Cover Crop, Growing Soil Health!

Fava beans turned into the soil

How and why I use cover crops in my garden.

I like to take chances. As co-owner I wear a lot of hats at Botanical Interests but one of the most exciting ones for me is when I can be creative with new products. Several years ago, we added a few cover crops in garden-sized seed packets hoping that gardeners would take advantage of this long-time, organic, agricultural-scale practice in their small plots. The response makes my heart sing! Not only did the packets sell, they also have created so many conversations with customers wanting to know more!

Buckwheat

Cover crops or “green manures” have gone hand in hand with agricultural practices for a long time and were even documented by the Roman poet, Virgil, in 29BC. Cover crops naturally re-enrich soil, protect it from erosion due to rain or wind, improve its texture, and feed soil organisms which maintain a healthy ecosystem in the soil. As gardeners, our success is directly tied to the soil in a very tangible way, but looking at the bigger picture, soil health impacts all its inhabitants.

“History is largely a record of human struggle to wrest the land from nature, because man relies for sustenance on the products of the soil. So direct, is the relationship between soil erosion, the productivity of the land, and the prosperity of people, that the history of mankind, to a considerable degree at least, may be interpreted in terms of the soil and what has happened to it as the result of human use.” – Hugh H. Bennett and W.C. Lowdermilk, 1930s

Can you tell I am passionate about soil yet?

Pea from Peas and Oats Mix

Our current cover crop selection gives options for spring, summer, and fall cover crop growing. Any of the cover crops you choose to grow and turn into the bed will contribute organic material just due to their vegetation decomposing, and they will also work to stifle annual weeds by shading them out. Oats (peas and oats) and buckwheat, however, are “allelopathic”, meaning they naturally exude chemicals that prevent weeds from growing. The magic in this is that when weed seeds begin to germinate the allelopathic chemical stifles the new roots as they emerge which reduces the weed seeds in your soil. Leguminous cover crops like peas and oats (spring or fall but best in fall), fava beans (spring or fall) or crimson clover (spring or fall) fix nitrogen from the air, trapping it in their roots for the next plants to use. Nitrogen contributes to the green growth of plants and is the nutrient we need to add most often in the garden because it is a gas and moves about. Buckwheat (late spring through summer possibly fall, thrives in warm weather) is excellent at mining the soil for phosphorus, which contributes to root, flower, and fruit growth, which it then releases to plants as it decomposes.

Crimson Clover

Here is how I use cover crops. In spring I sow crimson clover under my fruit trees to enrich the soil and call in the pollinators, and as a bonus, it is adorable!In July, after harvesting my garlic, I sow buckwheat over the bed, chopping it down once I see about a third of it in flower (I don’t want it to reseed) allowing it to regrow. I cut the buckwheat two or three times, letting the cut parts lie on the soil as a mulch, until I turn them in later. Late in summer when my sweet corn or other warm-season crops are done, I sow fava or peas and oats in their place to enrich the soil. A heavy frost will kill the peas and oats, but favas will keep going until it gets persistently cold (below 20°F). I let the dead vegetation stand until spring; the roots hold the soil in place, shade the soil which preserves moisture, and feed microorganisms over winter. I have even used cover crops in newly created beds, giving them some nutrition and keeping the weeds at bay while I decide what to sow. A healthy soil is a soil covered in something living. With few exceptions, a bare patch of soil will quickly be covered with vegetation which nurtures and protects it. Gardening with cover crops is a way we can pick beneficial plants to cover that bare patch.

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.” – Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

Read more information on cover crops and how to choose the right cover crop for your organic gardening goals in our article, Cover Crops for a Naturally Better Garden.

Have you been using cover crops in your garden? Share your insight and experience in the comments below!

How to Make a Radish Rose

Radish roseSometimes a plain ol’ radish just won’t do! Liven up your party vegetable trays or salads with radish roses. They are surprisingly so simple to make.

Directions:

Using a paring knife, make five rounded cuts all around the bottom of the radish about 3/4 of the way down, but not through. After the first five cuts, make another five rounded cuts above and staggered between the first cuts (see diagram). Repeat for a total of three rows of rounded cuts (or more depending on the size of the radish). Use the tip of the paring knife to make a divet in the top of the radish to create the center of the “flower”. After all cuts are made, soak in ice water for at least 1 hour, but up to overnight, so radish cuts open into a flower form.

Radish rose diagram

Let us know how yours come out! Share a picture and hastag #botanicalinterests.

