varieties–Oriental poppies (P. orientale), breadseed (P. somniferum), Welsh poppies (Meconopsis cambrica), California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas), Icelandic poppies (Papaver nudicaule)–everything except the holy grail of poppies, the Himalayan blue, which, let’s face it, I wasn’t ready for. I tried direct seeding in fall, in spring, I tried transplanting–failure after failure. Some sources said they needed rich soil. I provided rich soil; nothing happened. Some sources said they grow in very poor soil. I began to despair.

By Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Himalayan blue poppy, photographed at Chanticleer Garden, Wayne PA, USA. Photo by and (c)2008 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Co-attribution must be given to the Chanticleer Garden. (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year, a gardening friend, Catherine, shared her secret:

How to grow poppies from seed

  1. Find your sunny spot where you want your poppies to grow, and lay out a bed of compost about 1-2″ thick.
  2. Smooth it over a bit with the back of the rake.
  3. Scatter your poppy seeds in the compost.
  4. Tamp them in gently with the back of the rake.
  5. Walk away.

They don’t need watering, except what Mother Nature will bring.

Well, Catherine did not fail me. Barring a tornado, hurricane, or direct lightning strike to the spot, I am about to witness the bloom of my first poppy ever.

poppy bud

I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’ve scattered in Hungarian blue breadseed poppies, ‘Lauren’s Grape,’ and a locally sourced mix of pinks, purples, and whites.

Timing your seeding seems to be very important as well. These were sown about the first week of November. I sowed some more in December and those are coming along, but are quite small. Perhaps the advent of summer tropical weather will hasten their growth.

I tell you, I’m anticipating this flower like the British press anticipated the first peek at Princess Charlotte. It will probably suffer sunburn from camera flashes once it does appear.

Hurrah!

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The waiting is the hardest part: Hardening off seedlings

I have three weeks to go until our average last frost date.

coldframe full

I did really well this winter, getting seeds sown and potting things on. Now, I’ve got to hang on until the tender things are safe to plant. The cold frame is jammed full.

Hardening off seedlings, though, is too important a process to skip. I skipped it all the time until I built my cold frame–mostly because I didn’t want to spend half the morning bringing trays of plants in and out of the house–and my plants performed correspondingly poorly.

Hardening off is a process of gradually exposing seedlings and tender plants to larger temperature variations and stronger light levels than they experience indoors. The process produces slower, sturdier, more resilient growth, preparing plants for life in the open garden. Without a cold frame, gardeners place plants in a sheltered location outside–maybe in a shaded site, close to the warmth of the house–for a short period of time, lengthening the exposure to outside conditions every few days.

Using a cold frame–basically a tiny greenhouse–makes the process far less tedious. It’s not quite a matter of set-it-and-forget-it, but it frees up lots of the time and space other parts of life demand. My cold frame, which I constructed myself from recycled materials for about $30, faces south and backs up to my house. I start hardening off my seedlings in mid-February, when we begin to see a few 50-degree (10C) days. I start with the hardy perennials, then move in the hardy annuals. Tender plants come last. Space permitting, I sow vegetable seeds in flats directly in the cold frame.

During the first few days in the frame, I place plants on its south side so they sit in slight shadow from the frame’s front wall. They gradually move towards the back as more plants come in. On unusually warm days, I vent the cold frame by propping open the glass doors, made of discarded windows. This keeps the temperatures inside from getting too hot–such fragile plants can quickly dehydrate and die if the temperatures climb too high. Sometimes I’ll prop open the windows entirely, but cover the opening with a bit of horticultural fabric. This practice lets the light in but keeps hungry foraging birds and squirrels and early insect pests out.

coldframe full 2

The second quadrant of the cold frame.

We’re getting close enough to the last-frost date that I may move out some of the plants with the longest tenancy–particularly the perennials–into permanent locations. They’ve withstood some cold nights already, so a late frost won’t likely bother them.

