Even people, who do not think of themselves as ‘vegetable gardeners’ grow tomatoes because almost everyone loves that great ‘homegrown’ taste of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Besides growing tomatoes in the traditional vegetable bed, they have been grown in containers, hanging baskets, stuck in their own forty-pound bag of soil, and raised in herb and flower gardens .

The tomato is a charming fruit declared a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893, and one that inspires passions among many gardener, sending them on an unending quest for the best tasting tomato, the earliest ripening or the biggest fruit or largest yield. Many growers helped develop the many variations found in the tomato varieties now available. Hybridizers developed tomatoes for their sweet flavor, meaty texture, yellow color, pear shape, or type of usage.

Its history is just as bewildering. Early European explorers in South American took the tomato plant to Europe sometime before 1544. It was considered poisonous because of its relation to deadly nightshade, which as it name suggests, is a lethal poison. The tomato earned the name Pomme d’Amour, or Love Apple, which gives an interesting insight into personal relationships of the sixteenth century. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, nightshade and jimsonweed all come from the Solanaceae family. We now know to eat the tomato raw only when fully ripened or to cook the green tomato, which breaks down the alkaloids that make it poisonous.

A warm season crop, tomatoes grow best in temperatures between seventy and seventy-five degree and won’t grow well until those conditions are reached. A touch of frost quickly kills them, so plant them after danger of frost is past. Garden centers sell many mechanical devices such as crop caps and ‘walls-of-water’ to protect plants set out earlier in the season. The best sites have rich soil that is slightly acidic with at least six hours of sun a day. Black plastic or straw or other mulch put around the soil helps keep the soil warm in cool weather. Tomatoes need watering once a week and the soil fertilized several times during summer. There are manuals and books galore on growing tomatoes that give more in-depth information than presented here.

Due to the diseases which tomatoes are susceptible to, it is best if you do not grow tomatoes in the same spot every year but rotate where they are grown for a series of four years. For the same reason you should never smoke around tomatoes, or handle them after handling cigarettes.

For the hunter of exotic of heirloom varieties, tomatoes are easy to grow from seed and are available from many catalogue and retail sources. When shopping for seeds or plants, look for short-seasoned tomatoes (quick ripening) for areas in colder zones, and select hybrids with the most disease resistance. The plant label should give you this information.

During the growing season you might have to protect your ripening tomatoes from local wildlife as many enjoy tomatoes as much as we do.  Also, if you see huge green caterpillars known as the Tomato Hornworm which has yellow spots and horns and is the larva of the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, pull them off and destroy them in soapy water. Or get someone to do it for you.

Photo of tomato hornworm

Tomato Hornworm by Amanda Hill, and given to public domain.

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Crocus

Crocus speciosus

This past five days have returned to somewhat normal April weather, still below the average temperatures for April, but at least not at freezing or below and no ice and snow. Rainstorm due this afternoon, but then April showers bring May flowers, right? I still expect more snow, but hope these expectations are unfulfilled. Looks like I have lots of garden clean-up to do.

Snowdrops – Galanthus nivalis

 

Funchal Botanical Garden photo by Hedwig Storch from Widimedia

Since man first started growing plants he has organized them. Gardeners have designed gardens by utility for centuries. We define our gardens by their use: vegetable, herb, perennial border or cutting garden, ornamental, or water gardens. We grow plants selected for one specific idea together. That’s the whole idea behind a theme garden, but today’s gardeners have taken the idea to heart and have resulted in extremes where garden plans center on ideas and topics of personal interest.

Historical use gardens are always popular. They display how the landscape around a historical home or building might have looked. Knot and parterre garden patterns, while lovely at ground level, were designed for viewing from a balcony or window. These plans developed from the way monks in medieval monastery gardens laid out their gardens, which led to topiary gardens with their heavily pruned shapes and leafy animals designed for surprise and entertainment.

Photo of Hever Castle Rose Garden.

Hever Castle Rose Garden photo by Graham Beuld from Wikimedia

Herb gardens are often subdivided by use into culinary herb, scented herb, medicinal herb, and dye herb gardens. Theme vegetable gardens can be salsa gardens, salad gardens, square foot gardens, or vertical gardens. A newer trend is the decorative vegetable garden, or vegetables grown in a ‘designed’ garden manner rather than rows.

Bee and butterfly gardens are designed to attract those insects. In bird gardens you will find plants birds use for food, habitat or nesting. In this section of Michigan, many gardens develop into deer gardens, even if the gardener didn’t quite have that purpose in mind.

