Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seed Catalogs: Reviewing the Pros and Cons

I don't know about you, but this is the season for seed catalogs and I certainly have gotten my share this year and have been inundated in the past as well.  They do tend to pile up in numbers but their color filled pages get me to dreaming about this year's garden.

Why even order out of a catalog?  
After all, most stores carry lots of seeds this time of year.  Well, here's a look at why you may want to consider placing a seed order through the mail and the downsides as well.  

If you've never ordered out of a seed catalog, then it's pages can seem a bit daunting for sure.  But once you narrow down the staple items you're looking for, like beans, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, etc; it gets much easier.  So let's take a look at the benefits first of ordering seeds through the mail or online.

1. Choices, choices and choices!! 
  Why you do have quite a few options in the store, seed catalogs generally carry a lot more inventory and this means more choices and options for you.  This is one step closer to gardening successfully.

2. More options means finding varieties suited to YOUR growing conditions.  
 This is one huge advantage I love about seed catalogs.  Not only many varieties, but you can pick a zucchini that is a space saver and only 47 days until fruiting...this is a huge plus if you are short on space and live in an area that has a short growing season.  Stores usually carry a limited amount of vegetables and each variety may have only 3-5 choices depending on what it is.  This means that if I'm looking for an heirloom squash or more choices in certain kinds of pumpkins, I'm probably going to be very limited in what they offer.

3. It's much easier to find and buy heirloom and organic seeds. 
  If you only plant these types of seeds, then they will be much more difficult to find in a store.  Burpee does offer its own heirloom seeds, but again, their offerings are pretty limited and if organic is the only option for you, then this option may not even be in the stores.  I have to grow some hybrids because of limited space and I need disease resistant tomatoes, so I tend to use a catalog that will carry a selection of heirlooms as well.

4. You get more seeds per package. 
 What's great about most seed companies is that they will give you an approximate number of seeds in a packet.  You generally get more in them then from a packet from the store.  This is not a problem for something like eggplant, but when it comes to green beans, I want to make sure I get enough for a good planting and I always do when ordering from a catalog. 

5. You get lots of information in your catalog about each variety.  
For me this is really important.  I like the descriptions from the smaller seed companies where they give personal reviews of what they liked about a specific variety of vegetable.  For instance, "...very sweet tasting and prolific...we harvested 20 peppers from one plant."  This helps me so much when making a decision.  I feel more assured I made the right choice.  When in the store, the lack of information makes me feel like I'm taking a shot in the dark with that vegetable.  Many times it works, but it feels more stressful because they just don't tell you a lot.

6. You can actually help support seed saving. 
 If you order from the Seed Savers Exchange, then you are helping a non-profit business succeed with its vision to save heirloom varieties for future generations.  That always feels pretty good!  Also, you should be able to save the seeds of many of the varieties from there because they are open-pollinated. Buy once and plant many times again.

The downsides...

1. It can be expensive.  
Not only can the seed prices be a little heftier depending on what company you are ordering from, but if you add in the shipping charges, this can add up very quickly.  I do find the quality is really good with most seed companies though. If you're ordering from a catalog but don't have a large order, you may be able to share the expenses with another gardening friend.

2.  You may not be able to get all your seed needs from one catalog.  
This is where it can really hurt you.  Paying shipping one time can be bad enough, but twice?  Ouch.  I try to place an order with the company that is going to offer me the most varieties I'm looking for and use the store to supplement the seeds that I don't need to be as fussy about.

3.  It takes time to get your order. 
This is not a problem if you order early, but if you don't then you won't be able to get what you're looking for in time to grow for that season.  I've procrastinated about ordering so many times and missed out on certain vegetables I wanted to grow.  You have to be purposeful when ordering through the mail.

A few more bonuses with seed catalogs...

1. Lots of great information!  
They usually give you more planting information for a specific vegetable and then a great description of each variety.  When just starting out in gardening, I used to study seed catalogs because they are packed full of great gardening knowledge (I still study them!) I've noticed this most with the smaller specialty companies. They know that more practical information means you'll have a better garden, and they want you to do well with their seeds.  So they are generous on planting tips, how-to's and facts about different varieties.  This makes them great free resources that make junk mail pretty valuable!

2. They sometimes include recipes. 
 How great is that?  I love that they give you ideas for some of the specific foreign type vegetables too...this is a fun plus that helps you to want to experiment with different varieties than what you may be used to.

3. They can make your garden much more successful.  That's right.  With all the great information, they can help you choose varieties suited for your particular growing zone and region.  The more specific you plant to your growing area the better your harvest will be.  For example, they will often tell you what kind of onions to grow if you live in the north as opposed to the south.  They will often recommend varieties that have been proven to grow well in certain zones too.  This helps so much if you're a new gardener or are trying to grow a new vegetable that you've never tried before.  You typically don't find this information in a store display of seeds.

