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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Can You Afford Not To Garden?

In times like these can you afford not to garden?

The other day I was thinking about the actual value of a garden. What do you get out of it? Not just the sense of satisfaction of eating the greatest tomato ever grown. That's pretty valuable in itself. Not just the pleasure of being able to boast to friends and neighbors about how well your garden has grown, and more importantly how much better it did than theirs. What I'm talking about is money. The bottom line. It's no secret that the world is in a state of depression, an economic one, and maybe the other kind of depression too. With the media always telling us about the new unemployment rates and how dismal our future is, it's easy to get a little down. One easy thing you can do is to start considering your garden as an asset. Something positive and uplifting that actually saves you money because it can.

Let's Analyze.

My favorite way to garden is through raised beds. That's no great mystery if you've looked at my garden layouts or the pictures from past posts of my vegetable garden. Raised beds are simply the easiest way for people to garden. If you want to know about the benefits of a raised bed garden take a look back at this post I wrote last year. You don't have to do much to make a raised bed garden. It can be made from wood, stone, pots, or even just mounds of earth. The last method is the simplest and the cheapest. Raised mounds made from compost and soil can do great but let's look at the kind in my garden for purposes of an in depth analysis. Construction materials for building one 4'x8' raised bed out of wood including a few screws to hold it together and dirt won't run above $25. It would be even less if you have an available supply of compost and soil. You could even do what I did to fill my beds, use layering. I gathered grass clippings, newspaper, composted manure, and topsoil and layered them to fill each bed. You can call it "Lasagna Gardening" if you like but that's just another name for layering materials. Before you begin designing your raised beds may want to read this post.

To continue our analysis we need to pick some seeds for our subject and what better garden plant is there than the tomato? A packet of 30 tomato seeds will run under $2. Not all the seeds may germinate and you might lose a few to fungal diseases or critters (darn rabbits) but you can't fit 30 tomato plants into a 4'x8' bed anyway. What you can fit is somewhere between 6-8 plants. I managed to fit 13 plants that produced very well into two beds, one 4'x4' and a 4'x8'. The indeterminate kinds ended up rambling over the borders of the garden, kind of like my typing right now but did very well in the end. Now back to the subject at hand! Other expenses for the garden include watering and time. I looked back at our water bills last year and they were about $10 per month higher between May and October. We were watering 6 raised beds (2-4'x8',2 4'x4', and 2 4'x6') with a total area of 144 square feet and tolerating a leaking toilet that I was too lazy to fix until recently. The 4'x8' bed is 32 square feet. When you adjust the cost of water for that one bed proportionally you get a watering cost of about $2.22 cents per month or $.56 per week.

How the garden compares to the store.

When you go to the store to buy tomatoes you are generally looking at a $1.99 per pound amount for tomatoes. Once the tomatoes begin to produce you could easily be bringing in 5-10 pounds of tomatoes a week. Assuming we have 6 oz. varieties we are talking about 13-27 tomatoes each week. That is pretty reasonable for a garden with 6-8 tomato plants. Each plant would be responsible for making 2.16-3.75 tomatoes per week. If anything my estimate on the yield is low and would go much higher.

Have I lost you yet?

Hopefully you're still with me. If you take that $1.99 pound rate from your friendly neighborhood grocery store and apply it to your tomatoes (5-10 pounds) you end up with $9.95-$19.90 in value. You may not buy 5-10 pounds of tomatoes at the store each week but the the value of your produce equals the store's. As we found this past year that having fresh tomatoes replaced other items from the grocery store.

When you back again at the expenses you see that the total cost of your raised beds is around $22 and watering will cost you about $.56 a week (By the way we did have drought conditions last year so water costs could vary). After three weeks of produce you have paid off your initial investment in the garden and have begun to make a profit.

The only problem with this analysis is that it most people won't be buying 10 lbs of tomatoes a week, but if you are fond of tomato sauce and like to save tomatoes through freezing or canning you will see a cost savings benefit from that large tomato yield throughout the year and not just over the summer. You can apply nearly any vegetable to a similar analysis if you wish. I didn't include any fertilization or pest control prices because I really didn't need to use much. The compost fertilized our garden very well and when I had bug problems I used insecticidal soap.

You may decide you don't want 6-8 tomato plants in you garden bed and that's OK, you can plant all sorts of vegetables that will save you money over the course of the season. A raised bed is a very cost efficient way to garden and in these economic times we are all looking for a way to save a few bucks!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Finally, the Sun

It's been days since we've seen any sign of the sun. He was back today and even a little yesterday. I don't think I'm alone in missing my friend the sun, am I?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Surprise, Surprise, Hyacinths on the Rise!

The other day I was out and about (as happens often) when I was surprised by the sight of a couple hyacinths coming up. It's not that I'm surprised that the hyacinths are emerging but rather that I didn't realize they where there to begin with! This would be one of those time where plant labels would have come in handy like the folks over at Gardening Gone Wild are talking about this month. Even a road map (planting map) would have helped, or a little list of where stuff is and what is in each garden bed. A list, now why didn't I think of that earlier?

