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Growing Basil

By   May 15, 2016

Growing basil is a good idea if you like a blend of mint and lemon flavors in your recipes. Fresh basil makes a tangy addition to sandwiches and salads (just don’t use too much). Of course, Italian food is not complete without this tasty herb. Lemony varieties taste great in chicken dishes. Cooking with basil makes it easy to impress guests with your gourmet culinary skills.

Growing basil in a flower pot

Growing basil in a flower pot

Planting & Care

Sweet basil is a sun-loving herb that thrives in rich soil. This plant won’t tolerate cold, so you should start seedlings inside if there is still a chance of frost. Or, you can wait until warm spring weather has fully arrived to sow the seeds directly outdoors.

Before planting any type of basil in your herb garden, dig in plenty of compost and soak the soil thoroughly. Seedlings should be thinned to grow at least 6 inches apart.

This herb doesn’t live through the winter outside. However, growing basil in containers indoors will keep you well stocked with fresh leaves year round. Good drainage coupled with plenty of sunlight is the key to keeping this plant happy in a pot. Just sow a few seeds in a container filled with potting soil and compost. Water them moderately, and thin out all but the strongest 2 or 3 once they start growing well.

Growing Basil Tips

Most gardeners can create additional basil plants easily from stem cuttings since it is a member of the mint family. Once you know how to grow basil of one variety, you can use the same techniques for any other type. These include Red Rubin, Genovese, and Lemon. Each variety has a different flavor, so it is fun to experiment with this herb. Many of these plants have foliage that is attractive enough to use as a decorative addition to flower beds.

Dried basil

Basil can be dried for later use.

 

Harvesting & Storage

Watch your growing basil plants carefully for signs of budding. Harvest the top leaves on each plant frequently to prevent flowering. You can use these immediately, refrigerate them for a few days, or dry them out for long term storage.

Dry basil in a warm, moisture free place and then crumble the leaves into fine fragments. Keep your dried herbs in an airtight container to retain the flavor and prevent molding. This spice can also be frozen. However, since it is easy to grow basil all year, you may simply want to keep a live plant on the windowsill for ready access.

Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs

By   April 11, 2016

Broadleaf evergreen shrubs include all evergreen shrubs that are not conifers. Evergreens are easier to care for than deciduous shrubs. They may be the only color in your garden during winter months.

Most broadleaf evergreen shrubs require a limited amount of pruning. While providing year-round color, broadleaf evergreen shrubs tolerate many types of soils and add contrast and character to any landscape. Most popular varieties of broadleaf evergreen shrubs include Buxus, Cistus, and Escallonia.

Popular Broadleaf Evergreen Shrubs

 

Holly broadleaf evergreen shrubs with red berries

Holly is a favorite evergreen shrub in the northern US. Green shiny foliage adds interest year round, and white blossoms lead to red berries in the fall.

Blue holly is a tall upright broadleaf evergreen shrub. It may grow as high as 15 feet but is often pruned to as shorter height. Its spiny foliage is blue-green and glossy. The stems are dark purple. Blue holly produces tiny white flowers in early spring, which are followed by dark red berries which attract birds and last all winter. This shrub grows in zones 4 to 7.

Tea Olive is an evergreen shrub withs tiny fragrant blossoms in fall. Its sweet fragrance is similar to the smell of peaches. Some species of tea olive may grow up to 30 feet high, but most tea olive plants that are used as shrubs grow up tp 10 feet high. Tea Olives can be pruned down to 4 feet, and can be utilized as a hedge plant or as an individual specimen plant. It grows in an acidic soil that is fertile and moist.

Camelia shrub with a red bloom

Camellias have attractive foliage and spectacular flowers.

Camellia shrubs are attractive plants that prefer slightly acidic soil. These shrubs are hardy and grow through zone 8. Camellia is a long-lived shrub. It must be pruned immediately after blooms fade. This shrub is suited to foundation plantings or background planting along a fence or wall.

