The Virtues of Buckwheat

Buckwheat blossomMy seeds are sown; in some cases, a second and third succession is in. The warm season crops I started indoors have been transplanted out. We are already happily harvesting spring lettuces, greens, perennial herbs, and garlic greens. The birds are joyfully singing and so am I as I dig out my flip-flops and start a jar of sun tea. I am so ready for warm, sunny days.

I usually have a raised bed or two that I leave unplanted or sow a cover crop in every year, allowing the soil (and me) to rest. This year I am going to sow buckwheat both to attract beneficial insects, and as a summer cover crop. Buckwheat needs warm soil (over 55°F) to germinate and warm air temperatures to grow, so it is sown once the soil warms in spring, summer, or early fall, even late fall in the south. I will sow two successions of buckwheat two weeks apart to provide a longer flowering period for beneficial insects.

Buckwheat flowers are valuable to bees; in fact, it has been identified as one of the top 20 honey-producing flowers, and honeybees use it to make delicious, distinctively flavored buckwheat honey. Its flowers may appear as early as 3 weeks after sowing and continue for up to 10 weeks! Buckwheat also attracts predatory insects like ladybugs, hover flies, and minute pirate bugs that feed on pests like aphids and mites. After all, you can’t have a healthy population of predatory insects without something for them to eat!

Buckwheat is fast growing, and unlike other cover crops, it thrives in poor soils. It is particularly good at mining phosphorous from the soil ̶ a micronutrient essential for root, flower, and fruit development. As buckwheat breaks down, it helps existing nutrients become more available to future crops. Buckwheat also works to smother weeds, such as lambsquarters, pigweed, thistle, spurge, and even tough quackgrass. Not only does buckwheat shade and out-compete these weeds and others, but it also stifles nearby weeds’ root and shoot growth by exuding naturally-occurring chemicals. Buckwheat’s fine roots dig down 10” and loosen topsoil, making a nice seedbed with very little labor on my part.

While I would not claim buckwheat to be drought-tolerant, it doesn’t require much water to get established and grow. It’s ready to be cut down and worked into the soil (or mowed) just 30 to 40 days from sowing. If mowed, it will regrow, producing more abundant, enriching, organic material. As with any cover crop, it is best to cut it down before its seeds mature (in this case, harden and turn brown) so it doesn’t reseed where you want to sow food crops.

See why I love this cover crop? By adding a buckwheat to my raised garden beds, I am not only creating an inviting habitat for helper insects, but I am enriching the soil, eliminating time and energy I would otherwise spend weeding. How cool is that? All of the cover crops we offer, including Crimson Clover and Soil Builder Peas/Oats, are great for enriching the soil and are easy for the home gardener to manage.

Those who know me know I love a plant that has so much to offer, and I am always looking for ways to bring more diversity into the garden! I should also mention buckwheat makes a great cut flower. For now, the flip-flops will need to be on standby while I get the buckwheat sown, but this should take even less time than the sun tea will to brew! Happy sowing everyone!

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Big “Dill” Salads

 

Dill Chicken Salad

With spring here and summer just around the corner, we’re getting ready for outdoor brunches and barbeques. Dill can be whipped into a dressing for chicken salad served in croissants or pitas, or poured over fork-tender, boiled potatoes for a side dish at your next summer event. It’s (just about) the same recipe, too!

INGREDIENTS for chicken salad:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh dill, finely chopped
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded chicken

INGREDIENTS for potato salad:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh dill, finely chopped
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound fork-tender boiled fingerling potatoes

DIRECTIONS:
Whisk all the dressing ingredients until well blended. Stir in chicken or potatoes. Chill for about an hour to let flavors blend.

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Quickly Aged Clay Pots

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When kept in the shade watered and fertilized often, clay pots will develop a beautiful patina with shades of white and green. If you don’t want to wait a few years for this to happen you can speed up the process and achieve very similar results in just about a month.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Unglazed clay pot, clean and dry.
  • Foam brush
  • Unflavored, unsweeted yogurt

Directions:

  1. Stir yogurt until smooth
  2. With your foam brush, cover entire surface of clay pot with a coat of yogurt.IMG_1291IMG_1292
  3. Place the pot in a protected location out of direct sunlight until desired look is         attained. Usually about one month. Keep pot moist by lightly spritzing with a spray bottle a few times a week.IMG_1280

Once your pot has a beautiful natural looking patina, fill it with container friendly varieties from Botanical Interests such as: sweet alyssum, calendula, coleus, daisy yellow buttons, dusty miller, impatiens, lobelia, marigolds, pansies, snapdragons, violas, and dwarf zinnias.