Cook's Garden

So, there you have it...just a few things to think about when considering ordering online or from a catalog.  I always order online from the paper catalog as I like reading from a paper copy better than trying to read everything online.  However, you may find navigating a web page a bit easier than a catalog.

I personally am hoping paper catalogs never stop as they are great to pick up and hold and pass along to a friend and gardener.

What's your favorite seed catalog?


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Friday, February 22, 2013

Tulips in February

Tulips are perennial favorites...literally.  They faithfully come back year after year to show off their shocking shades of reds, yellows and whites and the myriads of colors in between.  

I got this bouquet from my Valentine and I have to say I was so pleased when he came in the door with them.  It had been a tough week with my mom in the hospital (she's in a rehab facility now.)  It made this bouquet even more special and amazing.

So, I decided to have some fun with a few photos I was able to take of them.  The first has two textures from Kim Klassen.
The second had no filters, the third one has a few effects. 

I planted my first tulip bulbs almost 20 years ago from some extra bulbs dug up from a church flower bed being redone.  I really didn't think they would grow the next spring, but like faithful beacons, they came up and a few remaining continue to come up year after year.  Well, maybe not the originals, but their progeny for sure.  Planted in fall with a bit of bone meal, and without rodents eating them, they will pretty much take care of themselves with little help from me.

A bit of springtime in February...lovely.


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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Valerian: Natural Sleep Aid and Relaxant

Soon after I married, I began to take a huge interest in herbs and herbal medicines.  I don't know where this interest came from, but it was consuming.  I think I checked out every book from the library I could get on the subject and got herbal reference books for a few years after that.  

 All this study paid off because after our two boys were born and while still babies and toddlers, I began to look for a natural sleep aid.  I soon started using Valerian Root to help get through some restless nights.  My husband, highly skeptical but very desperate, began to use them as well.  We soon discovered that this highly unlikely herb had a permanent place in our medicine cabinet and we've been using it for over 15 years.

Valerian has been used for centuries to help soothe nervous tensions, anxiety and mild insomnia.


Even though we use it mostly as a sleep aid, Valerian is very effective as an overall tension reliever.  "It contains some unique substances such as valerenic acid and valeranon that have a central and muscle relaxant action that is particularly effective in treating stress and anxiety. It is one of the first herbs to consider if looking for a remedy to ease anxiety and panic attacks." (Source)

Valerian promotes an overall feeling of calmness and soothes and relaxes the muscular system.  


This is what causes you to be able to sleep as well.  It's not that it putting you to sleep, as much as it is relaxing you enough that your body is able to calm down and therefore you can go to sleep.

It relaxes the muscular system so well, that when I have a chiropractor's appointment, I always take 2 capsules (400 mg each) a half an hour to an hour before I go.  I always have a good adjustment when I do this.  If I don't take them, I usually don't adjust nearly as well and have more pain afterwards.

I have also used Valerian to help treat tension headaches that are going into a migraine headache.  I will take a few with a pain reliever and then continue to take them every few hours. They have really helped calm muscle spasms.  This makes them helpful for menstrual cramps as well.
 Valerian is great for cases of mild insomnia.  It helps you get a refreshing night's sleep but doesn't leave you with any side effects the next day.  

This is important as the whole point of sleeping is to feel refreshed the next day and Valerian can accomplish this without feeling over medicated.

I have found that if I'm am very stressed or having problems sleeping that Valerian can't handle, I will work on exercising, taking some chamomile tea, and overall relaxing more before bedtime.  It generally lasts me for four hours a night.  If I wake up after that, I will take another capsule which will get me through the rest of the early morning hours.

Valerian needs to be taken over the course of a few weeks in order for it to work for mild insomnia.

Like many herbal remedies, Valerian's benefits are gentle and accumulative.  This means you'll want to give it some time before you may notice a significant change.


More Benefits of Valerian:
  - It's very easy to find and buy.  I love the idea that I can just run to the drugstore and for a little over $3.00 a bottle, can bring a hundred capsules home.  You can also make your own capsules from purchased dried powder or your own plants.  Of course, if you make your own then you'll have to sacrifice your plant, but it does self sow pretty easily.

    - It's gentle and effective and non-habit forming.  You won't want to take it every day of your life for sure, but it is thought to be generally safe and even can have some health benefits.  We usually take a break from it after using it for a month or so but have never had any side effects from taking it long term.  This is one herb that is gentle enough to be considered a tonic.

Any Con's for Taking Valerian?
   - It is very odorous and this makes it not good for a tea but a capsule or maybe a tincture.  The Greeks named it "phu" because it smells, well, really bad.  Yes, this makes it hard to get past the lips, but once done, its benefits far outweigh any off odors.  I remember smelling a terrible odor in our bedroom one time.  We couldn't figure out where it was coming from and I actually thought something had died in that part of the room.  I finally discovered the opened bottle of Valerian.  I didn't make that mistake again!  