Japanese Pieris is commonly called lily of the valley. It produces tiny white or pink sweetly scented flowers in early spring. Its flowers hang on stems clustered at the tips of the branches. They are followed by fruit which hangs like strings of pearls. Japanese Pieris requires a well-drained and acid soil that in rich in organic material. This broadleaf evergreen shrub thrives in shade and also looks great under a large tree.

White flower on a Gardenia

White flower on a Gardenia

Gardenia is among the most grown broadleaf evergreen shrubs. They are mostly grown for their large scented white blossoms and grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Its foliage is dense and shiny. Gardenia shrubs require moist and well-drained soil. Gardenias grow in full sun or partial shade in zones 8 to 11.

Easy Raised Garden Bed

By   April 8, 2016

Preparing a raised garden bed can be simple and there are many good ones available for order online. They are very easy to piece together and require no nails or screws. Add more to expand your vegetable gardening space.

The DIY Approach to Building a Raised Garden Bed

You can also build your frame out of lumber from a home improvement store. Just don’t buy wood treated with harmful chemicals. Only use nails for constructing the bed if you don’t mind rust staining the lumber. You may also need to repair the bed if the nails work loose over time. You don’t have to worry about this with beds that have mortise and tenon joints held together with pegs.

A freshly planted raised garden bed.

A freshly planted raised garden bed. The flowers will soon fill the bed.

Make sure the sides of the bed are at least eight inches high. Some people prefer theirs higher – maybe a couple of feet. Whatever the height, you will need to fill it up close to the brim with soil. The bigger and deeper the bed, the more dirt you will need. Keep that in mind when you plan.

Additional Considerations

The idea behind a raised garden bed is to create height for the growing space so that it will have even drainage when you irrigate. The bottom is open to the ground.

 

Take advantage of the pre-existing soil to fill up the bed whenever possible. If it is not the right type of dirt for the kind of vegetables you want to grow, buy soil mixes instead. It might take lots of bags to fill the bed!

Getting Started

You will need:- A raised garden bed frame

– A plot of relatively flat land

– 4 wooden stakes

– A tape measure

– A full sized hand spade (We like to use an Army issued entrenching tool)- A power tiller to make things easier (Using a hand cultivator takes a loooong time. Trust us – we’ve done it that way before!)- A sturdy metal garden rake

– Several bags of compost to amend the soil

– An electronic pH soil tester to monitor the changing soil conditions

– Leather garden gloves

– Some muscle to put things together.

__________________________________________________________Setting The Stage

Mark off exactly where you want the raised garden bed. You can use wooden stakes and some twine to do this. Begin digging the inside boundary with the spade. You can lay the bed out over the area as you go along to make sure you aren’t making mistakes in the size and shape. You can remove the frame afterward to keep it away from the power tiller during the next phase.

Digging In

A homemade raised bed at a community garden.

A homemade raised bed at a community garden.

The soil should not be wet when you till it. It should be barely moist. To test your soil moisture, scoop up a handful and try to form it into a firm ball. It should begin to crumble as you squeeze it. For clay dirt, you will probably need to wait until it has not rained in more than a week. Sandy soil drains faster and can be worked sooner after rainfall.

Work the existing soil first. Follow all safety instructions in the power tiller manual. It might even give you specific tips to make things easier. You want to till about 8” to 12” deeper than the bed itself.

Loosening the soil will create extra volume. This is helpful since it can be mixed with the compost or soil amendments later. Loose dirt may only take 15 to 20 minutes to process with the power tiller. Hard, compact soil can take several hours.

Here in North Texas, we have black clay soil that is highly compacted. We use the edges of the raised garden bed to keep the soil inside of the bedded area while we’re tilling. If you choose this approach, dig the edges of the bed area out by hand first. This will give you some extra room to work.

Inserting The Frame

Next, secure the borders by laying the bed frame over the tilled area. Use a spade along the outside of the longest edges of the frame. By removing the soil directly underneath these sides, you are allowing the frame to sit flatter against the ground.