5 Reasons to Grow from Seed in a Container

Containers are great for small space gardeners or gardeners that want create more growing space (some of us can never get enough!). A patio or balcony suddenly becomes an extension of the garden or a little oasis off an apartment. Some of my friends’ children are now adults (when did this happen?!) and as they move away from the nest to an apartment or condo, space is often limited, but they miss the peace of the garden back home. Gardening from seed in containers is a simple, inexpensive way for them to create something green to nurture that will nurture them in return.

  1. Containers are portable. You can bring your containers indoors for warmer germination temperatures, to protect plants from frost, or move plants to capture ideal sun conditions throughout the season. This is also a great asset when renting. You can bring your plants with you if you move!
  2. Plants perform best when direct sown. There are lots of variety options to direct sow in containers. Sowing seeds in the place they will grow (versus transplanting) will give you stronger, healthier plants.
  3. You can better control the growing conditions by choosing a quality growing medium (potting soil) and organic fertilizers without the testing and trial and error that is often needed with permanent gardens.
  4. Add space! If you are a veteran gardener and already have your plot planned, containers give you a chance to try something new without having to change your garden design.
  5. Sowing from seed saves lots of money, saving your dough while you enjoy the fruits of your labor, literally. Most gardeners, including me, would say there really is something magical about growing from seed. You put a tiny “rock” in the soil and before you know it you are harvesting a boatload of cucumber!

Click here for container friendly varieties. Now to choose a container! See our article Choosing a Container for tips. Share your container gardening experiences, tips or questions in the comments below.

Happy container gardening!

Basil Simple Syrup

basil simple syrup

Flavored simple syrup can bring new life to your favorite beverages. And just like the name implies, it is so simple to do! Basil, in particular, pairs deliciously with strawberries and lemons. Try this basil simple syrup in place of sour mix in a strawberry margarita or as a sweetener to homemade lemonade. It’s so refreshing that you’ll be inspired to create your own drink recipes!

Ingredients:

1 cup of fresh basil leaves
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Directions:
  1. Mix the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Add basil leaves and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved.
  2. Simmer and stir frequently for about 12 to 15 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
  4. Strain out leaves and pour into a jar. Store in the refrigerator for about a week.

Pickled Red Beets

Pickled beets in jars and bowl

Tangy on a salad or crunchy in a sandwich, pickled beets are a kitchen staple for beet lovers. Our customer service manager, Dan Blei, shares his favorite pickling recipe.

Ingredients:
  • 1 bunch red beets (about 6 medium to large beets). Bulls Blood, Detroit Dark Red, or Early Wonder work well for this recipe.
  • 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Directions:
  • Thoroughly scrub the beets and chop off tops.
  • Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil, and drop the beets in. Allow beets to cook until they are tender and can be pierced with a fork, about 30-40 minutes.
  • Remove beets from water and allow them to cool before peeling skins off.
  • Slice beets into disks and layer into 8-ounce Mason jars, alternating layers of onions and beets.
  • Combine liquid ingredients, sugar, and seasonings, bring to a boil, and boil gently, uncovered, for 10 min.
  • Pour hot pickling liquid over beet and onion layers and place jars in the fridge.
  • Allow about a week for beets and onions to pickle.
  • Store in the refrigerator and enjoy for up to 3 weeks.

 

 

DIY Seed Bombs

DIY Seed Bombs

Flower Mix Bulb Companions

Seed bombs are fun to make, and an easy way to bring color to an otherwise dull section of the garden. They make great gifts! Kids love making seed bombs and winter is a perfect time to get your flower seeds ready to toss about in the spring.

Supplies

  • 1 part mixed flower seeds native to your area (1 packet can make several seed bombs)
  • 4 parts natural clay
  • 1 part seed-starting mix or compost

 Instructions 

  1. Roll out and flatten clay.
  2. Combine seed-starting mix or compost with the flower seeds and gently knead into the clay. Be sure to evenly mix all ingredients.
  3. Roll clay into a 1″” diameter tube.
  4. Cut or pinch off 1″ sections and roll into balls. Each seed bomb should be about the size of a small meatball.
  5. Place on a tray in a sunny window to harden for about 24–48 hours.

Wait for the recommended sowing time for your climate and toss the seed bombs into their desired location. In cold climates, sow 2 to 4 weeks before your average last frost date. In mild climates, sow fall through early spring. The seed bombs will dissolve over time and grow into a beautiful wildflower garden!

