Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun at the Independent Garden Center Show

Last week I attended the Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago. This tradeshow is for garden center owners to get a preview of the plants and products available for them to sell next year. There were also presentations and workshops for garden center people to network and share ideas. For a humble home gardener and plant geek like myself, it was like being a kid in a candy store.

Media attendees were encouraged to tweet their experiences from the show floor. I love tweeting from my chair at home, but ended up getting so engrossed talking with friends and vendors, and looking at a huge variety of plants, seeds, and gardening gadgets and goo-gaws, that I completely forgot to tweet. There was so much to see!

I loved the texture (much softer than you'd think) and color of this houseplant, Calathea lancifolia or rattlesnake plant. The undersides of the leaves are purple, and the plant grows to 30". If I had more space indoors and weren't a confirmed houseplant hata, I'd actually consider getting this!

Even though I love squirrels (my "problem children" are groundhogs and raccoons), and do not want to shoo them from my garden, this display for Cole's Flaming Squirrel Seed Sauce tickled me no end. The bloodshot eyes, the steam coming out of the ears ... classic.

I loved these retro-looking pieces from Garden Iron and More. They had trellises, gates, seats, plant hangers, and more, all very reasonably priced. I love rust in the garden.

Gardening personality P. Allen Smith was a keynote speaker at the conference. Despite his demanding schedule, he made himself available to bloggers and was very approachable and down to earth. Here Linda and I pose with Allen just before he signs complimentary copies of books for us. I picked P. Allen Smith's Container Gardens: 60 Container Recipes to Accent Your Garden, from which I'm sure to get a few ideas to add to the container gardening class I teach at WCC.

These are the new seed varieties for 2012 from Renee's Garden. I admit I had a bit of a fan-girl moment meeting her in person. I've been buying her company's seeds for a long time, and liked her ever since I saw her years ago on a segment on Gardening by the Yard. A super knowledgeable gardener and sower, but completely down to earth and real. I regret not having my wits about me to have my photo taken with her!

I'm not the biggest fan of petunias, but I really liked this Proven Winners combination of Supertunia 'White Russian' with the lovely dark and textured foliage of sweet potato vine 'Sweet Caroline Bewitched.'

Come back tomorrow for a post on my tour of Ball Horticultural Co.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Steamed & fried

We're just coming out of the hottest July on record, which means it was too hot and steamy to do much in the garden, except water. So I welcome August, look forward to the ripening of my 22 heirloom tomatoes, and the other bounty and blooms in my garden.

The beginning of August also means it's time for the monthly SeedGROW post!

Here's my little veggie bed in the sunniest area of my garden. I dug an edge for this bed and I'm testing three kinds of mulch for a veggie bed: pine straw, leaves, and straw.

Only 12 of my tomatoes are here (the rest are in containers out front), plus two tomatillos, two hot peppers, four basils, and a border of the SeedGROW marigolds 'Summer Splash.' They are all blooming now and the foliage is quite lush.

The basil 'Italian Cameo' is really rocking it out. The soil line is about two inches below the top of the pot, so there is even more foliage than visible in this shot. I really need to make pesto!

The lettuce 'Garden Babies' is a bit bigger than last month, but not yet ready for harvest. On either side are two varieties of Renee's "cut and come again" lettuce mixes, which 've been harvesting for about six weeks and which are still going gangbusters.

On the seed packet, the 'Summer Splash' marigolds all look like this one solid, lemon-yellow flower.

In my bed, though, only one flower looks lemon yellow like that. The rest are a more orange yellow with a darker orange hue. I don't know if they turn lighter as each flower ages, but I actually prefer this multicolored look. (I sowed them all at the same time into the same flat and am positive I didn't mix up seeds.)

As long as we're still here I want to show you my tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea aka Vernonia altissima). It is super tall this year (over 7 feet) because of all the rain we had early in the growing season. They're native to my region and I give them no supplemental water.

It can grow in any moisture condition, from dry to wet, and can deal with full sun to part-shade. Mine is in dry clay with morning shade and harsh, west afternoon sun — and look at it! I love this plant.

I'm growing with the SeedGROW project. Thanks to Renee's Garden for the seeds.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Growing potatoes in plastic bins

I don't have optimal soil or sun conditions, and a really full garden, so my space for a veggie bed is limited. A few years ago, I started growing vegetables in containers, sneaking them into sunny spots between perennials and shrubs, here and there throughout the garden. I've discovered many vegetables grow well in containers--tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, beets, turnips, squash, and even potatoes. Actually, especially potatoes! Here's how to do it.

First you need potatoes, ideally small ones which are better suited to the confined space of a container.  I select smaller varieties and grow them to maturity (harvesting about a week after the foliage has died back). Another option is to grow full-size potatoes but harvest them early as baby potatoes before they reach full size (about a week or two after flowers form).