Only do this along the two long, parallel sides. The short sides and any overhang at the corners will prevent the frame from slipping completely into the dug-in area.

Amending The Soil

The pH tester will help you identify any amendments you need to buy or prepare. Rake the soil so that it is somewhat even throughout the bed. Then add a single bag of compost or garden mix, depending on the pH results.

Till the bedded area again. This should mix everything thoroughly across the bed. The second and third tilling will be much easier and should only take a few minutes. Rake the soil again and test it with the pH monitor. Repeat this series of steps until you have enough volume to fill the raised garden bed.

You will want to slowly increase the dirt volume so that an even layer of soil comes within an inch of the top of the frame. Add any needed fertilizer last. You can take several days to do all this. Just make sure you finish in plenty of time to transplant any seedlings into the bed.

Growing Leaf Vegetables

By   March 20, 2016

When it comes to fresh, tasty nutrition, growing lettuce, spinach, and other leaf vegetables is ideal. These plants are easy to tend and take little time to go from seed to salad. Each variety offers a mix of vitamins and minerals.

Generally, the darker the leaves are, the higher the levels of health-promoting trace elements they contain. Fortunately, homegrown greens can be harvested at just the right time to keep bitterness at bay. If you prefer a milder flavor, try growing lettuce varieties like leafy romaine or butterhead. These are much tastier than iceberg and capture more nutrients from the soil.

Kale is one of the easiest to grow leaf vegetables

Kale is one of the easiest to grow leaf vegetables

Collard greens, kale, and cabbage are additional leaf vegetable  choices. You can also harvest the edible foliage of turnips from your garden.You might think that the instructions for growing lettuce, kale, and spinach would be basically the same. However, these plants are actually quite different species. For example, kale and cabbage are related to broccoli while spinach is in the same family of vegetables like beets. So, each one has slightly different requirements. However, they all thrive in full sun during cool weather.

Soil Requirements

Kale and collard greens prefer a somewhat acidic soil pH from 5.5-6.5. Spinach and lettuce grow well in the 6.0-7.5 range. Cabbage falls somewhere in the middle as far as pH requirements go. Loose, leafy greens are fast growing vegetables that don’t require heavy, ongoing fertilization.  An application of organic compost before planting should be sufficient to provide the necessary nitrogen. For cabbage, you may need to test your soil to make sure the calcium and magnesium levels are within optimal range.

Many varieties of leaf vegetables (with the exception of lettuce) have a fairly deep root system. Cultivate the soil to a depth of 18-24 inches for best results. If you grow these in pots, choose a container that is deep enough for the roots to develop fully. A raised garden bed provides the best environment for growing lettuce and other greens. It promotes good drainage.

Planting & Care of Leaf Vegetables

Young leaf lettuce

Young leaf lettuce

These vegetables are a classic two season crop. Sow seeds outdoors early in the spring (a couple of weeks before the last frost) and 2-3 months before the first frost in the fall. Planting depth is 1/4-1/2 inch. You can start seeds indoors as well. Seedlings should be grown in peat starter pots so the root system isn’t disturbed during transplanting.These are thirsty plants that appreciate being watered every day. This helps them thrive and prevents wilting as the weather warms. Water around the base of each plant rather than spraying the leaves. Keep the soil moist but not flooded. Use mulch between the rows to prevent moisture from evaporating and to keep weeds at bay.

Growing Tips for Leaf Vegetables

You can start these plants out fairly close together (about 6”). As they grow, thin them vigorously. Eat the baby leaves from the plants you pull out – they taste great. The final spacing for mature plants should be between 12-18” depending on the variety you are growing. Lettuce, spinach, kale, and other loose-leaf varieties can be harvested continuously.

Removing the base/outer leaves shocks these plants and helps keep them from bolting (sending up a flower stalk). Additional leaves will continue to grow from the center of the plant. Bear in mind that the smaller the leaves are, the better they will taste. If there is any sign of a flower stem growing, harvest the whole plant immediately before it turns bitter.

