Archive | April 2018

Herbs and Butterflies

Bees, birds, and butterflies adore blooming herbs. They’re easy to grow from seeds and add color and interest to your gardens — and you’ll enjoy having those fresh herbs for cooking! You can scatter the seeds in a sunny spot in early spring, cover lightly with soil, and keep moist until they sprout. Want to experiment? Try growing them straight from your spice rack! Use organic whole seed, rather than ground or powdered spices. Their ability to sprout will also depend on how they’ve been stored and processed.

Here are a few to try:

Fennel (foeniculum vulgare) – fennel is a fast-growing herb that adds delicacy and height to flowerbeds. It reaches 3 feet tall and has abundant clusters of tiny, buttery yellow flowers. Many butterfly species, including black and anise swallowtails, flock to fennel both for its nectar and to use it as a host plant for their very hungry caterpillars.

Caraway (carum carvi) – the crescent-shaped seeds are produced by a plant that looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, thanks to its clusters to tiny white and pinkish flowers. This biennial reaches 2 feet tall and may not flower until its second year. As a host plant, it’s fantastic for black swallowtail eggs, while yellow-green sulphurs and metalmark butterflies stop by to snack on its nectar.


The flowers of the sesame plant

Cumin (cyminum cyminum) – with delicate white bloom bursts, cumin looks like a smaller, daintier cousin of Queen Anne’s lace. The ridged seeds grow into branching annuals that stand 18 inches tall. Soak seeds overnight before planting for faster germination. Small to medium-sized butterflies love to land on the flowers.

Sesame (sesamum indicum) – humans have been using sesame seeds for more than 4,000 years, making it the oldest known oil crop. This robust and drought-tolerant plant has tubular flowers that resemble foxglove blossoms and dangle from leafy stems that can reach up to 3 feet. Sesame flowers can self-pollinate, but they still produce sweet nectar to tempt wandering pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Monarchs and fritillaries visit, as do sphinx moths and hummingbirds.

Dill (anethum graveolens) – this annual adds appealing contrasts of color and texture to


Lacy dill in bloom

flowerbeds thanks to feathery fronds and bright yellow flowers. Not only is dill irresistible to anglewings, tortoiseshells, and sulphers, but it’s also a favorite host plant of black swallowtails.

Coriander (coriandrum sativum) – this plant has a split personality. It’s round seeds are common to Indian cuisine, but its fresh leaves are what we know as cilantro. Clusters of delicate white, pinkish, or pale lavender flowers top these 2-foot annuals. From New England to Montana, naturalized coriander grows across the United States.



Straw-bale Gardening

Not everyone has the luxury of a large plot of land for growing vegetables, so alternative Straw-Bale-Gardening-660x497garden styles are continually being developed. One that continues to be popular is using a bale of straw as the garden or garden “pot”. This style of gardening is not for everyone. It can be messy and the bale, once saturated with water, is exceptionally heavy. However, for gardeners facing the challenge of poor soil, excessive weeds, space issues, and short growing seasons, this method of gardening can provide a solution. Because the bales hold moisture, as they decompose they provide a rich medium for veggies.

“The biggest benefit of straw-bale gardening is that the bales heat up as they begin the ‘conditioning’ process, and thus allow earlier planting,” says Joel Karsten, author of Straw Bale Gardens Complete: Breakthrough Vegetable Gardening Method. “The warm root zone means faster, early-season root production and earlier-maturing vegetables.”

Raised bales are easier to reach and work on for those with physical limitations. And they almost eliminate weeding, a benefit many straw-bale gardeners love most.

Follow these steps to garden with straw bales.

  1. Pick a prime location. Choose heavy, highly compressed straw (not hay!!) bales, directly from a farm if possible. Find a location that gets six to eight hours of sunlight per day. Lay landscape fabric to keep weeds from growing and arrange the bales cut sides up, with the strings running along the sides.
  2. Condition the straw. Two weeks before planting, start “cooking” the bales. Treat them with high-nitrogen fertilizer every other day and water heavily for about two weeks to accelerate decomposition of the straw inside the bale.
  3. Plant seedlings or seeds. Seedlings can be planted directly in the bales. Just make a hold with the trowel and add a little planting mix to cover the exposed roots. Seeds require a bed of potting soil to hold moisture on top of the bale until germination. If you wish, plant annual flowers or herbs into the sides of the bales to make them more attractive.
  4. Protect and support. Position tall posts at the end of each row and run wire between them at 10-inch intervals from the top of the bale. When seeds sprout, drape a plastic tarp over the bottom wife to create a greenhouse for chilly nights. As the plants grow, the wires become a vertical trellis, supporting the tiny veggies.
  5. Harvest and compost. When the season is over, the bales turn into usable, healthy compost for next year’s gardens.

Get your seeds to sprout!

Are you starting seeds in anticipation of the coming growing season? Using proper potting mix and establishing good conditions are only part of the process. The seeds of many perennials (and temperate-zone shrubs and trees) have built-in inhibitors that keep them from sprouting as soon as they hit moist soil. This protects them from getting started in the fall and then having the baby seedlings frozen when winter comes.

Although there are various delaying mechanisms, and various ways to defuse them, the most common retardant is the need for a cold, moist period — a winter in the ground — and the most common way to overcome that is to provide a shortened version, called stratification.

To stratify seeds, moisten some freely draining, sterile medium (either vermiculite, sand, or a mixture of sand and peat) until it is damp but not wet. Place a generous layer in a plastic bag, then put the seeds on top. Cover the seeds with another thick layer of the damp medium; close up the bag, and put it where the temperature will stay at about 40ºF. The refrigerator (not the freezer) is a popular spot.

Leave the bag for the length of time specified by the seed packet. If the packet recommends stratification without giving any time frame, stratify more seeds than you need, to allow for experimentation, then start looking for signs of germination after six weeks. Look again at the two-month mark, and at regular intervals thereafter; three or even four months may be required.

Inconveniently, some seeds need a warm period after the cold one before they sprout, and if you don’t know how long to stratify, you may not have this information either. So starting at the two-month mark, remove a few seeds every couple of weeks and plant them in the usual way, in pots of seed-starting soil. When the potted seeds sprout, you’ll know the others are ready to get started as well.