Sunday, August 1, 2010

Plant of the Month, July 2010: Globe Thistle

I know I'm posting a day late, but I really wanted to squeeze in this plant of the month for July.  This plant is about 6 feet tall and splendid in my garden for about a month in the middle of the summer.  The Globe Thistle (Echinops exaltatus) provides a striking contrast to the northern sea oats and dwarf English lavender in the front perennial bed of my urban garden.  The perfect globe-shaped flowers are over two and a half inches across and float above the rest of the plants like powder blue champagne bubbles.  The flowers can reach to six feet in the air on my well-established clumps, and the classic deeply-divided, spiky foliage of the thistle is a bold textural contrast to the finer textures of its neighboring plants.
The Globe thistle is a robust plant that prefers full sun and can grow just about anywhere in the western United States.  It will do best in well-drained soil with moderate water, but established clumps will tolerate fairly dry conditions.  I only have to water mine about four or five times a year, and I have NEVER fertilized it.  It always makes me happy to see that the local honey bees seem to be very fond of the flowers.

If you decide to grow the Globe thistle, you should reduce the clump at least every second year to keep it from getting too big.  The good news is that every time you reduce the clump, you get more starts of plants to give away to your friends!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Plant of the Month: June 2010 - Black Lace Elderberry (Sambucas nigra 'Eva')

The Black lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra 'Eva') is a fairly new variety, but it has quickly spread throughout the gardening community.  It was developed in England in 2000 and introduced to the United States in 2006.  It is now available in most major garden stores.

The stunning, dark, lacy foliage of this plant is its greatest feature, and it puts on a great show from spring through the first frost.  In early June, the plant is covered with lacy, flat-topped light pink flowers that can reach up to 10" across.  The plant prefers full sun and can reach 6' - 8' tall and equally as wide.  If left to grow naturally, it will be a fairly open and graceful but floppy shrub.  Pruning once a year (right after it flowers) will keep the plant smaller with a more regular shape.  I maintain mine somewhere between the two extremes - trying to balance an open, graceful form with a fairly compact size.

Black lace elderberry works great in containers, as a specimen in the garden or planted in drifts.  Pair it with chartreusse foliage plants and 'hot' flower colors, like orange and hot pink, for a striking show that is sure to be a conversation starter in your Urban Garden.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Extend Your Season: Build A Cloche

Imagine how many vegetables you could grow if you had your own green house. . .

The ability to protect plants from dehydrating winds and destructive frosts can extend your growing seasons on both ends – allowing you to start your seeds earlier and continue your harvests later into the fall.

A Cloche is a miniature portable greenhouse. Originally invented in Italy in 1623, the first cloches were small glass jars that were placed over delicate young seedlings at night. The French later developed a distinct bell-shaped cloche that is still commonly used today. However, the jar style cloche proved difficult to use. It is essential to make sure that a cloche is ventilated during the heat of the day, so a jar cloche has to be tipped open every day to make sure the protected plant doesn’t get cooked in the hot enclosed environment. For this reason, many different varieties of cloche were developed over the years. The Barn cloche is a light-weight frame covered in clear plastic (or other material such as glass or lexan).

I use my cloche in the spring to get my vegetable and annual flower starts going early. I then take down the structure for the growing season. As autumn approaches, the cloche can be put back up to extend the harvest. The following are directions for construction of a simple and inexpensive cloche.

Materials: (all available at Home Depot or likely all available your local hardware store)
6 pieces of ¾” diameter pvc pipe, 10’ long
10 pieces of ½” steel reinforcing bar, 24” long
6 mil clear plastic sheeting
5’ of ½” wide Velcro strips
10, 1” diameter hose clamps
2 cedar 1 x 4’s

Step 1: Use a string, 4 wooden stakes and a framing square to lay out a rectangle 5’ wide by 8’ long.
Step 2: Pound one piece of rebar into the ground at each corner and at 2’ intervals along the 8’ long side of your string box. The rebar should go into the ground about a foot – depending on how soft your soil is, and each bar should be angled slightly outward away from the center of your box.
Step 3: Slide the ends of each 10’ length of pipe over the rebar spikes, bending the pipe across the narrow dimension of your box to create an arched tunnel of pvc pipes. Slide one hose clamp onto each pipe before putting the second end over the rebar.