We’d love to see how creative you get with your seed bombs. Hashtag your creations with #botanicalinterests on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Favorite Heirloom Stories

heirloom on seed packet

One of the reasons I started Botanical Interests was to continue the tradition of passing down gardening and plant knowledge to future generations of gardeners. Heirloom varieties fall into that same romantic notion—knowing that the seeds I’m sowing today are the “children” of the seeds sown generations ago. Whenever we find a good story, we include it on the seed packet. Here are some of my favorites.

Walla Walla’ onion: Peter Pieri, a French soldier, brought Italian sweet onion seeds from the Island of Corsica to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington in the late 1800s, hoping to sell them as green onions. Unfortunately, Pieri wasn’t able to sell the whole crop, so much of the onion crop was left in the field over the winter. He was surprised that the onions survived the winter, growing into a robust, large, slicing onion, and reseeded the following summer, making ‘Walla Walla’ one of the most cold hardy onions!

‘Padrón’ chile pepper: The ‘Padrón’ pepper became well known as a Spanish pepper but it was actually brought from South America in the 1700s by Spanish monks who cultivated it at their monastery near Padrón. There is now an annual festival held on the first Saturday in August in the parish of Herbón, in Padrón, Spain where everyone can taste these famous peppers. There is a local saying, “Los pimientos de Herbón (Padrón), unos pican y otros no,” which means “Herbón (Padrón) peppers, some are hot, others not”.

Jimmy Nardello’ sweet pepper: Guiseppe and Angela Nardiello of Southern Italy grew this pepper each year in their homeland, and in 1887 they immigrated to Connecticut, bringing the seeds of their beloved pepper. Their son Jimmy continued to grow and preserve this unique variety, eventually sharing it with the public before his passing in 1983. Since its release, it has gained a big following of foodies, chefs, and gardeners alike. Over the years, the spelling of the Nardiello name changed, but the flavor of ‘Jimmy Nardello’ persists, gaining it an entry into Slow Foods USA® Ark of Taste catalog in 2005 as a cultivar to preserve due to its rich, unique flavor.

Miss Jekyll’ love-in-a-mist: Gertrude Jekyll was a 20th century, influential garden designer and botanical painter, who used her knowledge to experiment with garden designs, specifically with perspective and complementary colors. Maybe for this reason she preferred to call herself a “garden artist” rather than a “garden designer.” But it was in her younger years that she selected and bred plants, including the love-in-a-mist that bears her name, primroses, foxgloves, and lupines. And perhaps her name sounds familiar? Gertrude’s younger brother was friends with the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who borrowed their name for his famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Russell Blend lupine: This stately mix of lupines was developed after decades of breeding work by George Russell (1857–1951) of York, England. He grew several species of lupines and let the bees pollinate the flowers. At the end of each season, he saved seeds from the plants he liked, always removing the plants he felt were inferior. He did this year after year, keeping seeds from only those plants with denser, larger flowers in bright colors and fast maturity. Russell was rewarded for his work at the age of 80 with honors from the Royal Horticultural Society, and an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire certificate) at the age of 94. His breeding efforts made it possible for gardeners in mild climates to also enjoy lupines, as previously the available lupines needed a winter period to perform well.

‘American Legion’ flanders poppy: Long known as the corn poppy because it flourishes as a weed in the grain fields of Europe, the Flanders poppy as it is now often called, grew profusely in the trenches and craters of the WWI war zone of historical Flanders Field along the coast of Belgium and France. Lt. Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian Army field surgeon was inspired to write the poem, “In Flanders Fields” after the burial of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer who was killed in battle. The corn poppy has since become a symbol of wartime remembrance. The significance results from the fact that on the World War I battlefields of the Flanders region, poppies sprang up in abundance to blanket the fields with a sea of red. The red poppy is symbolic of the blood that was shed there. (368 U.S. soldiers from World War I are buried in Flanders Field cemetery in Belgium.) In 1920, the American Legion adopted this red poppy as its memorial flower. This packet is dedicated to those men and women who fought for the Allies during the two World Wars; as time passes, the number of men and women from that unique generation dwindles. We must not forget the lessons they learned. We must strive to hear the stories they tell, and respect the price they paid for future generations to be free.

Which are you favorites? Share with us!

Online-Exclusive Varieties

‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper

Sometimes I find some really fun items that I just have to have, but that you will only find in our online store.

