Archive for the ‘Seasonal Tips’ Category

Not sure those seeds from last year are still good? Do a quick germination test to find out for sure.

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

If you are like most gardeners, you probably have tons of seeds from last year (and from years before!). Since different varieties have different “shelf lives”, you may want to do a quick germination test before you toss and reorder.

Wet a paper towel (moistened thoroughly but not sopping) and place 10 seeds on the top half. Fold the bottom over the top to cover the seeds and seal in a zip-lock baggy. Blow a little air into the bag so the seeds have a bit of oxygen, then put the bags in a dark place where you won’t forget to check them (I chose a kitchen cabinet).

Wait about a week (different varieties have different germination times — check the seed packet), peel off the top paper towel and count how many seeds have germinated. Fewer than 50% and you will probably want to re-order, 50% to 70% you would plant more thickly than usual, and over 70% and the seeds are as good as new!

Time to Start Planting Winter Veggies

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Ingredients for this salad were picked fresh from SWQV Garden on December 11, just a few minutes before this salad was composed: radicchio, brune d’hiver lettuce, little gem lettuce, sugarloaf chicory, Tuscan kale, turnip greens, curly endive, baby daikon (green lobo), Chinese beauty heart radish. Amazingly, they weren’t given any special protection like floating row covers or a cold frame: they are just naturally cold-hardy varieties.

Winter Garden: How to Time Plantings

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

There are even winter-hardy lettuces: this is Brune D'Hiver ("winter brown")

Unlike summer vegetables, which tend to be New World annuals (or tender perennials) like corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans and zucchini squash, most winter vegetables are Old World biennials which need to over-winter in order to flower and produce seed during their second year.

Old varieties of chicory, kale, many cabbage family relatives as well as root crops like radish, turnip & carrots have provided Europeans with fresh winter vegetables since ancient times. It is always fun to experiment with which varieties grow best in Philadelphia winters, but timing when to plant can be tricky.

When planning your winter vegetable garden, keep in mind that even frost-hardy plants slow and almost stop growing when there are less than 10 hours of daylight per day. In Philadelphia, which is longitude 40 degrees (same as Madrid, the “boot” of Italy, Greece and Denver) this happens November 11 through January 20.

Therefore, you want your plants to reach maturity before November 11, even though it is fine to continue to harvest through this “dark” period. Look at your seed packets for “days to maturity” and subtract that from November 11 to get the last date you can plant that particular variety. This will give you a general timeframe and a “last date” to plant, but of course you can always plant earlier, depending on heat and bugs and whether you have space to plant or have to wait till something else finishes producing.

The longest-maturing plants for me this winter are brussels sprouts and radicchio (90 to 110 days to maturity). My friend Amy is setting up gro-lights in her basement and we are going to plant this weekend (July 21-22). The plants should be big enough to put out in the garden before it’s time to start the kales & collards in late August (these take about 60 days to maturity). The reason we are starting seed indoors is neither of us has any unused garden space right now and we want to avoid harlequin bugs and the searing heat and drought of late July/August.

Direct-seeded things like carrots, winter lettuce & arugula can be planted in Aug/Sept, while turnips, beets & spinach go in Sept/Oct. A little mulch will give them additional winter protection. Winter spinach won’t germinate unless it is quite cool (look for a variety called Gigante D’Inverno — “giant of winter”), so it should be planted late (mid Oct or later).

There are many pleasures in winter gardening — the weather is cool and refreshing, the skies turn deep blue and autumnal, the bugs have closed up shop for the season, you seldom have to water — and the thrill of harvesting ingredients for a fresh salad in mid-December just can’t be beat!

And many winter-hardy plants get even sweeter and better-tasting after the first frosts: apparently sugar is a mild anti-freeze and many plants convert some of their starches to sugar with the onset of cold weather. Kale and collards are great examples of veggies that taste even better after they are kissed by a frost or two.

NOTE: My source on winter gardening is Eliot Colman’s Four-Season Harvest. Eliot grows veggies commercially in Maine throughout the winter in unheated poly-tunnels, but since Philadelphia is so much milder, we don’t have to bother with much of the paraphernalia that Eliot is forced to use.

NOTE2: Winter veggies you might consider: Arugula, Winter Spinach (has thick, extra-large, crinkly leaves), Cabbage (including the oriental cabbages), Kale (Tuscan & Red Russian are especially good), Carrots, Beets, Turnips (including oriental turnip and mustard greens), Winter Lettuces, Radicchio, Endive, Radishes (Daikon & Chinese “Beauty Heart” are an interesting change from the small red & white ones), all kinds of Chicory, Broccoli Rabe, Brussels Sprouts, Collards, Escarole, Sprouting Broccoli, Dandelion Greens, Garlic (harvest in the spring), Fava (harvest in late spring), Chard (your summer chard will survive the winter if you leave it in the ground), Peas & Snow Peas (a before-Christmas treat), and others which I don’t have the space to mention…

…Oh, and don’t forget that early fall is a great time to replant the cilantro and dill that went to seed and died during the heat of summer. If you have coriander seeds in your pantry, just plant those to get fresh coriander a.k.a. cilantro without having to order seeds. You can do the same with dill seeds if you have them.