Literature and art are other sources for theme gardens. In a Shakespearean garden, only plants mentioned in that author’s writings are grown. Biblical gardens contain plants referred to in that great book. I expect somewhere there is a Peter Rabbit garden and a Secret Garden based on the plants found in those stories. What a great way to introduce children to both gardening and reading! Gardens need not be limited to the literary works, gardens based on painters like Monet are popular.

Color based gardens are the most popular theme for flower gardens. Some mix all colors together in a flamboyant, breath-taking display. Then there are gardens devoted to all the flowers of one hue. Blue gardens with plants having foliage or flowers in that color are very popular, as are white gardens, which some call moon gardens if they have night-blooming flowers. Other types of theme gardens are devoted to a particular family of plants, such as a rose or daisy garden, but shrub, succulent, and bulb gardens are popular, too. Holland, Michigan, has a citywide theme garden based on tulips. There are shade gardens, woodland gardens, sun gardens, scent gardens and native plant gardens.

The wonderful thing about a theme garden is they personalize a garden and ideas for themes are limited only by imagination. If you decide to plan your own very special theme garden, here are a few helpful hints. Don’t be afraid to add a few elements like sculptures, or other objects, but the key word is ‘few,’ too many objects and you can lose the garden. A single color garden has predominately flowers of that color, but often a few plants of one or two other colors enhance the predominant color. Flowers or leaves repeating the same shape can be monotonous, so select different type of leaves when you choose plants. If you want a daisy garden, introduce some additional flowers with shapes that are not round.

Even in a theme garden the important thing to remember is to select plants capable of growing in your soil and climate. If you want an Orangerie like Louis XIV, and you live in a zone colder than Florida, you’ll have to grow your orange trees in tubs and put them in a greenhouse during the winter, like he did.

image of geranium

Scented geranium in early spring

My houseplants help keep me sane during the winter months. From the end of September to the beginning of May, you can expect cold weather in my location in Michigan. Which of course means snow, lots of it. I’m not a snow enthusiast and don’t ski. I expect to stay inside from November to mid-March, but a snow storm has hit here even in June. One blooming plant I bring indoors to plant out when it is safe is scented geranium or Pelargonium. I keep each one in a fairly large pot goes into a large planter outdoors and is easy to bring in before the first frost.

Most places treat pelargoniums like annual plants: plant them after the threat of frost has passed and enjoy them until the first fall frost. Yet they are perennial plants in their native habitat, so I treat my Pelargoniums  like an ordinary house plant during the winter and often, just when I need to see signs of springs, this plant delivers with blooms. Once the spring weather evens out, I place them in a shady place outside for ten days, and then move them to a sunny spot. They keep growing and blooming.

I do a lot of recycling, not only saving items from trash dumps by taking them to recycle centers, but also by inventing new uses for items that can no longer fulfill their original purpose.

We had six bags of concrete that were accidentally left outside. It rained; hard. The cement hardened inside the bags. What a waste of money and concrete. The  bags set next to the garage for months before I had an idea. I pulled off the paper covering and planted the concrete in a path of my garden as stepping stones. I was sure it was a horrible idea and the concrete would just crumble into small pieces. None of the forms broke up. They’ve been in the ground for at least seven years. A couple have cracked, but they stayed usable.

images of cement bags now stepping stones.

recycled stepping stones

Plants have grown around them, and now moss is encroaching into cracks and crevices. Each step, while vaguely oval, has surface markings from the original bag container that marks each a little differently, and they’ve begun to take on a patina of stone. Will they last forever? Probably not, but most likely longer than me.

Photo Aster cultivar 'Purple Dome'

Aster cultivar ‘Purple Dome’

Asters, like their cousin Chrysanthemums, bloom in late summer through to the first frost. Their petals form rays around yellow centers of disk florets looking like the Latin translation of Aster, ‘star.’

Asters fit into almost any garden, Aster alpinus being a diminutive species that grows six to twelve inches, while certain Aster novae-angliae (New England Aster) and A. novi-belgii (New York Aster or Michaelmas daisy) cultivars can grow to six feet. These are the most popular perennial Asters for our area, although there are many other garden Asters. The annual aster, or China aster, however, is Callistephus chinensis and not the same genus, although they look similar.