You might be wondering how I lost my hyacinths. I was too at first but then I remembered Valentine's Day 2008. I've never been one to purchase dead flowers to give away. Sure I've done it before but there seems to be something morally wrong about buying plants that are destined to die. But since the plants live to grow more flowers and are specifically grown for cuttings it's really just a preference in my head. I suppose it's the idea that I couldn't plant them in the garden that seems wasteful. Anyway last year I bought a pot of hyacinths for my wife. Their heady fragrance filled our house until the blooms faded and afterward I moved the plant to the garage where I promptly forgot about them. A while later (a month or two, I'm not really sure it could have been longer) I finally took the bulbs from the pot and put them in the garden. I wasn't very optimistic about the hyacinths as I had neglected them for a while but planting them was worth a shot. If they were dead I was adding organic matter, if not I was getting more blooms next year.  Then gardening got busy.  Months of projects, posts, planning, planting and propagating ensued and the little spring blooming hyacinths were forgotten.

During my patio project I built a landscape timber border around one of the gardens and that is where this unfortunate hyacinth happened to be. It will be fine. It should be fine. I hope it will be fine. The hyacinth seems to have managed to poke its head out just enough to grow.  Needless to say it will need moved after it blooms and fades which may require some creative digging.

Maybe I should make formal lists of each garden where my plants are so I don't bury them underneath landscaping implements.  They do seem to accumulate rapidly. A feat that my wife, no doubt, can attest to.  Time to start making lists!

Russian Ghost of Summer's Past

I was outside on Tuesday afternoon walking around the yard while a thirty minute window in the clouds opened to allow the sun to shine down. It was a short respite from the rainy weather but this time of year any respite is a good respite. While walking about I was struck by how white the stalks of the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) were. They were ghosts of their former selves but not unattractive. Wispy multi-branched stems rest in front of the hollies in the front porch garden and along the front sidewalk garden patiently waiting for the growing season to begin.

I have never considered them as plants for winter interest but perhaps I should.  The pale ghostly white shade of the branches would be very unique planted next to the bright red of a red twig dogwood. They will need a pruning before they start growing but for now I'm enjoying my garden ghosts.  I may have to try and see a how a few more propagated Russian sages would look like in the Winter Garden.  Their summer color is fantastic and I'm always looking for a good excuse to propagate a few more!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Heuchera 'Dale's Strain' or is it?

Over the last year I've been enthralled with heucheras. I see a new one and I have to add it to the garden! If you are looking for a versatile foliage perennial then definitely take a look at the heucheras (Coral Bells). There are many varieties so far I have at least 5 different kinds in my gardens. The last one I purchased was at the end of the fall season and was labeled 'Dale's Strain'. I bought two, one of which I divided into two, but unfortunately I'm not entirely sure that the label was the correct variety. I have no doubt that it is a Heuchera villosa of some kind but 'Dale's Strain' seems to have more green in the foliage.

This heuchera seems to have a more peachy purple tone to its leaves than 'Dale's Strain' would.  I didn't buy the plant because it was labeled 'Dale's Strain' but because of its foliage.  You can see even in winter it retains a nice creamy color with interesting veining.  What is great about heuchera is how forgiving they can be with light. They work well in dry shade and full sun, you can't say that for every plant!

This to me looks much more like Heuchera villosa 'Tiramisu', which incidentally I like the sound (and taste) of much better! What do you think? About the plant, not Tiramisu!

More on Heuchera:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Garden Fence...

I've mentioned that with my newly redesigned garden layout that I would like to put a fence around it. Partly to keep the rabbits and groundhogs out but also to add an air of formality around the garden. I have two ideas in mind that I'd like to gather some opinions about. In the drawing below I have a standard picket fence on the left side and a capped picket fence on the right.  The pickets on the right would be framed in by the rail cap and wood on the bottom. 

The posts on the corners will hold hanging baskets or some other fun item like hummingbird feeders and will be capped with a solar light post cap. These little gadgets are pretty neat. They fit on to a standard post and absorb energy through the day and release it at night as light.  I just thought it would be cool to see the outline of the garden in the darkness. Alternately I could hang solar lanterns from the hangers on the posts.  The front and the back of the garden would be the same.  The sides would not have the arbor but would have tall posts in the middle that would carry the same theme around the garden.

The rabbits might still be able to squeeze through the fence openings (at least the bunnies might) so I'll retain the wire mesh fencing I have around the garden right now to use on the inside of the new fence.

The fence will most likely be the big summer project as long as financing is available! Otherwise it may have to wait.  Either way it's good to have a plan ready to go. What do you think? Side A with the traditional picket fence or side B with the capped fence rail. (You can click on the picture to open it up in a larger window.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Few Seed Picks Over the Weekend

Over this weekend our travels found us at one of the local big box stores looking for shelving hardware for our downstairs closet (another project but not one that will make it to the garden blog).  While there I went through the seed kiosks looking for the plants that made my master list for seed purchases.  Now you're probably wondering what I picked.  Here's the list for my first seed purchase of the season:

  • Super Sugar Snap Pea
  • Pic-N-Pic Hybrid Summer squash
  • Burpee's Fordhook Zucchini
  • Yellow Pear Tomatoes
  • Sierra Gold Cantaloupe

  • Papaya Cream Nasturtium - Self Sowing Garden.
  • Giant White Moonflower - Front Porch Garden/Arbor near self-sowing garden (not built yet).
  • Kaleidoscope Mix Larkspur - Self Sowing Garden.
  • Salvia Blue Bedder, Mealy Cup Sage (Salvia farinacea) - Anywhere I can! You can never enough salvia!
  • Celosia - Near the mailbox garden and maybe in the self sowing garden.