–Barb Mc

Ways to Reduce Your Water Consumption this Summer

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

A working group comprised of Thom Hardenberg, Anne Seidman, Anne Harvey and Suzanne Schecter has been looking into ways to reduce water consumption this summer. Here are their recommendations:

Before you get to watering, here are some tips:

1. Amend your soil
Adding compost will both feed your plants and keep your soil draining properly. Sandy soils drain too quickly, while clay soils hold too much water. If the garden doesn’t have compost available, you can still get it for free from the Fairmount Organic Recycling Center in Fairmount Park.

2. Mulch
Covering the soil surface will slow evaporation, thus keeping the soil moisture level more even. Mulching with organic materials also adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. The biggest plus – mulching makes gardening easier by impeding the growth of weeds.

3. Weed
Those weeds aren’t just unsightly – they’re competing with your plants for moisture and nutrients. As long as they’re not diseased, you can throw them in the compost pile and help feed the garden.

Watering: the how, when and where

1. Water deeply and infrequently.
Deep watering promotes the development of a deep, extensive root system. Deep-rooted plants are better able to survive hot, dry weather.

Frequently, light sprinkling wastes water and does not aid the growth of your plants. Daily watering should be used only when starting seeds or caring for new seedlings.

How much should you water? It depends on temperature, rainfall, what you’re growing and what stage your plants are in. The best way to know is to stick your finger in the soil – it should be damp but not soggy. Give it time to dry out a little between waterings.

A deep weekly watering should be adequate for fruit, vegetable and flower gardens. Apply approximately 1 inch of water per week, depending on rainfall and temperatures.

2. Water in the morning.
A morning application allows the water to soak more deeply and evenly into the ground, and provides the plants water to face the heat of the day. It also allows any water on the leaves to dry, which can lower the spread of disease.

Watering mid-day is both wasteful and potentially harmful to your plants as the cool water can shock them.

Although some people prefer evening watering, be aware that it can sometimes lead to mildews, rusts and other diseases because the water sits on the plants and roots. If you prefer to water in the evenings, be sure to follow the next tip.

3. Water at the base of the plants.
Adding water at the soil line will distribute it evenly, encouraging a wider root system. Keeping the leaves dry can slow the progress of diseases such as the tomato fungus in the news the last few years.

For more information, check theses sites:
– Good information on composting, water saving techniques and critical water periods for plants: Colorado State Gardennotes
– Overview & list of critical watering times for vegetables: The Gardening Channel: Watering the Vegetable Garden

A Four Season Farm in Maine

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

Pauline sends this link from the NYTimes about Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s farm in Maine, where they use unheated greenhouses to raise crops in all four seasons.

Link to article, “Living Off the Land in Maine, Even in Winter”.

View Slide Show of Photos from Article.

End of Season

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here it is, the middle of October, and there’s some good and not so good things still going on in the garden. It’s been a strange year for the crops, some things doing great even if they ripen late, and some things not seeming to happen at all. There is a great crop of tomatoes that is literally rotting on the vine and on the ground.

Unharvested tomatoes rotting on the vine


It seems like such a waste , when we have a vehicle to collect this abundance and give it to those less fortunate than we.  After all the effort gone through to weed, plant mulch and water through the heat of the summer, it’s hard to make sense of this abandonment just when the “fruits” of all the labor are ready to be enjoyed.

It’s also too bad that folks are not visiting their plots with any regularity because there’s a lot of beauty all around. The fall flowers are beyond magnificent. The array of colors, shapes, and sizes is a joy to behold. Gwen and her helpers have turned our little urban lot into a botanical paradise. So come on out, pick your late crops and enjoy the late season beauty!

– Thom

Dahlias this year were spectacular

One Fine Day by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

Linda Witt found this wonderful essay called “One Fine Day” in the NYTimes. Luckily, we can link to it without violating copyright laws. As Linda observes, it is a lovely piece of writing, especially about bees.

Ruth Stout’s Extreme Organic Gardening

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Last fall when Linda Witt wrote ”A Garden Bedtime Story” about putting gardens to bed for the winter, she described her protagonist Ruth Stout as “a stubborn old Connecticut gardener…who believed that mulch was the cure to just about everything in the garden,  as well as a great preventer of aching backs and repetitive motion disorders in the gardener.”