Photo Calico Aster

Wildflower: Calico Aster

Many of our garden Asters started out as wildflowers and you can still find many varieties of the wildflower types like the Calico Aster blooming along our roadsides. The larger flowered, more colorful garden varieties came back to us improved by European growers and hybridizers. They retain their native hardiness, which makes them great additions for our gardens. You can find asters in single or double flowered forms, often borne in panicles, or several blossoms to each stem.

Aster alpinus, the Alpine aster, besides being lower growing, have a single one to two inch diameter yellow-centered bloom on each stem. They like our cooler summers and last longer here than in warmer areas. The flowers come in deep purple to lavender and pink.

Aster x frikartii is hardy only to zone 5, but with our snow cover that lasts most of the winter season; many gardeners may find it survives just fine. It is a cross between the Italian aster and the Thompson’s aster. It has large flowers with a prolonged season of bloom. ‘Monk,’ and ‘Wonder of Staffa,’ are probably the most popular aster cultivars grown. Both have blue flowers.

The wild New England aster is one of the largest and prettiest of the late summer-fall wildflowers. The garden cultivars have long and hairy leaves that clasp the stem (the bottom edges of the leaf wrap around the stem rather that attaching with a petiole). Flowers come in a range from white, pink, rose, deep red and violet-blue and make good cut flowers that last longer than the flowers of the New York aster.

Smooth rather than hairy leaves differentiate New York asters from New England asters. Their leaves also clasp the stem, but the number of cultivars numbers in the hundreds, ranging in size from fifteen inches to six feet. Flowers come in white, all shades of light to dark purple and blue, red and pink. Yellow is one color missing from Asters.

Photo Panicled Aster?

Wildflower: Panicled Aster?

Most Asters thrive in full sun, and although they’ll grow in partial shade, the amount of flowering is reduced. You can increase flowering by pinching stems tips back during the plant’s growth period, or until about the middle of June. It is important to deadhead the spent flowers as Asters set seed and the new plants won’t look like their parent. Tall growing varieties might need tying and staking to keep from flopping over. A layer of mulch helps retain moisture and keep weeds down, but most will thrive even if neglected.

Photo Smooth Aster

Wildflower Smooth Aster

Plant centers might have blooming asters available in pots around this time of year, so look for a few autumn stars for your garden.

I’d tell you I’d been working in my garden as the reason I’m only posting once a month. But it would be a lie. My gardens need weeding, all of them! I did a few hours worth yesterday. For the most part, my plants are doing well or going wild. The columbine have reseeded all over; so have the native wild geranium and wild ginger are invading many areas, as have the poppies. Last year the deer ate the vegetable garden. Changes made it difficult for them to get into it, so they are busy eating my garden plants, hosta, daylily, and purple coneflowers. Deer ate ALL the leaves off my beautiful hosta, but otherwise everything is doing very well. I don’t think they like lavender-blue flowers because all of those have survived the invading hordes.

I made a big mistake in my vegetable garden. I wanted a low growing plant to cover the area between the raised beds. The garden is on a slight south-facing slope, but this is sandy soil and erodes easily. My idea was maybe it a low growing weed (other than carpet weed) might hold the soil and help keep other weeds at bay. I thought I was spreading veronica peregrina seeds. Whoops, major misidentification. Nope, not veronica seeds but chick weed seeds. I’ve laughed at myself every time I go in the vegetable garden. Most of the vegetables are doing all right to great, and I need to plant more seeds this week.

Isn’t it amazing how every year presents different challenges?

So what has been keeping me out of the garden? Writing classes for my pleasure and creating communication classes for my students plus other life events.

The perennial wild violet is sometimes unwanted when it spreads rampantly through lawns and garden beds, but its domesticated relatives are cold hardy plants perfect for local gardens. Edible, you can use the flowers and leaves of violets as a garnish or as an ingredient in salads, cold soups, gelatins, jams, or almost any desert. For entertainment you can serve up an accompanying story about violets.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up

This comes to mind as I dig the unwanted weeds out of the cracks between my brick walkway; all except the Johnny Jump-Ups. They’ve been given permission to grow wherever and however they want.

long spurred violet - native wildflower

Long Spurred Violet

Annual pansies and perennial violets come from the same genus, Viola. They have been grown for food and medicine for centuries and in that time, the plants have accumulated a volume of myth and folklore. Pansies bloom longer in a northern garden than they do in areas with hot long summers, occasionally lasting long into the summer. Gardeners have hybridized violas extensively to produce the wonderful array of flowers now available.

