Spring Gardening Tips -- Herbs, Vegetables and Flowers

When you garden, there are so many ways to get it right, and even more ways to get it so wrong. Here are a few tips that will help you get more out of your garden this season -- just in time for spring planting:

Water with ice cubes - If your patio plants never last long once the heat hits in earnest, there's probably a good reason.   If you miss a few important watering sessions, your plants may survive, but the soil around their roots tends to become porous. That's bad news the next time you water, and the time after that, because porous soil doesn't hold water very well, exacerbating the whole watering situation.  What you want is moderately loose soil that leaves room for roots to wander, but still holds water long enough for those roots to take a fortifying drink.

It sounds complicated, but there's an easy cheat that will help. In the morning before you go to work, add a handful of ice cubes to each of your deck plants and houseplants. They act like a time release delivery system for water. A number of them clumped together will retard melting until your plants have had a chance to get a good drink and a nourishing meal.  It works great, but keep the ice cubes from touching the stems or leaves of your plants to avoid burns.  Try it for a couple of weeks. You'll notice the difference. (If you believe your soil is very porous from patchy watering, give your plants a good drink in the sink. This will de-stress them and help recondition the soil.)

Adopt a commuter mentality - A great location for a plant in spring may be too hot and bright in high summer. If you've had problems roasting your darlings on hot days, when the temps soar, move them to a shadier spot. That way you can enjoy a pot of mint by your lounge chair in May and then relocate it to your shady entry in July. By September, you can put it back on the patio until it's time to overwinter it in the soil or indoors come October. Don't adopt a set-it-and-forget it attitude about plant placement because you're used to thinking of plant positioning as permanent. With the newer lightweight but attractive pots, it's easier than ever to swap plants around as needed without visiting a chiropractor afterward.

Encourage rooting - When you plant tomato seedlings, remove the bottom two or four leaves and plant that portion of stem in the soil.  The node that produced those first few leaves will begin producing roots instead, enhancing the plant's feeding system.

Hedge your bets when direct seeding - If you plan to direct seed sunflowers, basil, squash plants or other herb, flower or vegetable varieties, consider starting them briefly indoors between two damp sheets of paper toweling covered with a loose sheet of cellophane wrap. Seeds should sprout in a few days and be ready to transplant without the aid of soil, peat pots or other paraphernalia. That way you'll know the seeds are viable. If you harvest and save seed from year to year, or over multiple years, this can be an important consideration. You'll spend less time worrying about the neighborhood birds, too. After transplanting, cover each sprout with an upended Styrofoam cup or other disposable media for a day or two for added protection, or cover it with a light layer of mulch.

Discourage mildew - As your tomatoes grow, remove the branches and leaves and on the bottom quarter or so of the plant.  If a couple of big rainstorms increase the risk of a mildew infestation, any potential problems will have a harder time getting a foothold if splash-zone foliage has been removed. This can work with other mildew prone plants, too.

Mulch around your flowers, vegetables and herbs, especially if you live in an area where pests like slugs and pincher bugs aren't a problem. Mulch will help create a mold barrier, retain water and keep plants cooler during the hottest part of the day. You don't need expensive mulch, either. Shredded paper and cardboard are among the best mulches around. If wind is a problem, hold paper mulch in place with a little earth, sand or small stones.
Diatomaceous earth

Make diatoms your secret weapon - If you're having bug problems, consider dusting with diatoms. Diatomaceous earth is made up of the ancient, single-celled sea creatures.  It looks like white powder, but to a slug or squash bug it's like a brick wall with broken glass on top. Because there may be some risk for lung damage when breathing it in, use a disposable mask when applying diatoms to your plants and the earth around them. Just shake it on plants or as a barrier around them.You'll need to reapply diatomaceous earth after a heavy rain, but as a relatively benign pest deterrent, it's fast, easy and effective at discouraging soft bodied pests and some flying varieties as well. In fact, it's often used as a DIY option for treating bedbug infestations -- and you know how pesky bedbugs can be.

Consider companion planting - If you haven't planted your seedlings yet, consider buying some companion plants that will discourage pests. I like to place catnip at both ends of my garden, add it to my flowerbeds and vegetable patch, too. To me it has a faint aroma of, well, skunk, that makes bugs like aphids and squash beetles think twice about settling in for a meal.  Other good candidates are lavender, garlic and French marigold.

There are also companion plants that believe in the buddy system. Take leeks and carrots. Apart they may do well, but together they do better.  There are lots of plant combinations that work, but the principles behind the pairings may vary. One plant may repel bugs that are attracted to the second plant, providing a type of chemical cover. Companion plants may require different soil elements, so they aren't competing as aggressively for nutrients. One plant may also offer shade while the other provides structural support. I prepared a list of companion planting strategies last spring you may want to review. You can find it here: Companion Planting and Other Tactics

Pick your poison (as well as when to use it) - You may start the season determined to keep your garden pesticide free, only to discover you've just provided the neighborhood wildlife with a free (for them) salad bar. If watching Japanese beetles devour your blueberry bushes becomes intolerable, be kind in your use of pesticides. Poison kills good bugs as well as bad ones. To spare as many foraging bees as possible, spray insecticide in the evening. Bees start heading back to the hive in the afternoon, so an evening spraying is less likely to take a heavy toll on industrious bumbles. You can also start planning your war strategy for next year by exploring less aggressive but still effective options like introducing nematodes to your soil, small worms that will kill lots of pests (squash beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles) during the grub stage before they mature and become a problem.