There are still more seeds to purchase but I've gotten a little jump on things. Many of the flowers will go into the self sowing garden (as I've indicated above) and the vegetables will go into the newly redesigned vegetable garden. We searched for more Brandywine tomatoes but couldn't find them.  The store clerk said that they probably would have some as plants later but I almost always start everything from seed, especially tomatoes.  The only time I've ever bought tomatoes as plants was from a high school agriculture department sale. I was late one year with my pot garden and really needed tomatoes. I just enjoy the satisfaction of growing everything from seed. icon

Sunday, January 25, 2009

5 Steps for Making Seed Choices

This time of the year it seems like there are a million and one choices for seeds.  The catalogs have been rolling in at record paces enticing us with beautiful pictures of what we could have in our gardens but how do you figure out what you need to buy especially if your trying to save money?  The first step is to figure out what you have.  After you've done that you need to familiarize yourself with where you can find seeds and then you get to the fun part, selecting the seeds.  I have a 5 step process that works well for me that might help you too.

Steps for Selecting Seeds
  1. Peruse catalogs as they come arrive.
  2. Mark anything and everything I see that I might like.
  3. Write a master list of all the seeds I want.
  4. Eliminate anything similar to what I already have or can get through trades and fellow gardeners.
  5. Make the final list.

I spend several weeks examining the catalogs and seeing all the options.  I think it's necessary so that I can look impassively at the plants and objectively pick what I need.  The truth is there are very few things I need but there are plants that will suit various purposes and projects like my self-sowing garden.  

Nasturtium, sweet peas, and zinnias all made my list so I mark them in the catalog along with anything else I might want.  I do the same with the vegetables and even any perennials, shrubs and trees that may be present.  I mark everything that I have any interest in to put on my master list.  I won't purchase from every catalog but looking at all of them helps me to make a list for future purchases, trades, or propagation. 

Once I've marked everything I make a list with the plant names, catalog company name, and price.  Then I compare prices, quantity of seed, and varieties.  In the past I've even checked the per seed cost of each packet and compared them company to company.  I eliminate everything that I already have from other sources like seed trades, seed that I've collected or been given.  Then what's left on the list is my seed order.  This year's order will be small since I have many of the seeds I need already and have picked some new one's from various places.

It may sound complicated but once the information is written down it is very simple to make choices.  I hope this helps you to maximize your seed purchases!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Of Birds, Gardens, and Nature

My recent fascination with the snowy owl visiting our town isn't something new, I've always been interested in birds and wildlife. Gardening and nature to me are so closely woven together in the tapestry of life that you don't get one without the other, and if you do you're doing something wrong. Nature in all it's glory ultimately controls what the gardener is able to do and the gardener can only hope to influence the garden. I believe that gardeners are simply stewards of nature, we create a buffer between the human world and the wild world. Humans are a part of the world no doubt, our mark is evident in almost every area of our planet, but it's our duty to serve as guardians and wardens. When we work together with nature great things can be achieved.

We can invite the wild world into our gardens by encouraging birds, pollinators, and all kinds of wild creatures to visit us. With the open invitation to creatures of all kinds comes some measure of responsibility. Animals generally need to be left alone. My mind is torn into two parts in with the snowy owl. On one hand, I want to capture it in the best photo I could possibly get which would involve getting much closer to it than I have. On the other hand I know that I've come close enough and that moving closer would disturb the great bird and possibly frighten it away. It will leave our area soon enough but until then it needs to be allowed its space.

There are some simple things we can do as gardeners and stewards to help our fellow inhabitants of this big round green and blue ball that circles the sun. Providing food, shelter, and of course, space. Leave the creatures room to roam and be comfortable in their environment. Many gardeners even create natural woodland corridors that allow animals like deer to pass through. Gardeners can provide food in two ways, either set out food for the animals or plant plants that will nourish them. I prefer the second method for pollinators and hummingbirds and the first method for the birds. I don't intentionally feed squirrels as they have a way of helping themselves. Our bird feeders are on poles near our birdbath garden. In the birdbath garden I planted a butterfly bush that the birds love to use as a sheltered spot to flit back and forth to the feeders. They seem pretty happy. Trees and bushes provide shelter for nesting and food to creatures to consume.

For now I'll watch from a distance wishing I had a more powerful camera lens to get that perfect snowy owl shot. I'll let nature take its course as a good steward would do and hope that I can aid nature as I can. The wonder of something so unusual in our area has been very exciting and we'll miss the owl once he's gone back to the north. But I'll remember that all things in nature have their place.

Related Snowy Owl Posts:
A Spectacular Snowy Owl Photo
A Snowy Owl Story
Snowy Owl Visits Spring Hill, TN

A Spectacular Snowy Owl Photo

I got a few more pictures this morning of the Snowy Owl here in Spring Hill, TN from Pete.  The first one can only be described as spectacular with a sunrise in the background.  He also managed to get a  few close-ups!