These low growing plants come in many colors and color combinations. In northern areas most bloom in April and May, but some like Viola tricolor, or Johnny-jump-up, bloom all summer long. The small flowered types make great ground covers. The large flowered plants are great in containers or for a splash of color in the garden. Most like moist growing sites, but will thrive in ordinary garden soil.

Downy Yellow Violet

The perennial violet is often called the sweet violet, although there are many species of perennial violets. Our native species are the marsh blue violet, the Labrador violet and the bird’s-foot violet, all found in Eastern North America. Violets readily hybridize making identification in the wild difficult. Most perennial violets sold in garden markets are hybrids. Some look more like pansies than the traditional ‘sweet violet.’

Sweet violets are Viola odorata, a European species with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Zeus turned his mistress Io into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera, and gave Io violets to eat when she found grass unpalatable. They were also the favorite flower of Napoleon who became known as ‘Corporal Violet.’ His empress, Josephine, wore violets at their wedding to honor him. After his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon claimed he would return with the violets in the spring. When he returned to France in March of 1915, the violets were indeed in bloom. This may be why violets are the birth flower for March. Legend says before Napoleon’s final exile he visited his dear, but divorced, Josephine’s grave. He picked a few of the violets growing there and placed them in a locket he wore until his death.

There are superstitions tied to sweet violets, too. To give a gift of violets is to offer the recipient good luck, and wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness. However, if violets bloom in the fall, epidemics will come within the year. I hope this lore doesn’t apply to the violas and pansies sold blooming in most nurseries during September.

Pick the blossoms of Johnny Jump Ups and add them to your dinner salad tonight.

Cat Andy sleeping in plant pot.

Andy in pot

I posted here about Andy and chive. Now Andy is at it again in a bigger way. The chive pot is gone, the chive most likely dead, but that’s okay. I have plenty of chive plants in my garden. My question is why is Andy doing this? What pleasure does he gain? Why in the plant pot? Is it the soil? The plant? What? Now he is invading and victimizing the jade plant (Crassula ovata). The poor plant is now leaning to one side which will eventually leave the plant unbalanced and I’ll have to re-pot it.

He goes outdoors, so I don’t think this is a missing the earth moment or cause. Does the dirt smell enticing? He doesn’t dig it up. (Thank heaven! I fertilize my plants enough without his help!) He doesn’t look comfortable, more scrunched up than when he sleeps on the  window ledge. So what’s up?

Book coverAn Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates

By By John Whitman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN 978-0-8166-9839-4
February 2017|
Gardening

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is a marvelous book. It is a large and comprehensive volume for growing edible food plants only, but discusses edible flower garden plants and other unusual and unexpected edible plants. This book is for gardening in cold areas like mine, and as a long-time gardener, I know this can be difficult.

Part I is devoted to the basics of gardening and growing crops organically. It explains a variety of approaches from growing in containers to creating many types of land gardens. Soil and compost is explained along with how to water and fertilize. Directions for plant seeds is provided, but it also includes other methods of propagation. It explains how to grow crops and how to weed and harvest them. The information goes further to include culinary terms, food storage, and even gives reasons why some people love or hate a particular vegetable. All the tools and products necessary for gardening are listed along with safety tips. Great photos and many easy-to-understand charts supplement the text.

One thing among many I learned was that pH means potential hydrogen. I’ve known what a pH reading was and how it applies to plants, but not what the acronym meant. It’s not only the solid information but also the good advice provided, such as the myth the gardener controls their garden, and many ways exist to achieve a bountiful harvest. Author John Whitman encourages gardeners to use whatever method works best for them.

The most wonderful part of FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is Part II– an extensive listing of all the vegetables, berries and herbs that can be grown in the food garden. Many I have grown, but even more I haven’t. From asparagus to zucchini, every crop is described. The information includes when and where to plant, the plant’s nutritional facts, the varieties available, how to grow it, problems and pests that can occur, and how to harvest and store the crop.

While FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is invaluable for gardeners in cold areas, defined in the book as anywhere the temperature can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic information is relevant anywhere. The extensive list and discussion of crop foods makes this garden book one every gardener will seek out repeatedly, not only when choosing plants to grow for the upcoming season, but also whenever problems or questions occur during growing or harvesting of those crops. For beginning gardeners or experienced gardeners, FRESH FROM THE GARDEN offers effective gardening know-how.

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