Last year I grew 'Bintje' (above). This year I'm growing 'German Butterball,' 'Purple Peruvian,' and 'Red Norland,' all purchased as seed potatoes (the first three from Landreth, the latter from locally-owned Downtown Home and Garden).

Seed potatoes are not actual seeds; they're mature potatoes that we cut up and plant. If you get your seed potatoes a month or so before planting, store them in a cool, dry, dark place at about 50 degrees. (If you're storing potatoes throughout the winter, requirements are different. I'll write about that in fall.)

Some people purposefully wait for their seed potatoes to sprout before planting them. This is called chitting and is achieved by storing the potatoes in a dry place at room temperature a week or two before planting. Chitting shortens the amount of time it takes the potatoes to sprout and mature. Some of my potatoes chitted accidentally because my storage area wasn't cool enough. I found it a bit difficult to handle and cut the potatoes without breaking off some of the sprouts.

Whether or not your eyes have sprouted, cut the seed potatoes into pieces so there are three eyes (or buds) per piece. Note: Dark potatoes like this 'Purple Peruvian' will stain your fingers, but it washes off easily.

You can use any large container, provided you drill drainage holes into the bottom. I use plastic storage bins because they're lightweight and inexpensive. They're on sale now for back to school and will be again after the holidays. I got the one shown here at a big box for $4 after Christmas.

My bin is 18" deep, 18" wide, and 25" long, and I wouldn't go any smaller than that, especially not in depth. I drilled holes (7/32" bit) along the bottom edges and in parallel rows, lengthwise. You do not need the lid. I move mine around the garden as a weed suppressant.:)

For filler, I like a 70/30 combo of compost and a good soil mix. The City of Ann Arbor gives out free compost in spring, so I load up there. You can adjust the ratio for your own needs. Potatoes don't need rich soil, but I think they grow much better in a container with it.

Fill your container about a third with your soil/compost mix. Plant each potato piece so it's sitting about an inch from the bottom of the tub and is covered in the rest of the soil. Plant so a cut edge is facing down and the eyes are facing up. I want to tell you I planted the pieces 6 inches apart, but it was likely more like 3 inches. I varied the planting depth a little, to create more space.

Potatoes like full sun, so if you have it, great! If you don't, don't worry. Potatoes are forgiving. Once my trees leaf out, my bin only gets four to six hours of a sun a day and the potatoes did fine.

Here is the bin with the potato pieces planted. This year, I also planted in a potato sack, which my mother wasn't using. The instructions are the same, except you don't need to drill holes because the material is porous, and not as many potatoes fit into it. Otherwise, results were the same.

In-ground potatoes can be planted when soil temperatures reach 45F. I plant mine in the bins at the end of April here is southeastern Michigan, where the last frost date is mid-May.

I water my potatoes once a day, like I would any container. Don't worry if your potatoes don't grow evenly at first. The shorter foliage will catch up in a few weeks.

The heights have evened out now at about 8 inches tall. At this stage, you want to add more soil into the bin, which is the same concept as mounding soil around a plant growing in the ground. Add about 2 inches of soil mix, being careful not to break the stalks.

As the potato stalks grow, keep adding more soil into the bin in stages. This is not an exact science; I add 2 inches each time the foliage gets to be about 8 inches over the soil line. When you've added enough soil to be about 2 inches from the top of the bin, stop filling it. You need at least that amount of clearance so that water has a place to collect without overflowing in heavy rainfalls.

Eventually the potatoes flower (these are 'Peruvian Purple'), bees pollinate, and the potatoes grow.

After about three months, you'll notice that much foliage is still growing, but some has died back. Potatoes are ready to harvest a week or two after the foliage is dried out!

Carefully dig in the areas where foliage has died, leaving the remaining stalks intact. There's nothing I like more than sticking my arm elbow deep in warm earthy compost and rooting around for potatoes. And it's so much easier than digging.

Ta da! My first potato of 2011, a 'Red Norland,' harvested on July 27. They are so good eaten right after harvesting--I ate this one raw, like an apple.

I'm going to do a second planting in the next few days, as soon as I harvest everything currently in the bin. I'm not sure if there's enough time for a second harvest, but I'm going to see what happens. Three months from now will be Halloween. Since potatoes can handle some cold, I'm hoping they will finish by then. I'll let you know.

Another advantage to growing in a bin is you don't have to worry about crop rotation. I dump the compost/soil mix onto my veggie bed at the end of the season, wash the container with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach, and fill it with fresh soil next year. I can use the same container over and over again, and I save some potatoes to start next year, too.