Related Snowy Owl Posts:
A Snowy Owl Story
Snowy Owl Visits Spring Hill, TN

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Tennessee Snowy Owl Story

After my post yesterday about the Snowy Owl Visit to Spring Hill, TN, Pete sent me a few of his pictures of the owl. He was able to get much closer to the bird than I could and his pictures are fantastic! He prefaced the pictures with a story that I'll share with you in this post.

I am a wildlife lover, but never have been much of what I would call a birding specialist in any way.  I have spent a lot of my time over the years in the woods and have never had any encounters with Owls until about a month ago. 
The first was when my son and I were headed to the woods about a month ago.  Simple enough, the owl was on an electrical wire when we passed.  I backed up and he was gone.  Not a Snowy Owl, but in Maury County, TN.
The second was a couple of weeks ago when I was walking around in the woods when a big bird flew up about 10 yards in front of me into a tree.  It was a big brown colored owl similar in size to the Snowy Owl I have now seen.  I got some great looks at him, but no camera.  Also in Maury County, but I don't think it was a Snowy Owl.  I have now learned that the female Snowy Owl has more brown in its color, but I still do not believe it was a Snowy Owl.

I have been working at the GM plant for 14 years now and I am usually in the office before daylight, but this Wednesday, I was going in a little later.  I see a lot of Redtail Hawks around the sight and am always watching for them.  The sun was rising, but not yet up, when I came to my turn into my parking lot.  It was a beautiful orange radiant rising sun.  I noticed that there was a big bird on a light pole which I initially assumed to be a hawk, but it was too white.  Upon further inspection, I actually did the loop and came around a few times when I figured out it was a BIG white OWL.  I thought WOW, I have never seen anything like that before.  I went ahead and went into work after watching him for a while.  He actually flew down into a field and back up one time.  Later yesterday, my wife called me and said that my neighbor had stopped by and asked about the Snowy Owl on the GM site and I was shocked at the coincidence.  He is an avid photographer and takes a lot of photos of birds and the like.  This morning I was not working but decided to go with a camera and see if I could spot him again.  He was very close to where he was yesterday morning although it was about 8:30.  The attached shots are the best I could do with my snapshot digital camera, but there are some decent shots.
I may try to take my neighbor over and get some better pictures.  I think he has a 300 mm lens.  I was less than 50 yards or so from the light pole.  I hope you can share them and enjoy them.

Here are some of Pete's photographs of our local celebrity, the Arctic owl!

Thank you Pete for sharing your photos and story!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Snowy Owl Visits Spring Hill, TN

We've had an unusual visitor here in Spring Hill, TN.  A snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) flew in with the arctic air that's been hanging over our state.  I had heard rumors of the visiting bird through the Nashville news stations (OK that's a little more than a rumor) and set out today to investigate. My two girls and their grandma all piled in the car and drove over to the GM plant which is where the owl was said to be spending his vacation.  The first trip out to the field revealed no sign of the mysterious migrating bird.  After lunch we drove by once again and found our feathered friend frolicking in the field.  The problem was that he was so far away that all my attempts at pictures failed to produce a great shot.  My best pictures show only the little white mound of feathers. My 200 mm lens just wasn't able to capture the owl as he was just too far away. 

These owls are also known as Arctic Owls and Great White Owls and aren't usually found in our area.  The last reported sighting of a snowy owl in TN was in 1961.  They are predators of small rodents and other birds and are native to areas of 60 degrees latitude and further north.

If the bird is still around this weekend I may try to take a few more shots before it heads back north.  It's made quite a stir around the southern birding community as I've seen posts from people in Georgia and Alabama who have come to see the Great White Owl.  If you have pictures of the Owl that you would like show everyone, email me it to me to post up here on the blog.

Related Posts:
A Tennessee Snowy Owl Story

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vegetable Garden Layout Using Raised Beds

Last year we designed, built, and grew our first vegetable garden in our new home. The garden was made of two large beds that were subdivided into 3 smaller conjoined beds in an "L" shape. Unfortunately the vegetable garden layout we designed was built more around aesthetics than around function. Since then I've realized something: When designing vegetable gardens think function first aesthetics second.

The Raised Beds

The raised beds we were gardening in were all made of non-pressure treated pine as it is a cheap material devoid of the dangerous chemicals that can be found in some pressure treated lumber. The pine will eventually disintegrate but that will take a couple years and I can replace it with better materials as I can afford (i.e. cedar or redwood).

What I Didn't Like About The Raised Bed Layout

I don't like two things about my initial vegetable garden design. First of all it impaired my ability to move around the garden easily because there isn't enough space between the raised beds. Secondly the garden design was an inefficient use of space. Putting the raised beds into an "L" shape left some spaces that could have been better utilized. When planning a vegetable garden design always try to maximize your space. We'll dress up the outside of the garden along the fence and it will look great, the veggies can just be themselves! After all, it's what's on the inside (of the garden) that counts.