Hashtag your creations with #botanicalinterests.

Everything’s Coming up Sunflowers

Sunflower with bees

Ah yes, summery, sunny, sunflowers—something my garden cannot go without! Sunflowers are excellent for pollinators, drought tolerant, and native to boot! They also make a great introduction to gardening for children, because the seeds are large and easy to handle, quick to germinate, and they can identify the resulting flower.

Native sunflowers have been bred for generations, giving us varieties that produce a single, huge, beautiful head, pollenless varieties for cut flowers, dwarf varieties for containers or the middle of the flower bed, and blooms in many shades of wonderful. Single head sunflowers, (Mammoth Grey Stripe, Mammoth Russian, Snacker, Sunspot) put out one, large to downright giant (14″!) bloom. Because these sunflowers produce only one big bloom, successively sow every 4 weeks for continual color. If you plan to use these as cut flowers, a tighter spacing of 6” rather than 1’ produces longer stems but slightly smaller flowers. Multi-branching types (Autumn Beauty, Drop Dead Red, Elves Blend, Evening Sun, Flash Blend, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Goldy Honey Bear, Lemon Queen, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion, Teddy Bear, Two Queens, Vanilla Ice) display many smaller blooms over a longer period. They also do best with 1 ½’–2’ of space, and have a longer bloom period, which is further extended with deadheading or successive sowing. When harvesting for cut flowers, cutting just as the first petals begin to open will make your cut flower last the longest. I love this stage; the flowers look like they are winking at me! Don’t forget that a clean vase and frequent water changes are key to the life of any cut flower.

Speaking of cut flowers, pollenless varieties (Drop Dead Red, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion) are perfect for the dining room table, as they have no messy pollen to dirty your tablecloth. They do still provide valuable nectar for bees and butterflies, though. Pollenless sunflowers cannot create seeds on their own, but if you grow them next to pollen-producing types, seeds will still be produced. The flowers I have not cut for bouquets, I leave in the garden for the birds in fall migration.

No matter which sunflower I choose each year, I prefer to wait until a week or two after the average last frost date to direct-sow seeds, since they are sensitive to root disturbance. You can, however, start them indoors in recycled paper pots 2 to 4 weeks before your average last frost, as these pots can be planted directly in the ground, minimizing transplant shock. Starting sunflowers indoors does result in earlier blooms, and avoids having vulnerable, tiny seedlings gobbled up by hungry spring birds. If you direct sow, like I do, protect little sprouts with row cover or another translucent barrier until seedlings are 6” tall, when birds will no longer bother them.

Although it’s commonly believed that all sunflowers turn their heads to follow the sun from east to west each day, actually only the immature and still developing flower heads do that. Once the flowers have fully opened, they stay facing east most likely to protect the seeds from possible sun-scald resulting from the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Understanding this alone, can help you plan your sunflower bed so your sunny sunflower faces will open toward a space you can really enjoy them, like the kitchen window or a patio.

Happy sowing!

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Nasturtium Pesto

nasturtium pesto

Bright green and full of garlic, traditional pesto is as versatile as it is delicious. Basil doesn’t have to be the only star of pesto. Try adding nasturtium leaves from your flower garden! Nasturtium adds a fresh, peppery kick to your pasta, pizza, or even eggs!

1 c. packed nasturtium leaves and stems, washed and dried
15–20 basil leaves
4 garlic cloves
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ cup or more of extra virgin olive oil
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ teaspoon salt
½ tablespoon lemon juice

DIRECTIONS:
Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender and blend until smooth, scraping the sides periodically to fully incorporate ingredients. Add more olive oil for desired consistency.

 

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DIY Native Bee House

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Mason bees are native, excellent pollinators, and easy to attract. North America has about 140 different Mason bee species. They are active in early spring to late summer. These solitary bees make their homes in narrow openings, such as holes in trees and hollow reeds, protecting eggs by building mud walls around them, thus, the name, “Mason” bee. Since Mason bees do not protect a hive, they are docile and very rarely sting, making them easier to keep in urban neighborhoods.