Believe, gardeners! The digging season is nearly here.

 

 

 

Comfrey: A plant’s smelly, magical wonder food.

Using commercial fertilizers, particularly sustainable or non-synthetic ones, can get really expensive. Compost and manures add important organic matter to the soil, which helps to build the subterranean ecosystems that support plant health, but they don’t add much in the way of major nutrients.

Fortunately, nature has provided a means to make our own sustainable fertilizers. Comfrey (Symphytum officianale), a plant that grows well in most gardens, provides nutrient boosts when added to compost or used in liquid fertilizers. And once you’ve bought the plants, it’s free.

Comfrey plants (Symphytum officinale) photo by Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Comfrey is a borage relative. Hardy to Zone 3, it has large, broad leaves like those of Pulmonarias, to which they are related, and small clusters of blue or white pendulous flowers. Comfrey’s fuzzy, sometimes prickly leaves discourage insect pests. It grows in a range of soils in sun to part shade, and uses its impressive root system, which may grow anywhere from 6 to 10 feet deep, to mine minerals from the subsoil, aerate its surrounding soil and break up the heaviest clays. It will regrow from tiny slivers of root, though, so be sure to plant it where you want it. If you are as indecisive as I am, grow it in a container. You won’t get quite the same level of benefits as compared to comfrey grown in the ground, but at least you won’t have it permanently installed.

Comfrey has been used in the past as an herbal medicine, but research proves comfrey contains poisonous chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). The roots contain up to 10 times the amount of PAs than the leaves. Its toxic chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, though, so it is advisable to wear gloves when handling comfrey. Do not take comfrey internally, as it is extremely toxic to the liver and may also be carcinogenic.

Comfrey (at right, with large leaves) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, at left, with serrated leaves) grow together in a barrel in my garden.

Comfrey (at right, with large leaves) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, at left, with serrated leaves) grow together in a barrel in my garden.

For plants, though, it’s a wonder food.

Comfrey contains high levels of the macronutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), as well as calcium and vitamin B12.  Comfrey also contains allantoin, a chemical compound that stimulates cell growth and regeneration. It may be the allantoin that makes comfrey so effective as a fertilizer. Extracts from comfrey’s leaves have antifungal properties, and have been shown to effectively combat powdery mildew.

It’s good to know the specific epithet of the plant you’re getting. Symphytum officianale, the species, will seed prolifically and may become problematic in the home garden. The Bocking 14 strain of comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) contains the high nutrient levels of the species, but it’s also sterile, so it won’t self-seed and become invasive. Bocking 14 is difficult to track down in the United States, but is available from a few Internet sources.

Comfrey leaves can be used as a mulch or buried in the garden bed at planting time. As they rot down, they’ll enrich the soil. Take care when using them as a mulch, though: The decaying leaves can be attractive to slugs, so don’t mulch with them around leafy greens or ornamentals like hostas.

A more versatile way to use comfrey is as a liquid fertilizer or tea. To make the tea:

  1. Chop up a handful of fresh leaves (use gloves), and place in a container with a well-fitting lid.
  2. Add water to cover, submerging the leaves with a rock if necessary.
  3. Let the mix rot down for 3-4 weeks. At this time, the comfrey will have been reduced to a stinky black goo.
  4. Dilute the comfrey liquid concentrate at a rate of approximately 1 part comfrey to 15 parts water. The final product should be light brown in color, like weak tea. Water it in around your plants that need a boost, particularly fruiting plants, or use the tea as a foliar spray on plants that are susceptible to mildew.
  5. You can seal up the rest of the concentrate for use at a later time, or bury it in the compost pile to supercharge your compost.

Comfrey tea is higher in phosphorus and potassium, so you may wish to blend it with nettle tea to get a better nitrogen boost. This tea will feed the soil as well as your plants, ultimately making your plants more resilient. For a gentle, natural fertilizer, comfrey is hard to beat.