Our Vegetable Garden Layout

raised bed vegetable garden layout
The vegetable garden layout I have planned now will require some initial work for me but should payoff by saving me from some work in the future. My new garden design will make a more effective use of space in the garden. All the beds will be rectangular and will be spaced 2 feet from each other. The 6'x10' beds on the southern side (top of the plan) will be used for corn and beans this year and may be turned into raised vegetable beds next year. For now I'll just turn the soil, add compost, and plant in the existing ground. Down the center of the garden will be a 4 foot path through the raised bed area that will allow me to bring a wheelbarrow through easily. We'll eventually put a fence around the garden with two gates but I'll save our fence ideas for later.

The Garden Paths

I know many people object to using gravel for garden paths but I can't think of a better way to cover the walking areas inside the vegetable garden. The main disadvantage of gravel in the garden is that it tends to end up where you don't really want it (like in the grass, in the beds, in your shoes, etc.). Re-mulching paths each year isn't the best of options and the higher initial cost of gravel will prorate itself over time. I definitely don't want to have to mow in the garden!

The Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Plan

The vegetable garden project can be broken down into smaller parts to make it easier on the budget.
  1. Move the current raised beds and add new wood to create ends for each of the long beds.
  2. Add new wood to the smaller 4'x4' raised beds (currently layout) to turn them into 3'x4' beds. Should be able to make 4 of these sized beds with 2 2"x10"s and the current wood.
  3. Move soil. This takes time and effort but most of the soil is already there.
  4. Install the fence. I can't wait for this project, but I may have to as it will cost some dough. Too bad its not the other kind of doe as I seem to have those to spare!
  5. Lay a weed barrier for the gravel paths between the raised beds.
  6. Put in the pea gravel for the paths.

Looks like I have some work to do!

Before you begin building your raised bed vegetable garden here are 11 Things to Think About when designing a raised bed vegetable garden!
Look here if you are curious about the benefits of gardening in raised beds!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Signs of a Rooted Red Twig Dogwood

There is a kind of magic in making cuttings. Watching something as simple and unremarkable as a little twig come to life with roots and branches all of its own can only be fascinating to the gardener. Several weeks ago I planted my Winter Garden with various plants which included three red twig dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera). These little dogwoods were cuttings I made from another dogwood about a year ago. They were small little shrubs, but red twig dogwoods are vigorous growers in the right growing conditions (i.e. full sun and good moisture). Shortly after planting I went out to the garden and inspected it to find that a midnight raid by marauding rabbits had left multiple injuries to the dogwoods. The most irritating thing was that the rabbits didn't eat any of the dogwoods. They just clipped the tips of several branches and left them behind to die. I thought to myself "if you're going to dine on my plants at least have the courtesy to finish the meal!" At least that's what I thought then.

I took the cuttings and treated them with rooting hormone on the off chance that I could make lemons out of lemonade. I suppose in this case it would be trees out of twigs. I kept the cuttings in sand for a couple weeks and just noticed new growth beginning a couple days ago. This is an excellent sign of rooting! The leaves are opening to get nourishment from the sun to generate new roots, stems, and leaves. Most likely the roots have already formed and are actively drinking up the water it needs for the growth process. I won't chance checking any of the cuttings just yet as only two have leaves showing so far and I don't want to disturb any roots that may have formed underneath until I am sure that the cuttings have had enough time to root.

You can see in the pictures that the little leaves that are just beginning to emerge.  As the leaves develop and begin to absorb sunlight they will provide the cutting with more energy for growing stronger roots and more leaves.

While there is science behind this magical event it never fails to excite me when I see something new come alive.  If it wasn't for the rabbits I never would have taken the cuttings of the small red twig dogwoods. They had just better stay away from our tomatoes this spring!

Other Red Twig Dogwood Posts:
Red Twig Dogwoods and Why I Like Them
Making More Red Twig Dogwoods 
Red Twig Dogwood Propagation

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Seed Selection Process Part 2: Where Do I Find Seeds?

Where do I find the seeds for my gardening activities? Lot's of places! The most obvious location is in a store, either online or one of the old fashioned brick and mortar stores. The local Co-op always has seed to find as do the box stores (they have already begun putting out seeds for spring. You had better hurry they'll be putting out Halloween decorations soon!)

Aside from these obvious choices one of the best places to find seed is from your gardening friends! Gardening fanatics collect seed like baseball fans collect baseball cards. Rare seeds are met with the same excitement as a rare Mickey Mantle card found in an old shoebox in the attic, but any seed that you like is a great find! A quick search online with Google will find all sorts of seed swapping forums where you can find nearly anything you're looking for if you look long enough.

Just recently I made a donation to the American Horticultural Society to participate in their seed swap. You can donate what you wish but with a small donation of $5 you can get 10 varieties of seeds. If you do the math that comes to $.50 for each packet, a deal you just can't find in stores. These are all seeds that other gardeners around the country have gathered and sent in as donations. With that donation I should receive seeds from the following plants:

Panicum virgatum (a native Switch Grass)
Cleome hassleriana (Spider Flower)

Cosmos bipinnatus (2 varieties)
Salvia coccinea
Verbena bonariensis
Zinnia elegans (8-10 inch zinnias)
Zinnia linearis (6-12 inch zinnias)
Rudbeckia fulgida

As alternates I chose an Amaranthus caudatus (Love Lies Bleeding) and another type of Cleome hassleriana. I try to find my seeds through seed swaps and trades before I go searching the catalogs. This helps me to keep the cost of seeds down a little. After all, I have to have money to buy more plants for the garden!