Step 4: Insert one hose clamp through the ring of each hose clamp that is already around each arching pipe. Cut the last piece of pipe to 8’ long and insert it through the hose clamps along the top of the cloche to create a support along the ridge of the cloche. Affix a strip of Velcro to the top of the ridge support pipes. Tighten the hose clamps with a flat-head screw driver.

Step 5: Cut a clear plastic sheeting to about 15’ long by 10’ wide and affix Velcro along the center of the long axis of the sheet. Connect the Velcro on the sheeting to the Velcro along the ridge line of the cloche and drape the sheeting over the structure. Weigh down the edges of the cloche with a 1x4 on each side and staple the plastic sheeting to the 1 x 4 (more weight may be necessary if you’re in a windy area).

Step 6: Fold up each end and trip to make a convenient door. Fold however works for you, but remember, you’ll have to vent your cloche in warm or sunny weather by opening the doors.
Special thanks to my neice and nephew for all their help in putting together my cloche this year!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Garden Recipe: Sweet Potato Gratin

There are fewer choices for fresh, local vegetables right now at the farmer’s market, but sweet potatoes are still readily available. The following recipe for Sweet Potato Gratin is cheesy and delicious! It’s a variation on a sweet potato gratin recipe my wife found in Sunset Magazine back in December of 2006. Give it a try to warm up an early spring evening.

4 large Sweet potatoes peeled and cut into medallions a little less than ¼”thick
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 ½ cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese
½ onion, sautéed
1 ½ cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 ½ tablespoons butter
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees, butter a 9 by 13 baking dish. Spread a layer of the potato slices and sprinkle with a little of each type of cheese and half the saute'ed onion. Add two more layers of potatoes and cheese.
2) Combine milk, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Pour the mixture over potatos and cheese. Dot potatoes with butter (about 1 tablespoon) and cover the baking dish with foil.
3) Bake covered for 20 minutes, then uncover and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes - until potatoes are soft and cheese is golden brown.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Plant of the Month - March 2010: Magnolia x 'Jane'

A few weeks ago, the weather began a pattern in Seattle which has greatly prolonged the blooming season of March's plant of the month.  Sunshine, then cold, and the recent warm temperatures have caused Magnolias all over the city to bloom constantly for almost a month now, and they're still just coming into a full bloom.

Magnolia x 'Jane' is a small multi-stemmed tree that will reach about 10' to 12' tall and 5'-8' wide with age.  It's one of a series of hybrid magnolias named by the national arboretum known as the 'Girls' or 'Little Girls' series.  'Jane' and her sisters in the series (Ann, Betty, Judy, Pinkie, Randy, Ricki and Susan) all vary in height, structure and flower, but they all flower about 2 weeks later than the regular Magnolia soulangeanas.  This slightly later blooming period usually equates to sometime around late March in Seattle.  Flowering a little later is an important quality at the edge of their range, as it allows the 'Girls' to avoid damage from late frosts.  'Jane' and the 'Girls' all prefer full sun to part shade and moist, fertile soil with lots of organic matter, but they can tolerate a wide range of garden soils.  They are cold hardy to USDA Zone 5 and can withstand temperature down to 10 to 20 degrees below zero. 

'Jane' is a very prunable multi-stemmed small tree or shrub that fits nicely into a medium-sized urban garden.  Her profusion of upright, tulip-shaped, fragrant flowers are reddish purple on the outside and white on the inside, and they flower before the tree comes into leaf in the spring.  'Jane' is great as a focal point in a planting bed or planted where it can stand out against the solid backdrop of a wall.

If you haven't taken notice yet, keep your eyes open for Magnolias all over the city. They're one of the best flowering shows of the season, and they're on display now!  And if you're looking to add one to your own garden check out 'Jane' and the 'Girls'.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Letter from the editor: March 2010

Winter is almost over, and I'm a bit ashamed to say that I took February off from The Urban Gardener. February is a great month to get away from Seattle, go somewhere warm, enjoy a brief dose of sunshine and remind yourself of the coming warmth of spring. 

With the arrival of Spring, I'm busy contemplating all the garden projects that I've been either too busy, or too lazy tackle.  I've already cleared some tired old plants that just weren't performing, amended the cutting garden struck a blow at the weeds that seem to have shot up over night and root pruned my bamboo.  And now, I have visions of fresh vegetables dancing in my head. 