More tops later. Have a great weekend.

Product Link: Diatomaceous Earth Food Grade 10 Lb

Photo Credits

Bee - From Flicker - Courtesy of User: Tanja Rott

Little Metal Bike - From Flickr - Courtesy of User: Liz

Diatomaceous Earth - From Flickr - courtesy of User: This Year's Love


Let's Grow Saffron

You already know saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It's used in cooking -- although when shelling out that kind of money for a seasoning agent, we should probably call it something other than "cooking," like gastronomic fabrication or something else appropriately impressive.  This little plant was once a popular fabric dye, and it also has medicinal value. Because it's so costly, many gardeners believe it's difficult to grow. Not true. Saffron is actually pretty easy to grow under the right conditions, which can be approximated (using useful cheats) a number of ways.

Saffron bulbs (actually corms)
Saffron is expensive because harvesting it in volume is a labor intensive, painstaking process. This isn't a big deal for the casual gardener interested in growing a few dozen specimens, though. Follow me on an exploration of the undisputed queen of spices. As it's an autumn blooming plant, you still have time to source stock and start your own saffron production project. If you've ever balked at spending a small fortune for cardamom pods, vanilla beans or that good cinnamon, you'll love being able to grow saffron. The flavor is exceptional, and a pile of threads makes a nice gift for the cooks (sorry, chefs) in your extended family.

How to Grow Saffron Successfully 

Saffron (Crocus sativus) can be cultivated outdoors in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 through 9. It will tolerate snow and cold temperatures to around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. During summer and early autumn, it requires heat and bright sunlight as well as rich soil that drains exceptionally well.

Saffron going dormant
Plants go dormant from about mid-April to August, give or take, and during that time should remain relatively dry (more on this in a minute).  The bulbs become active again in late August to September, and flower in October through November. Plants have narrow, grass-like leaves with a slim, white stripe at the center of each. After the leaves develop, a small lavender flower appears, sporting three bright red stigmas. These are the useful part of the plant.

In late August, plant new bulbs 4 inches apart to a depth of 4 to 6 inches Water sparingly until leaves emerge, which can take up to 4 weeks.

Harvest stigmas from new flowers, and retain plants in place until all leaves decline and turn tan in March to April.  Trim leaves away, and say goodnight to plants until August.

Tips and Workarounds 

When growing saffron, there are some gotchas you should know about:

First saffron bloom of the season
1: Let bulbs sleep warm and dry. When saffron bulbs are dormant from April to August, they don't like to get too wet. If you live where summer downpours are common, placing saffron directly in the soil can be risky. Instead, place the bulbs in a pot or other container, and cover it with a tarp during prolonged wet weather. A few showers are okay. If you keep an umbrella in your car all summer "just in case," you may have cause to worry and should take the container approach.

2. Keep critters away. Saffron is a delicacy for garden critters, too.  If you have problems keeping furry marauders away from your tulips, your saffron will be at risk unless you're willing to place bulbs in a cage or other protective contraption -- or keep them in a pot.

3. Avoid standing water. Saffron bulbs rot quickly in standing water. If you have heavy clay soil, it will require loosening with sand, and choose the highest sunny ground on your property.

4. Harvest like a pro. Saffron flowers appear quickly, and the stigmas are at their most flavorful within the first day or so of blooming. That means checking every morning and harvesting as needed throughout the season. Allow stigmas to dry for a week in a warm, dark place with good ventilation and no wind.  (They're light and blow away in even a faint breeze. You don't want to be chasing them across the floor -- believe me.)

5. Harvests can be small. It takes the stigmas from about 10 flowers (30 or so stigmas) for most recipes. You can do the math to determine your needs.

My Saffron Growing System
Harvested Stigmas - Fresh (lower left) Dried (upper right)

For my own setup, I've planted saffron in tubs with lids that I can stack. I hate to admit it, but these are plastic kitty litter tubs. When plants go dormant in April, I let the soil dry out, cover the tubs (each has a series of side holes drilled for ventilation) and put them under my deck. I water them once a month, or so.  In August, I drag them out, take the covers off and water them every couple of days unless a kindly shower does the honors for me.  This has worked since my outdoor specimens succumbed to a very wet spring and summer a couple of years ago. I've also considered just stacking the tubs in the garage during the dormant stage.

If you choose one new herb to grow this season, make it saffron. It's fun and special. It brews into a delicious tea, and you'll be able to make that type of lavish saffron choice if you grow it yourself. Oh, and if you have to start small with 10 or 20 bulbs, don't feel too badly, dried saffron can last up to 5 years, so you can accumulate a stash. Once you try it with rice or fish, though, you'll really want more -- and more.

Product Link: Pre-Order 2016 for 16 Pcs Saffron Bulbs - Get Beautifull Flowers and Your Own Spice (Fresh 2016 Delivey in June direct from our organic garden) Crocus Sativus Corms

 Photo Credits:

Flowering Saffron Crocus - Courtesy of Flickr User Douglas Sprott

Saffron Bulbs -- Courtesy of Flickr User Graibeard

All other photos by the author