I prefer to purchase vegetable seeds from the stores as home collected seeds have a greater chance of hybridization through cross pollination. Of course you might end up with an interesting specimen that way. One year a tomato plant grew from our compost bucket on the back porch. As an experiment we planted it in a pot and let it bear fruit. The tomatoes were some of the best we had that year but they sure looked strange! I think they were a cross between a cherry tomato and a slicing tomato.

There are lots of options for finding seeds and you don't always have to go to the stores!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seed Selection Process Part 1: What Do I Have?

It's January but if you are like me you've been rapidly perusing the seed catalogs about as fast as they come in looking for new and exciting plants for this year. It seems that each day a new plant catalog comes in the mail and I see all kinds of plants that I'd love to have in my garden, but the sad truth is I don't have the space or the money for everything. I have to think and plan ahead and now is the best time to start that process. The first step in my seed selection process is to figure out what I have. Ideally I would record every seed packet and envelop that I collect as I get them. Whether it is laziness or a state of perpetual busyness that just doesn't happen. My alternative is to spend a couple hours cataloging everything I have sometime during the winter and well before I need to order seeds. I accomplished this monumental task the other day and was astounded at the amount of seed I've collected some of it dating back to 2003 when I gardened on our back porch in a pot garden. (Nothing illegal there, I promise!) The likelihood that the 2003 seed is still viable is low but some seeds can remain viable for long periods of time.

When going through my seeds I did a couple of things to make it easy to figure out what to order later. First I categorized the seeds by vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals. I also made a category for collected seeds which includes the various seeds I've gathered and stored myself. This made four easy categories to group my seeds into. Under each category I wrote the pertinent information about each seed which included the kind of seed it was (in some cases both the common name and taxonomic name as well as the variety), the year it was purchased, and in some cases how many seeds I had left. I used the last notation for only a couple varieties where I only had a few seeds remaining. That will just help me to figure out if I want to purchase more of that variety again to restock.

In the end I tallied up enough seeds to cover 5 notebook pages from top to bottom with 114 kinds of seed.  Most of what I have is vegetable seeds but I had a surprising amount of ornamentals and herbs.  Many of the ornamentals were gathered from plants and not purchased which is a great way to maintain an economical garden

How does this help me?  If I look at the tomatoes I can count 8 varieties of seed that I can plant already in my collection: Big Boy, Brandywine, Viva Italia (Roma), Roma VFN, Better Boy, Beefmaster, and Supersweet 100 VF.  After looking at my notes I can see that the Roma VFN and Better Boy came from 2004-2005 and I only have 7 seeds left of the Brandywine.  Since I have the Viva Italia in my collection I don't need to worry about the Romas not being viable and since we have the Big Boy variety I'm not worried about the Better Boy.  They aren't exactly the same but I didn't plant the Better Boy at all last year and really didn't miss them!  My only concern with the tomatoes is the Brandywine seeds, with only 7 seeds I may need more.  Not necessarily for myself but I like to grow a few extras to give away, and the Brandywines tasted great last year.  By looking at my notes I can see that I may need more Brandywine seeds (which are heirloom tomatoes) and I may want to experiment with some new tomato variety.

If I can possibly get more organized (don't we all say that!) I can get my notebook together and actually write important information about the varieties of seed.  Notations and details could be very helpful like: "Brandywine is a late performer", "attracted bugs", "produces more squash than we can eat, plant fewer," or "so good the neighbor ran off with the tomato crop in the dead of night, set up alarm system next year".

Now that I know what I have I can move to the next step in my seed selection process!

Making the Worm Bin Part 1

Part of my worm bin composter is finished.  This really is a very simple project that anyone can do at home.  To complete this part of the composter it only took about 30 minutes which also included the time to gather the materials and to put them away.  Since the weather outside this week is terribly cold this makes a good indoor project to help ease that gardening itch.

I found the basic idea at the Washington State University Extension service.  Their site demonstrates a two tray compost bin but if you look the commercially available worm compostering systems have 3-5 expandable sections.  I decided to start small and I prepared three plastic containers. The total cost of these was around $15-$18.  Your cost may vary due to your local taxes, our sales tax in TN is higher than most.

I followed the instructions and used a 1/4 inch bit to drill about 20 holes in the bottom of the three containers.  This was easy work but tedious when you consider that I drilled somewhere around 60 holes between the three boxes.

The next step was to take a 1/16 inch bit and drill in air holes around the tops of the containers.  Just like us the worms have to breathe!  I drilled two rows of air holes along the top.  I wasn't sure how many to holes to make.  In the end I probably drilled 30 or more air holes on each side of the containers.

The last step in this part of the process was ventilating the top lid.  I used the 1/16 inch size bit and drill a bunch of holes.  Bunch is a technical term that really means "I have no clue since I didn't count but it seemed like a lot."