Tutorial: Garden hose repair

Although for most of my watering tasks I try to rely on my rain barrels, occasionally I do need to use a hose. And as hoses tend to develop cracks and leaks over time, I take time once or twice a year to do some mending. It’s easy to do, and much less expensive than buying a new hose.

I came into a discarded garden hose recently and am carving it up into lengths to join portions of soaker hose. Using short lengths of non-soaker hose in between the soaker lengths reduces water waste in those areas that don’t need watering. hose repair assemble materials

Here, I have two screwdrivers, a flat head and a Phillips head (x-head). I also have a tape measure, male and female hose fittings (be sure to get a size that matches your hose diameter), and rubber washers. A knife or box cutter is also required for this task.

The fittings can be purchased at any hardware store for a few dollars apiece. Rubber washers can be purchased singly for a few cents apiece, or in larger packets, ensuring you’ve got them when you need them. While these are plastic fittings, and this particular brand has worked well for me in the past, brass fittings are also available, and though they cost a bit more they are well worth the investment to repair a high-quality hose.

Repairing a hose:

1. Measure the length of hose you need, mark it, and cut it. Make a straight cut; it will reduce leaks when you attach the fittings.

2. Determine which fitting you need. Each length of hose should have one male and one female end.

3. Insert the tapered end of the appropriate fitting into the cut length of the hose.  It may help to lubricate the end of the fitting with a bit of petroleum jelly. Make sure the hose comes up to the top of the fitting’s threads. Below on the right is a well-seated male fitting.

4. Secure the new attachment with a clamp (these often come with the fitting, or can be purchased separately ).

That’s it! Once you mend your first hose you’ll be very impressed with yourself and will start looking for other things to mend. This practice is habit-forming and may result in your spending lots of time in hardware stores poring over bins of clamps and screws.

Tutorial: Propagating chrysanthemums from cuttings

In late June, I cut back my chrysanthemums to make sure they’re compact and full of buds when flowering time comes in September and October. You can root the pieces you cut back from your own plants, and have dozens more plants the following year. It’s very easy to do.

Rooting cuttings of chrysanthemums:

1. Cut back the stems of your chrysanthemum plants by about half, cutting just above a leaf node (where the leaves join the stem).

2. Separate the stems. Cuttings should include between 3 and 6 leaf nodes. Remove the growing tips to force the plant’s energy into making a vigorous root ball. Then remove the leaves from the bottom half to 1/3 of the stem.

3. Pour a small amount of rooting hormone into a container. Don’t dip stems directly into the container, which could contaminate the entire jar. Thoroughly coat the cut end of the stems with hormone.

4. Use a chopstick, pencil, or other tool to make a hole for the cutting in a pan of sterile potting mix. Insert the cutting into the hole, and firm back around the cutting. Water the cuttings gently, using a rose attachment on a watering can, a light setting on a hose nozzle, or a fine mist from a sink sprayer.

5. I keep my cuttings outside, weather permitting (i.e., it’s not freezing). I put them in a shady spot, like a north-facing wall, where they can get rainfall but not direct sun. Keep the tray watered if the weather is dry; do not allow the mix to dry out entirely.

6. Your cuttings will be ready when a gentle tug on the leaves gives resistance. If the cutting doesn’t come out easily, it has formed a good root mass. In early summer, the process takes me about one month. You can then transplant the cuttings into the garden. Keep them pinched back and watered, and you’ll have abundant flowers in fall.