Celebrate Earth Day by making a bee house for these productive native pollinators. Here’s how:

You can find all of these items at most garden centers and craft stores:

  • ½ to ¾-inch diameter bamboo reeds
  • One 3” Hose clamp
  • Fine-tooth pruning saw

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Directions:

  1. Cut bamboo reed into several 6”–8” inch lengths using a sharp, fine-tooth pruning saw. Cut after a node to ensure that one end is closed or nearly so.
  2. Secure hose clamp around bamboo bundle. Vary the placement of tubes so that the ends are not perfectly flush with each other.
  3. Place bee house in a protected area with reed openings facing east or southest, so they get morning sun. Secure the bee house so it won’t shake in the wind, reeds oriented horizontally with the openings slightly downward to shed water. Ensure that there is a patch of bare ground nearby, as the female bees will need mud to build their nest within the reeds. It is also best to have food within 300’ of the nest. You can further protect the nest from birds and squirrels by creating an orb around it using chicken wire, hardware cloth, or other mesh with an opening of at least ½”.

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Clean or replace nesting tubes each spring after the new bees have hatched, to prevent pests and disease.

We’d love to see you get creative with other components! Hashtag your creations with #botanicalinterests.

Corn on the Cob? Yes, please!

corn on the stalk in the fieldNothing says summer like fresh corn from the garden, so sweet you can eat it right off the stalk. Corn of any kind (sweet, popcorn, ornamental, or dent) can be easy to grow if you have sun, plenty of water, and rich soil. Having an understanding of corn pollination helps, too.

Like other grasses, wind, rather than insects, pollinates corn, so it needs to be sown in blocks or parallel rows rather than single rows. This planting technique, along with some wind, ensures the pollen from the tassel will reach each and every silk on the ear. The tassel grows from the very top of the stalk and eventually opens, releasing pollen at about the same time the silks are emerging. This magical timing of tassel and silk emerging to shed and accept pollen is called “nick”, as in, “in the nick of time” (the exact instant at which something has to take place.) Each silk, when pollinated, forms an individual kernel on your soon-to-be succulent ear of corn. If every silk is not pollinated, you’ll see some holes or skips on the ears. To ensure that each silk is pollinated, you can always hand-pollinate. Once the silks emerge and the tassel begins dropping pollen, snap off the tassel and brush it on multiple plants’ silks, and voilá!—pollination has occurred. Sweet corn will be ready to eat about 3 weeks after the silks appear. Look for brown silks (not dried) and, plump ears. Then you can pull back a small portion of the husk to see how things are progressing. Sweet corn is at its peak when the liquid in the kernels turn from clear to a milky color.

Even among sweet corns there are several types. Here is some handy information, which can help you choose the right fit for your palate: Sugary (su) sweet corn is the original type of sweet corn with higher amounts of short-lived sugar than flint or dent corn. Sugary Enhanced (se) sweet corn has higher amounts of sugar and is tenderer than su types. Shrunken/Supersweet (sh) sweet corn seeds are smaller or “shrunken”, and are even sweeter, holding their sweetness the longest.

I don’t stop at sweet corn! I am not one to follow convention, and every year I also add corn to my flower beds as an ornamental; their big strappy leaves add lush texture, and the Striped Japonica variety adds big flare with its striped pink, green, and white leaves. Once I am done using the beautiful Strawberry and Dakota Black popcorn ears for autumn decorations, they get put into the popcorn pan, popping up into traditional snowflake-shaped popcorn. Our newest popcorn is Robust Pop 400MR, a variety that pops up into little mushroom-shaped popcorn, the kind you use for kettle corn. The kids really get a kick out of pulling the jewel-like kernels off the cob and popping them over the stove. I can just about smell the kettle corn now!

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Springtime Melon Cocktails (and Mocktails)

melon cocktails

The weather is finally warming in Colorado, and our seedlings are emerging. We’re dreaming about lazy summer Sunday afternoons outside, listening to bees buzz and watching our flowers grow. We may as well enjoy a refreshing beverage to get us ready for summer fun! Melon is an especially fresh-tasting ingredient to add to cocktails (or non-alcoholic “mocktails”). Try our recipes below and feel like it’s summer already.

Cilantro-Melon Fizz
Make cilantro simple syrup by bringing to a boil, ½ c. water, ½ c. sugar, and 3 or 4 cilantro sprigs; let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain and cool. Purée 1 cup of cut melon in a blender. Strain and pour into a short glass. Add 1 oz. of vodka and 2 tbsp. of the cilantro simple syrup. Stir gently. Top with club soda and a sprig of cilantro.
For a mocktail: Replace vodka with club soda or lime seltzer water.