Here's how they will fit together.  One bin on top of the other.  These particular containers will hold up to 10 gallons of compost and worms.  Once the worms finish with the yummy compost in the bottom bin they will work their way up to the next bin by traveling through the 1/4 inch holes.  Then I can remove the bottom container and allow the second bin to take its place.  Each week to week and a half our family produces enough green compostable kitchen scraps to fill a 3 gallon nursery pot.  I'll give the worms what we can then put the rest in our backyard compost bin. 

I need to rig up a way to catch the liquid runoff from the worm bin.  That will be my next project with the worm bin but it will have to wait until warmer weather.  The garage is just too cold to work in right now!

Of course you could always try the store bought worm bins but the homemade kind will definitely save you money and should be just as effective!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Blooms, Buds, Branches, and Bark

What do winter blooms, buds, bark and branches all have in common?  You will have to look at the end of this post to find out.  See if you can guess!

The Winter Blooms

The henbit in our area is beginning to show signs of blooming.  Masses of little tiny flowers will over take yards creating a purple carpet for spring.

The lone cultivated plant I could find blooming was our Mediterranean White Heath (Erica x darleyensis).

It's tiny white blossoms are just beginning the winter time show.   These little plants will flower well into spring.

Do you recognize this dandy flower?  This little flower brightens up yards and landscapes everywhere.  It's very easy to propagate by seed! I don't think I'll be putting any in my self-sowing garden.

The Buds

The leaf buds of a maple at rest waiting for the signal to grow new leaves. 

The Branches

This tangled mass of branches belongs to a weeping cherry tree.  When the leaves are gone it's interesting to look at the shape and form of trees.

The Bark

Here's the bright white bark of a Himalayan White Birch also known as a Jacquemont Birch (Betula jacquemontii). It grows up to 50 feet tall with a spread of about 35 feet.  It's a relatively fast growing tree and consequently has a fairly short lifespan.  It's also susceptible to borers but its bark is worth chancing their bite. 

So what do all these things have in common?

They are in this post for January's Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!

*edit: All the plants in this post are at my parent's house except for the Mediterranean White Heath!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Winter Tapestry of Light

The cold weather combined with morning clouds and the light of a new dawning day create a genuine tapestry of light. 
Six minutes later (after scraping the ice off my wife's car) the sky changed palettes to include more gold.   Mother Nature's paintings are ever changing which is probably why we appreciate them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Worm Bins for Vermicomposting

In order to raise worms for worm composting (vermicomposting) you have to have a place to put the worms and the kitchen scraps. There are all kinds of composting bins that can be effective but they all work on the same idea. A box houses the worms, kitchen scraps, and bedding. As the worms eat they make their way through the box creating castings. If the composter is a tray system (like the examples in the pictures) the worms will finish in one tray then work their way into the next tray. The finished tray can then be cleaned out and the compost used in the garden or used to make compost tea. It's a pretty creative system. Simple and efficient!

The bins even have a valve at the bottom to let out the liquids. You can use that liquid to water plants.

So which of these choices will I pick?

The answer is none of the above! There's a cheaper way to do it that just takes a little assembly. Take a look here at Washington State University's Extension Service's instructions on how to build a homemade worm bin. I have a few ideas to add to my worm bin that I'll share as I begin the worm bin assembly process!

If you want more information about the worm compost bins above click on the pictures to see the details at Amazon.

Middle Tennessee Garden Event Calendar 2009

Here's a list of this year's gardening events that you don't want to miss! Click on the links for more information

Nashville Lawn and Garden Show - March 5-8, 2009
Bloom 'n' Garden Expo - April 3-5, 2009
Perennial Plant Society Plant Sale - April 4, 2009
Middle Tennessee Hosta Society - Annual Hosta Sale - May 9, 2009
Middle Tennessee Spring Plant Swap - May 16, 2009

Middle Tennessee Fall Plant Swap - October 17, 2009
Nashville Natives Fall Plant Sale - October 16-17, 2009

There's a nice calendar of gardening events over at The Tennessee Federation of Garden Club, go check it out!

If you would like to add your garden related event to this list please email me at The Home Garden. and I'll add it to the list.

Earthworm Superheroes

Several years ago I used to watch a cartoon called Earthworm Jim. (Yes I'll admit I watched cartoons in college!) It was based on a video game that I never played but I guess was somewhat popular at the time.  In the cartoon Earthworm Jim was a space traveling superhero worm valiantly ridding the universe of bad guys like Professor Monkey-For-A-Head and Evil the Cat.  Great names for super villains don't you think?  While inside his suit he could accomplish everything a normal person could.  He had arms and legs and carried a laser gun.  OK maybe normal people don't carry laser guns but I think you get the point.  Earthworm Jim, along with the Tick (another super-silly superhero cartoon about a super strong yet dimwitted superhero dressed in blue) was just a humorous work of fiction, after all earthworms aren't superheroes right?  Of course they are!