If you’re a daredevil looking for the next hot pepper, try the ‘Bhut Jolokia’ Ghost pepper for real heat intensity or the ‘Scotch Bonnet’ for Caribbean dishes. I really love to surprise people with the Rat Tail radish; a radish you grow for their flavorful seed pods that grow above ground! If you’re looking for impressive ornamentals, ‘Black Dragon’ coleus will definitely please, and it is one of my favorite shade plants. ‘Purple Majesty’ ornamental millet is also a show-stopper as the center of attention in containers, and kids love the fuzzy flower spikes.

We also have a few dozen, themed collections that I have hand-picked to speak to specific gardeners’ needs and wants. For example, the Frost-Tolerant Vegetables and Southern Kitchen collections are created for the cold-climate and warm-climate gardeners respectively, while the Children’s Garden collection features seeds that are easy to handle and/or grow, even for the youngest gardener. My personal favorite is the Moon Garden collection, which includes bright white and night-scented blooms that glow in the moonlight.

I hunted to bring you what I consider the best hand tools—Burgon & Ball tools.  They are endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society (one of the world’s leading horticultural organizations), and are functional with a classic design. I use them in my own garden, so I wanted to bring them to you. There are also soil thermometers to help you determine the best time to sow for maximum germination and a beautiful seed packet storage bin that comes in blue or burgundy.

So take a look around, experiment, I hope you find the perfect variety to make your garden, cuisine, or vase uniquely you!

Meatless Eggplant “MeatBalls”

Meatless Eggplant balls recipe

With purple being the new color of health foods, we’re celebrating! These meatless eggplant “meatballs” are savory, a little smoky, and light. Try them over pasta with a little Parmesan cheese, or in a pita pocket with Greek tzatziki sauce.

INGREDIENTS

1 tbsp olive oil
2 eggplants, skin on, cubed
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 egg
1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
1/2 c bread crumbs
To taste:
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Sauté garlic in olive oil over medium heat for about 30 seconds.
3. Add eggplant and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes.
4. Add all ingredients to food processor and pulse and mixed. Do not purée.

eggplant balls recipe

5. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and make eggplant mixture into balls.
6. Place on sheet and bake for 10 minutes, then roll over and bake for 10 minutes more.
7. Place under broiler until crispy, another 5 to 10 minutes.

Top 5 Reasons to Garden from Seed

Gardening from seedGardening from seed has big advantages

Even though I have gardened from seed since childhood, the experience of taking what looks like a tiny stone, sowing it, and watching it grow still seems magical; it is faith realized, and it nurtures me as I nurture it. While sometimes that inspiration is all I need to garden from seed, there are some other very important reasons, too.

  1. Know what you grow. Did you know that many of the conventionally-grown vegetables at the grocery store test positive for pesticide residue even after washing and peeling? Growing your own allows you to choose what goes into your family’s food. Here is a list of vegetables that are the worst offenders when it comes to pesticide residue.
  2. Save money. Growing from seed is much less expensive than buying plants or produce, especially organic choices. For example, most food gardeners I know grow green beans because the quality is so much better than the grocery store and they are a pretty easy crop (they also add nitrogen to the soil!). A seed packet of bush beans sows about 12 feet of bean plants which will yield about 5 lb. of beans. The cost of the packet is $2.39. A six pack of plants will run you $3-4 and plants 2′ (pssst green beans don’t transplant well so expect lower yields). Five pounds of (less than fresh) green beans at the grocery store will cost around $11. Did we mention the seeds in our example are certified organic?
  3. More choices. Grocery stores and garden centers offer only a fraction of available selections. Gardening from seed gives you the option to grow something unique, exotic, or rare.
  4. Reduce plant stress. In many cases sowing seeds in place versus transplanting from greenhouse-started plants leads to quick, stress-free growth, meaning faster, and often more flowers and more fruit, especially in the case of root crops of plants sensitive to root disturbance.
  5. Perfect timing. There are advantages to starting some crops early, usually vegetables that tolerate transplanting and take a long time to mature, like peppers, onions, or tomatoes. Starting these indoors gives me a head start in my shorter growing season, as I would never see a pepper if I sowed it directly outdoors.

I can’t tell you how many times I have wandered out to the garden saying, “Let’s see what’s for dinner.” I slow down from my busy day when I stroll out to the garden with a glass of wine and my favorite wooden bowl to see what peaks my culinary interest that evening. Such a personal reward for all my elbow grease in the garden!

What inspires you to grow from seed? Share your inspiration with our growing community in the comments below.