Melon Beer
Salt the rim of a pint glass (tip: use lemon juice instead of water; the salt will stick better to the juice). Purée 1 cup of cut melon in a blender. Strain and pour into the salted glass. Add one bottle of ale. Sprinkle with cayenne for a kick.
For a mocktail: Replace beer with ginger ale.

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DIY Lavender and Rosemary Sugar Scrub

Sugar scrubs can be expensive and filled with unwanted additivies. Making your own will ensure that it is made of natural ingredients and you’ll get a lot more for your money. Especially if you grow the lavender and rosemary from seed!

lavender scrub

Lavender and rosemary have wonderful aromatic and cleansing properties. Dried leaves and flowers can be added to sugar and coconut oil to produce a cost-effective skin exfoliator and cleanser.

You can find all of these items either in your garden or at your local grocery store. Here’s what you’ll need:

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  • ½ Cup coconut oil
  • ½ Cup granulated sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon dried rosemary leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon dried lavender flowers
  • ¼ Teaspoon lavender essential oil (optional)
  • Small mason jar or other storage container

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl. Fill mason jar or other storage container.

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Use on face, hands, body, and feet. Be careful when applying it in the shower, as the coconut oil can be slippery.

You can substitute other flowers and herbs such as calendula, chamomile, sage, or echinacea.

Give as a gift for Mother’s Day or keep it for yourself! Hashtag your creations with #botanicalinterests.

Thinning: I don’t carrot for it.

Buddy eating carrotsWe gardeners love our sweet, emerging baby plants. It is so encouraging to see masses of vibrant green shoot up so willingly. As a new gardener I remember thinking, “I did it! It worked!” I waited three weeks for these carrot leaves to emerge, how can I possibly choose who lives and who doesn’t? From experience I can tell you, just do it! Get those scissors out and thin for the greater good.

Without thinning, plants get crowded. Crowding causes competition for light, moisture, and nutrients, yielding a stressed, stretched, and sometimes mangled crop—especially true for carrots. Crowding also reduces airflow, which is a real problem ‒ it encourages fungal disease. You may be tempted to just reach in and pull plants out, but when seedlings are close, it is best to pinch or cut them at the soil line, reducing disturbance to their neighbor’s roots.

Thinning doesn’t need to be an exact science; it just needs to get done. After losing my tape measure somewhere in the garden, I realized I could use two fingers to equal an inch; my fingers spread wide is eight inches thumb to pinkie tip; and my fingers held flat and tight together took the space of four inches near the knuckles… instant ruler! Some of my cleverer gardener friends mark up spare boards with common spacings on each side so they always have a ruler close by. On each packet, we suggest thinning when plants are about 1” or so, to help determine when true leaves may emerge.

I am sowing carrots this time of year (as soon as this last blast of snow melts). Carrots, like most root crops, are best sown in place outdoors. They take about three weeks to emerge. Often I will grow radishes next to carrots because radishes sprout more quickly, reminding me to keep watering an otherwise uneventful brown soil. Radishes are ready a month or more ahead of carrots, so I can safely pull the nearby row before carrots need the space. The holes that radishes leave behind help water get deep down to the sugary, orange roots of carrots. There are a few different ways to sow and thin carrots.

  • Sow 1” apart, and thin carrots to 1 every 3″, when 1” tall, in rows 6” apart.
  • Make planting holes 3″ apart on a square grid system. Sow 2 seeds per hole; thin to 1.
  • Sow every 1 1/2”, harvesting every other baby carrot in a couple weeks, allowing the remaining crop to get full size. Using this method, I am able to harvest twice (baby and full-sized carrots), using the same amount of space, weeding, and watering.

Two of my favorite things about carrots: They are sooo delicious immediately out of the garden—a flavor that is lost within an hour or so; and carrots can overwinter right in the ground! You can sow carrots two months before your average last frost and store them in the ground over winter, harvesting during warm winter days or in spring/early summer. If you’re going to sow carrots in the fall, they need enough time to half-way mature (keep in mind growing slows with cool temperatures and shorter days); mulch seedlings to help keep them warm, and then they’ll survive the winter. They’ll be waiting for you in the spring! Pulling carrots in spring is a fun way start to the season; even our dog, Buddy gets in on the fun!

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