Earthworms are the superheroes of the garden. They are planet Earth's composters taking organic materials and turning them into something even better than gardener's gold, worm poop!  Worm poop, also known as worm castings and vermicompost, has so many beneficial microbes inside that it is like compost on steroids.  The bacteria in the castings coming out is in a much greater quantity than the material that went in and that is great news any plant lucky enough to have the castings spread near them.  The castings also act as a great soil conditioner improving the moisture holding capacity of the soil. By using worm castings you are feeding the soil not the plant which is exactly what you are supposed to do.  The plants take the nutrients from the soil whereas the synthetic water soluble magic blue colored water will get your plants drunk on artificial nutrients and deposit salts into the soil.  Salt isn't good for plants! 

I've decided to give worm composting a try.  There are fancy worm composters you can purchase online through various retailers at a range of prices but there are also some inexpensive options out there.  I hope you'll follow along on yet another of my gardening projects over the next couple of weeks: Vermicomposting!

Monday, January 12, 2009

One Year Ago I Was...

...digging the rain garden. I looked back at the January 12, 2008 post to see what I wrote about one year ago. During that week I was heavily entrenched (forgive the pun) in digging the rain garden. Today I'm very pleased with how well it functions. This January we've had at least 3 inches of rain so far, possibly more, and the rain garden has absorbed 100% of the rainfall. It will easily handle 2 inches of rain every 24 hours. The plantings need more work. I wasn't happy with the zinnias I put there. They looked great but grew too tall for the spot. The rudbeckias did well but most of the other plants were small perennials that really needed another growing season to get established. I'll show it's progress more this spring but here are the posts I put together one year ago about the rain garden's construction.

The First Step to Recovery
Digging the Rain Garden
The rain Garden is Almost Done

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Self Sowing Plants for the Garden

As previously mentioned in my 2009 garden project list I am working on a self sowing garden. I mentioned the advantages to a self sowing garden earlier in the week and my own personal reasons for wanting to plant it and now it's time for the next step...seeds. But first, what are self sowing plants? Since plants generally reproduce from seed aren't they all self-sowing? Technically I guess that fits the definition but what people generally assume to be self sowing plants are those that self seed very easily or very reliably. Plants like rudbeckias and cosmos are great examples as they flower prolifically then seed very well. Here is my long list of self sowing plants that I will pick from when choosing the plants to start my self-seeding garden. I'll be weeding the list down a little smaller soon. I left off a couple plants that I plan to include due to a more unreliable reseeding nature like zinnias, sunflowers (won't reseed since the birds will eat them but might otherwise), and Russian sage (I can't help it I'm addicted to Russian sage).This list contains mostly self seeding annuals (at least here in Tennessee) but a few of them may comeback with a mild enough winter.

Self Sowing Plants

Bells of Ireland
Coneflower (Echinacea)
Morning Glory

Salvia (Clary Sage)
Sweet Pea
Verbena bonariensis

Many of these plants are great for the birds and wildlife which is always a bonus!

I added a link to the University of Wisconsin's Horticulture page about the Bells of Ireland.  I've never tried it in the garden as the seed I started last year died as seedlings due to damping off.  I'll be giving it another shot this year. It is said to self-seed if the dried flower stalks are allowed to stay on the plant.  That means no cut flowers for the Bells of Ireland! Or at least just a few!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Front Sidewalk Garden View From September, a Look Back

I was looking back at photographs of the past year in the garden and found these shots of the front sidewalk garden. When the weather is cold and rainy outside it's nice to look back sometimes and see how things were where they were in bloom.

The sidewalk skirts the garage portion of our house and takes you up to the front porch (beginning sidewalk garden layout). While walking along the front sidewalk in September you would have passed by the red mums and our endlessly blooming, no not hydrangea, 'Oranges & Lemons' gaillardia! I can't say enough good things about gaillardia, which is also known as a blanket flower. Our butterfly magnet bloomed until the end of the growing season. Even after the blooming was done the seedheads continued to provide us with fun little globes to look at. The gaillardia is still green, not all of it, but most of it.

You would also pass by the sedum garden on the right. You can barely see it in the picture but it's there. The 'Blue Spruce' sedum and a little 'Autumn Joy' are peaking out for their photos. Directly oppisite of the sedum garden is a garden with liriope and daylilies. None of the daylilies bloomed last year. It was probably becaus ethey came in a box and were very young plants. I'm expecting an awesome show next year. Let's just hope I'm not disappointed. I mentioned this little garden spot once before in a post of its own but blogger got hungry and ate my homework.

While on your trip down the sidewalk you might see the spikey silver green foliage of the irises. Or the grassy foliage of the daylilies. To the left you would see the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). To say that Russian Sage is a power bloomer would be putting it mildly! These drought tolerant and sun loving perennials bloomed all summer and well into the fall. The pollinators loved them. I may stick a couple Russian sages in my self seeding garden. That may be cheating, but who cares, they look great and I can propagate them over and over again. (Actually it may not be cheating since they can provide seedlings.)

If you look close enough you can see the salvias (Salvia nemorosa) I propagated in spring blooming. These salvias began small but managed to display nice bloom stalks by late summer. On the far end of the sidewalk the rosemary was doing well as an edible ornamental while the butterfly bush was peaking out from beside the front porch.

The front sidewalk garden came a long way! Now what can I do with it next year? Hmm...

Pay no attention to the dandelion. He is just a figment of your imagination. Really. Nothing to see here. Yep no dandelions. Just pretty green grass.