“Ruth Stout’s Garden” is a lively film journey into the life of a woman who, from a perspective of more than ninety years, shows how easy it is to grow vegetables. This video gives insights into the early history of the organic gardening movement, and Ruth Stout’s advice is as timely today as when she was writing and lecturing back in the 1950′s.

HINT: If the video keeps stopping to rebuffer, just let it play thru while you do something else, then hit “replay” to watch without interruption.

The Great Corn Gluten Meal Experiment: A Memo by Linda Witt

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

There are several NON-organic “weed and feed” products on the market – but not for this garden, thank you. Instead we’ve found a totally organic pre-emergent that is so non-toxic it can even be used in pet food. Developed by Nick Christians at Iowa State University, corn gluten meal is the starchy protein-rich part of the corn kernel leftover after corn starch and corn syrup are removed. It works as a pre-emergent, by keeping newly sprouting seeds from developing a root system, yet it poses no harm to perennials, bulbs, or transplants such as tomatoes. We are hoping that using it will reduce the time we all spend trying to eradicate weeds.

The yellow powder – of which there are now two 40 bags in the shed — is perfect for using on paths and other common areas where weed seeds are abundant. As a pre-emergent, CGM is works for 5-6 weeks, but it feeds established plants for several months. The N-P-K ratio is 9-1-0 or 10 per cent nitrogen by weight.

How to use it:

• Weed out any obvious weeds that have overwintered or already spouted, and sprinkle CGM in their place. Most annual and perennials weed seeds sprout in spring or early summer, but some winter weeds may already be in existence.

• Sprinkle CGM along paths and fences, in the orchard, and in established flower gardens — EXCEPT where you will be planting seeds. Supposedly CMG can prevent bindweed (field morning glory), tradescantia (spiderwort), and various grasses and other weeds from establishing themselves.

• If it does not rain within five days of applying, water it in with approximately .25 inches of water.

• If you miss some weeds in pathways or along the fences, pull them when you see them and then reapply CMG. Be aggressive and we may not have to be aggressive next year.

• Reapply CMG in late summer as needed.

– Linda W

Winter Dreams & Seed Catalogs

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Dreaming over seed catalogs helps gardeners survive January and February when it is too cold outside to garden. Here are some of my favorite seed companies — please post a ‘comment’ if I am forgetting one of your faves and I will add it to the list.

The most beautiful seed catalog ever is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Baker Creek is fantastic source of heirloom seeds collected from all over the world by founder Jere Gettle and his wife Emilee. They carry some truly unusual seeds — including 49 varieties of eggplant and separate sections on American, Asian, and European melons.


Comstock Seeds is New England’s oldest seedhouse, dating back to around 1811. It has a colorful history which you can read about in the catalog (for example, they were the first to package seeds in paper packets the way we buy most of our seeds today). The company is in the process of being restored to its former glory and the catalog has over 250 heirloom varieties which were offered by Comstock Ferre over the years.


Seeds from Italy is the U.S. mail order distributor for Franchi Sementi of Bergamo, Italy — Italian seedsmen since 1783 and the oldest family-run seed company in the world. They specialize in traditional heirloom Italian varieties, selected over the years for good taste & productivity. The majority of Franchi’s vegetable seeds are still commissioned and continue to be produced in their home regions. Specialty seeds from Southern Italy are supplied by a small company in Andria, Bari. Their online catalog also contains recipes to help you “think like an Italian cook.”


Johnny’s Selected Seeds, based in Winslow Maine, is an employee-owned company with a huge catalog of vegetables, fruits, flowers, farm seed, herbs and very nice tools & supplies (they even have Eliot Coleman designed tools). They specialize in “organic” seeds and plant breeding (they developed Bright Lights Chard). Johnny’s was founded by Rob Johnston in 1973. Rob called his company Johnny Apple Seeds until he discovered that another company had copyrighted the name. Many SWQV Gardeners order seeds from Johnny’s.

Burpee Gardening is perhaps America’s most famous garden catalog. Founded in Philadelphia in 1876 by W. Atlee Burpee, who later bought Fordhook, a farm in Doylestown, and transformed it into a world-famous plant breeding facility. I look to Burpee for new varieties and hybrids (like the fabulous Brandy Boy tomato), although it is fun to think that many of Burpee’s “new” varieties have now become heirlooms — like their Fordhook Giant Chard, introduced in 1934 & now sold by both Burpee and by Seed Saver’s Exchange.

Seed Saver’s Exchange in Iowa is also an excellent organization with a great seed catalog! Heirloom seeds from around the world. They grow out most of what is in the catalog and if you become a member you have access to seed savers and their treasures from around the globe. Very cool! [recommended by Gwyn]

– Barbara Mc