 

Sustainable fertilizer: Nettle tea

Among other new things I’m trying out this year, I’m making a liquid fertilizer out of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Urtica dioica grows easily from seed and spreads easily by rhizomes, so I grow mine in a container. potted stinging nettles urtica dioica and spiderOften used in traditional and herbal/alternative medicines to treat a wide variety of conditions in the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts, the skin, joints, and allergic conditions, stinging nettles contain significant amounts of trace elements like iron, manganese, and calcium. The plant also contains the major nutrients potassium and nitrogen. Nitrogen, of course, promotes new green growth, and potassium (symbol K, the third number in a fertilizer analysis such as 4-3-3) is often described as a multivitamin for a plant, promoting resiliency and overall good health.

stinging nettle urtica dioicaGardening literature from the UK suggests that nettle tea is an outstanding natural fertilizer. To make it:

  1. Gather stems and leaves of stinging nettles. (Use gloves. They really do hurt.)nettle stem showing spines
  2. Crush the leaves and stems with your gloved hands or chop them with a knife, and place in a large bucket. Weight them down with a clean clay pot or saucer.harvested nettleschopped nettles
  3. Cover the crushed nettles with water. nettles submerged in container of water
  4. Leave them to soak for 3-4 weeks. Word has it that the brew gets a bit smelly, so keep a lid on the bucket and perhaps locate it away from pathways or entranceways.
  5. Once the liquid has steeped, dilute it at approximately 1 part tea to 10 parts water. Apply to any plants, but especially those that seem to be struggling a bit.

 Note:

Nettles can interfere with certain prescription drugs, including blood thinners and blood pressure and diabetes medications. Don’t take them without consulting a doctor about potential interactions with your current diet and medications.

 

Spring planting time: Building a new raised bed

We eat a lot of fresh produce in our house.  I’ve been wanting to grow more of it myself, but sunny space and time have been limiting factors. That changes this year.

A month or two ago, when the first warm weather began to hit, I prepared a new raised bed so I’d be ready when the frost date passed. The garden on the south side of the house got torn up last fall when we added on to the house, giving me an opportunity for a fresh start. Now it’s time to build a garden again.

Constructing a raised bed 

The new raised bed is 16 feet long by 4 feet wide and 1 foot deep.

  1. First, I marked the four interior corners of the bed, squaring them to the house. The back of the bed is 18 inches from the wall of the house, which will permit me room to move around easily as I maintain and harvest later this year.
  2. I pounded in stakes made of 2 x 4 lumber, roughly 20 inches long, at the four corners and at a point halfway along each length, making sure they were plumb and level. This is the most tedious part of the job, but it makes a great difference in the appearance and stability of the bed. The stakes extend about eight inches into the ground and 12 inches above.
  3. Then, I laid out a pattern of 4 x 4 posts, leveled them, and attached them with screws to the stabilizing stakes at the four corners and in the center of each length. I staggered the post ends in a kind of running-bond pattern, so as not to create deepseams that might work their way apart over time. Four-inch deck screws hold the posts to one another, and the corners are further anchored with 5-inch-long lag screws. This hardware ensures that when the children inevitably use the bed walls as a balance beam, the posts won’t topple down.
    raised bed timbers laid out

    The timbers are laid out in the box pattern, leveled, and attached to the posts.

    raised bed staggered joints

    The timbers are laid in a running bond pattern. The corners alternate for additional stability.

  4. To deter burrowing critters like voles, I stapled lengths of black fiberglass window screening to the inside of the bed walls, overlapping the corners. The screening extends about eight inches into the ground. The voles have been minor problems in the past, so I hope the window screening will be enough to keep them at bay. Although I’ve seldom been accused of under-engineering a project, I opted for the screen over the much sturdier (and correspondingly expensive) hardware cloth, on the grounds that hardware cloth seemed a bit excessive for the threat presented.
    fiberglass window screening for raised bed

    Window screening, awaiting placement.

    fiberglass screening for raised bed stapled

    Window screening being stapled into place. I overlapped the corners, buried the ends, and trimmed away any excess.

  5. I removed the weeds present, broke up the heavy clay soil, and laid lengths of cardboard in the bed’s base. The cardboard will suppress weeds in the short term, until I can fill the bed with soil, and will break down over time and improve the soil’s tilth.

This bed is going to require more soil than I have to hand, so it’s time to order some quality compost.