Many vegetable gardeners find that a fall crop harvested after the first frost is especially sweet. For leafy vegetables like kale that already have a strong flavor, you might take this into consideration. Depending on how cold your winter is, you may even be able to sow an additional batch of kale before the first frost in the fall. Cover the plants over the winter, and harvest them in the spring.

Additional Notes

Spinach is the fastest grower with leaves ready for your dinner table within 40-50 days. Count on about 60 days from planting to harvest when you are growing lettuce, collard greens, and kale. We like to plant several crops of these vegetables at two-week intervals. That way, we don’t have to pick and eat it all at the same time.

cabbage plant

Cabbage and it’s close relative Kale are often called “the world’s healthiest foods”

Cabbage needs to grow to its fully mature stage before its densely packed leaf head is ripe for harvesting. This takes about 90 days. Wrap cabbage heads in plastic and store them at temperatures below 46 degrees to keep them from spoiling.

All your other leafy vegetables should be stored in your refrigerator in the crisper drawer and used as soon as possible to avoid wilting. Kale and collard greens can also be chopped and frozen for longer storage. They are typically cooked anyway for the best flavor and texture.

 

Potting Bulbs

By   March 9, 2016

Potting bulbs is an easy landscape enhancement.  There are all sorts of containers available, and you don’t need a lot of space.

Potting bulbs is easy to do with caladiums.

Caladium is an excellent choice for potty bulbs. It’s easy to grow, has bright colors, and grows in shade.

Plastic containers these days look just like pottery or concrete, and they have the added advantage of being light. When when you are planting bulbs in pots and the bulbs are flowering you will probably not notice your containers anyway.

Choose pots that have a lot of drainage holes, cover these drainage holes with a fine netting and this will stop you losing potting mix out of the bottom of the pot.

Potting bulbs can be done quite cheaply, and they have the advantage of multiplying each year. Even expensive bulbs become cheaper after they have been divided a few times.

If you are into planting spring bulbs and would like a large mixed pot, fill your container half full of potting mix and twist your large bulbs carefully down, keeping them in a group, cover each successive layer with potting mix and gently layer your bulbs from large to small until you reach the top, plant them closely together to ensure a mass of flowers, top off with potting mix and soak well, put in a shady spot until leaves appear. Then when the bulbs flower you can take them inside for the season and fill your house with a wonderful variety of colors and perfumes.

Potting Bulbs

If you are a beginner, you will be surprised how easy potting bulbs is. You will have a green thumb before you know it.

Some gardeners like to plant a pot with spring bulbs that give flowers, all the same, color.  An all yellow or all red planting is striking.  You can grow several pots, each pot a different color, then put all the pots together for a magnificent display.

Potted Bulb Care

The most common cause of failure with bulbs in pots is a lack of water, keep the soil moist and you will have a wonderful display of colorful flowers. Having said that, never over water Crocus and their likes.

After the season is over you can put the plants outside to complete their growth cycle until the leaves have withered.  Most bulbs do not like to be left in pots over summer, so in summer it will pay you to tip the potting mix out and store the bulbs dry, this way your bulbs will not rot and should flower again next year.

Growing Tomatoes

By   March 4, 2016

Growing tomatoes is one of the most popular hobbies for vegetable gardeners of all skill levels. The difference in flavor between a vine ripened tomato and one bought from the store is astonishing. Tomatoes that are ripened artificially tend to have a watery taste and mealy consistency. In contrast, freshly plucked fruits have a distinctive gourmet taste and boast a firm texture.

Red ripe bush tomatoes.

Red ripe bush tomatoes. Bush tomatoes are usually determinate.

Tomatoes are divided into two main classes: determinate (short fruit season with no need for pruning) and indeterminate (constant fruiting as long as conditions are within range; needs pruning).