Before heading down to the tropics last month, I did take the time to visit the Northwest Flower and Garden Show.  I found the show to be an inspirational kick start to the gardening season, and I highly recommend checking it out if you're into garden design, plants or garden products.  One of my personal favorites from the show:  the kenetic sculptures created by Douglas Walker of Water Works Garden Sculpture The pieces were made from brass instruments that he converted into beautiful, tinkling and moving pieces of art.  Another favorite was a collection of some really nice miniature greenhouses, or cloches, made by SunPod Greenhouses Inc. ( of the Vancouver B.C. area.  

This month I'll get back to posting.  I have a new plant of the month, a delicious recipe made with seasonable produce from the farmers' market and an article on how to extend your growing season and improve yields by building an inexpensive garden cloche.  Gardeners rejoice!  Spring is nearly upon us!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Food Part II: The Neighborhood Foodshed

In my first article on food, I advocated for local farmers' markets, and I still believe that they are a great resource for local organic foods. In this article however, I'd like to get a little more local. And what could be more local than your own neighborhood and your own backyard? In every neighborhood in the city, there are urban gardeners growing food. There are trees producing plumbs, cherries, apples, pears and other fruits and nuts. There may even be a few chickens in your neighborhood - scratching around, improving the soil and producing eggs. The neighborhood foodshed is the sum of all these elements. It is technically defined as a local food production and distribution system intended to produce locally without the use of fossil fuels or exchange of money. Though this definition portrays an ideal system that not only produces food, but also fosters development of the community, I think the definition could be expanded to include all food produced within a geographic area.

So how does an urban gardener get to know their neighborhood foodshed? The process starts by getting to know your neighborhood. First, determine the geographic boundaries of your neighborhood. Then begin surveying the area. What fruit trees are present and where? Who are the gardeners in the area? Is there a P-patch garden in your neighborhood? How about invasive clumps of Himalayan blackberries? Get to know your neighbors and find out whether they’d be interested in sharing food or whether they have land they would be willing to share for the purpose of food production. Through getting to know your neighbors, you may find that there are people that may not have the ability to cultivate their own garden, but they may be willing to lend you a prime piece of farmland in return for a share of the harvest. This concept of landsharing is a great way for the urban gardener to increase the amount of land they can cultivate while improving the local environment and increasing production within the neighborhood foodshed.

Once you get to know your foodshed, the next step is to get organized. A great way for gardeners to share their crops is by periodically holding their own neighborhood farmers’ market in someone’s garden or driveway. This could be a great time to bring the community together – maybe even have a potluck dinner and exchange excess crops with neighbors that may need what you have too much of. Creation of a cooperative neighborhood foodshed is a great way to build community while increasing the productive value and sustainability of our urban neighborhoods.

The neighborhood foodshed is usually made up of a collection of microfarms.
A microfarm is defined as any small food producing operation. From your backyard garden to a five acre parcel in the exurbs raising cattle, to a gourmet organic garden focused on supplying food to local restaurants, microfarms comprise the bulk of food production in urban areas. As the presence of microfarms expands, some entrepreneurial farmers are setting up Community Supported Agricultural co-ops in urban areas. These urban CSA’s are bringing urban food production to another level by employing the CSA model and incorporating the concept of landsharing.

If you don’t yet have a vegetable garden and you’d like to start growing your own food, but you don’t know how to (or don’t want to) go through the process of installing a vegetable plot, there are companies popping up all over the country to help you get started. For a reasonable price, you can have a garden consultant come out and evaluate your property to determine what the most appropriate spot for a vegetable plot might be. Then, they can build a vegetable bed, install irrigation and even plant the garden for you. Some companies even offer a full-service option. They’ll show up once a week, tend the garden for you and leave a basket of the week’s harvest on your doorstep.

The benefits of having your own microgarden go beyond the wonderful experience of eating freshly picked vegetables from your yard. Having a productive garden can also teach children about food, how it grows and the value of hard work. I think you’ll find that your microgarden also helps foster the connection between you and your land – a connection that is all too often missing in our urban lifestyles.

If you’re interested in supporting the urban foodshed, but engaging and building up your own neighborhood foodshed seems like a monumental task that you’re just not able to take on right now, I suggest starting with your own microgarden or by supporting an urban CSA. There aren’t too many urban CSA’s around Seattle right now, but as the movement toward local, organic and sustainable consumption progresses, there are sure to be more sprouting up all over the city.

The urban garden can be many things - from a display garden of beautiful perennials to a relaxing patio retreat. Add food production and coordination between neighbors to the mix and the urban garden can become another step toward a stronger, more sustainable community.