Determinate varieties stop growing once the terminal flower cluster appears. They aren’t as sweet as indeterminate ones, but they are a good choice for zones with a short growing season and for indoor gardening. Indeterminate plants always grow their flower clusters as a branch or lateral shoot; so they continue to grow and vine. They may feature many lateral shoots as added growth away from the main stem. Popular varieties include:

  • Cherry: Ideal salad topper since it is bite sized and tartly flavored
  • Grape: Perfect for snacking because of its sweet taste
  • Globe: Lovely eaten fresh with a little salt or in a mozzarella salad
  • Beefsteak: Ultimate sliced topping for sandwiches and burgers
  • Roma/Plum: Often used for cooking but also tasty raw – easy grower

Each of these varieties has dozens of sub-varieties. This can make it hard to figure out where to start. Ask your local plant nursery experts for suggestions for beginner gardeners in your planting zone. Once you get the hang of growing tomatoes, you can branch out and start experimenting.

What About Those Famous Heirloom Tomatoes?

Heirloom tomatoes are simply those that are not hybridized and will grow true from seed from one year to the next. This makes them a favorite with organic gardeners. Heirloom tomatoes can be determinate or indeterminate and elongated or spherical in shape depending on the species. They tend to have a delicate, gourmet flavor but are not as resistant to disease as hybrid varieties.

Soil Requirements

Red cherry tomatoes on the vine.

Red cherry tomatoes on the vine. Cherry tomatoes are easy to grow and do well in containers.

Tomatoes generally like soils that are slightly acidic. Many will do fine within a pH range of 6.0 to 6.8. Optimal pH is about 6.4 to 6.5. You may need to amend the soil if it is alkaline, so test it before planting tomatoes. Generally, a silt or clay loam soil that is maintained at the correct pH level is most productive for growing tomatoes. However, sandy soil can lead to faster maturation. In either case, good drainage is very important. Planting & Care

It’s a good idea to begin planting tomatoes early indoors before transplanting them outside in your garden. This will keep birds from picking away at the seedlings. Transplanting outdoors after the first flower cluster appears is a good plan (as long as all danger of frost is past).

Tip for Transplanting: The stalk of a good sized seedling can be buried a few inches deep without harming the plant. The bottom section of the stalk will grow a root system that makes the plant stronger and healthier.

If you don’t mind replanting a few times to replace casualties, you can sow seeds directly outdoors after the last frost. Seeds should be planted 1/8-1/4” deep. Appropriate spacing will depend on the variety – but overcrowding is always a bad idea.

Temperature Requirements: Tomato plants like hot temperatures and require lots of sun. However, they often fail to pollinate properly above 90 degrees depending on the species and humidity. Generally, growth only occurs when the temp is above 50 degrees. Temperatures anywhere near freezing begin killing the plant. If the temperature drops below freezing, most of your tomato plants will die very quickly.

Growing Tomatoes Tips

Stake tomatoes immediately upon planting the seed if you are growing them in pots. Otherwise, the stake can damage the root structure. Wait to actually tie the plant to the stake until after the initial bloom. Use ties that will not dig into the stalk of the plant. Strips of old pantyhose are great for this. Remember that Beefsteak tomatoes and other varieties with large fruit may require extra support such as a cage.

Water as evenly as possible on a set schedule, preferably early in the morning. The growing tomatoes can be harmed by uneven water uptake. This can create calcium deficiencies which will cause blossom drop and/or blossom-end rot – particularly during periods of extreme heat.

Watering the ground around the plants is considered the best practice. It will help control the spread of fungal or viral diseases to the upper portions of the plant. Spraying the whole plant can sometimes reduce spider mite infestations; but this practice will severely limit pollination once blossoms begin to appear.

If you are serious about getting the most out of your tomato plants, you will want to learn how proper pruning and pollination practices can supercharge productivity. Time from planting to harvest varies depending on the specific variety and growing conditions. Fruits should be plucked immediately when they are ripe and used within a week. They can be picked as soon as they begin to turn yellow and ripened at room temperature indoors if birds or other animals are eating them. The flavor will be affected slightly, but they will still taste excellent.Additional Notes

The most common pests that attack the tomato plant are spider mites, aphids, and various types of webworms. You want to be aware of these, especially when you grow vegetables indoors. When these pests are separated from their natural outdoor enemies, they can quickly overwhelm a plant. Spend a few minutes with your growing tomatoes daily inspecting them for pests. Take a close look at the leaves and note any abnormalities. Also, use this opportunity to check for signs of disease.

Hybrid Tea Roses – Choose the Right One

By   February 17, 2016
Peace hybrid tea roses with large double blossoms, a mixture of yellow and pink colors, and a noticeable fruity fragrance.

The Peace Rose is one of the most popular hybrid tea roses ever with large double blossoms, a mixture of yellow and pink colors, and a noticeable fruity fragrance.

The hybrid tea rose epitomizes our notion of rose beauty, with large, often fragrant single blooms that positively dazzle with their velvety texture, vivid color, and simple elegance.

If you’d like to add these classic roses to your rose garden, be prepared to be challenged by the sheer variety. There are hundreds of different tea rose varieties. Tea rose hybrids come in many different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Here’s a 10 step checklist for selecting your hybrid tea roses:

  1. Read the label carefully. All of the better commercial hybrid tea roses will have a label,  growth sheet, or catalog description. No matter how good it looks, don’t buy it if you can’t grow it where you want.  If it won’t thrive, pass it by.
  2. Chech the climate requirements. If you live in a mild climate, find a hybrid tea rose that is heat tolerant. If your area is humid, choose a tea rose that has resistance to mildew and fungal diseases. And be sure to evaluate the plant’s cold hardiness.  Most roses do not fare well in freezing temperatures, so if you live in one of the less temperate zones in the world, make sure your hybrid tea rose won’t freeze to death before you put it in the ground.
  3. Be aware of growth habits. Is the tea rose a climber? Is it a rambler?  Does it spread sideways rapidly? Will it make a good groundcover? Visualize where it will go and what direction it might grow. Also, make note of its average height and width. You don’t want to plant mistakenly a tea rose that grows too high for its location.
  4. Make sure you know what kind of perfume you like and want. Some roses are highly fragrant.  Is that what you want or does just the thought make you want to sneeze?  Roses vary from no fragrance to perfume store overflow levels. Your rose depends on your particular likes and needs.
  5. Are you fond of cut flowers? Some tea roses stand up better when cut or put on display.  Others have petals that may be too fragile to withstand cutting. If having cut roses is important to you, make sure to research your top choices.
  6. Check the label carefully for disease resistance.  Some are more inclined to trouble than others.   If the mere idea of a mildew infection or Japanese Beetle infestation makes you cringe, consider choosing a tea rose that is labeled as disease resistant.
  7. Think about the amount of care you can provide. Some tea roses need more care than others.  After all, this is the easy gardening blog!  If it’s going to take too much work, try to find a variety that can thrive with less of care.
  8. Consider the bloom and leaf color. All tea roses are beautiful; find one that will look good in your garden. Visualize it in full bloom.  Some colors may go well with your other plants; others may clash.
  9. Choose only healthy-looking plants. It should have at least three strong canes. Don’t but tea roses with brown roots, shriveled foliage, or damaged branches. Choose one that has bright white roots and bright buds at the side of each stem.
  10. Buy your hybrid tea roses from a reputable dealer.  The clerks at the big box stores were probably selling plumbing supplies last week and are only concerned with moving merchandise in and out.  Most couldn’t tell a sick rose from a healthy one, and even if they could, their corporate bosses will tell them to sell it anyways.  A couple of bucks off isn’t worth the risk of introducing an infected plant to your garden. Plant infestations and diseases can spread quickly. Instead, visit your local nursery and pick only the most healthy-looking plants. If you order your tea roses by mail order, deal only with reputable dealers. The extra bit of money you spend now will be well worth it when you experience your season of gorgeous hybrid tea rose blooms.

Want to learn more about roses?  Check out the American Rose Society.