Valerian is too valuable of an herb to let a little bit of an odor get in the way. :)    

You can certainly grow your own Valerian, just make sure it's Valerian Officinalis to get the medicinal qualities you are looking for.  The upper parts of the plants are healing as well.  The plant is also used externally to help with bruising and minor infections.

I have not grown any as the capsules are so easy to find.  But it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a plant in the herb bed. Just another note...cats love this plant, so if you live in an area with roaming cats, be aware as they'll pretty much ruin it.  I lost a beloved catmint plant this way.  You'll want to put it in a place where it can have some protection from the feline species.

So, the next time you're struggling with sleep make sure to check out Valerian...just make sure to plug your nose when you open your first bottle! 


Have you used Valerian before?  How do you like it and what do you use it for?


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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cleveland: A Day in the City

Even though I'm a "girl from the burbs," I love to explore this city that is located only 40 miles west of us.  It's like a new frontier to me and even though it lacks somewhat in the color "green," it explodes with symmetry,  textures, and shapes that entice me to want to explore.

I have a few shots that I edited to capture the feel of some of the places we visited in the month of February of last year.  We were attending a ministry school then and were in the Cleveland area every weekend.  We spent one Saturday touring different sections of the city and learning about its history and getting to talk to a few people there as well.

One of Cleveland's historical colleges
One of my favorite stops was at the Baldwin-Wallace College.  It's a small campus but has the most amazing old buildings that make you stop to look and contemplate.

Cleveland was founded in 1796 and named after one of its directors, founders and surveyors - General Moses Cleaveland.  Surely not as old as our east coast cities and a real babe when compared to Europe; it still makes the city even more interesting as we realize that we're glimpsing back at our own historical beginnings.

The best place to take a break from a day trip...a local coffee house in the historic section of Tremont in Cleveland.  The woodwork was rich and dark; reminding me of the deep colored oaks of my grandparent's house.  Oh, and the coffee was pretty amazing too.

After a pretty great lunch at Mama Santa's , a simple place but one with award-winning Italian cuisine, we took a stroll outside to soak in the local atmosphere of this immensely charming neighborhood.  Full of cafes, art shops and bakeries; you could easily spend a whole day here alone.

In the heart of the industrial section of Cleveland, right by the Cuyahoga River.  Not only is Cleveland located right along Lake Erie, but the river runs through it as well making it a logical place for industry and transport.  It quickly grew in the 1800's.

Sorry I have no shots of the downtown area, but we didn't go there that day.  However, it was fun being able to see some of its neighborhoods and checking out some local places instead of heading only to a museum or play.

Overall, Cleveland has had its ups and downs economically through the years, but it continues to grow and revitalize as many of the districts are slowly being rebuilt and restored.

A very enjoyable glimpse into another "world."  


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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Community Gardens: A Few Things to Consider

Photo Source

Apartment dwellers, gardeners with limited space, people who are looking to share their garden experiences and new gardeners can all benefit from a community or a shared garden.  We've been a part of shared gardens for years before we got a plot at a new community garden in our area.

Our first shared garden experience involved driving a good 20-25 minutes to even get there.  A friend of ours shared a few rows of their garden space with us because we wanted to expand our tomato crop.    We learned a few things from sharing the space that helped us as we eventually gardened with another friend some years later even farther away from us!  Our community plot is only about 5 minutes down the road and has obviously worked the best for us.  

So here's a quick look at the upside and downside of sharing a garden space.

Our very small backyard garden

Why even consider community or shared gardens?

Lack of space, space, space!!  That is the reason that prompted us to look outside of our own space at first.  We actually wanted to grow lots of tomatoes to preserve, so we were looking to plant more. Having much more room to plant means opening up your options for more variety of vegetables.

To keep your yard freed up for other uses.  We know one gardening family that have a very large yard, but it bordered on a woods and the deer ravaged it year after year. For them, it was easier to grow it off premises and keep their yard wide open for their two young daughters.  

To learn from other gardeners.   Our second shared gardening experience was with a senior who had been tilling the soil for years.  He not only shared garden space with us, but also introduced us to new varieties and shared his growing wisdom as well.  It's amazing how much we don't know about gardening at times, and being able to talk to others who are planting in the same soil conditions helps a lot.  Seeing other people's plots in a community garden gives you new ideas for setting up your own garden space too.  I always study what others are doing and copy what looks like is working for them. 

 Some advantages of shared or community gardening:

Bonus Plants: No matter where we gardened, we always enjoyed bonuses...plants being one of them.  A community garden is an easy place to share, swap and exchange plants with others growers.  Our community garden has a covered shed where extra plants are available for those in need.  One year we were given a bunch of hot peppers.  We didn't want to grow too many so we gave our extras to some Hispanic gardeners who were happy to take them off of our hands.  We also were able to plant extras or left overs from other people's gardens which gave us some different veggies to try without any money risk of our own.  It's nice to share and trade, it creates a great way to get to know other gardeners.

Bonus Vegetables: Last year, we were able to give away our zucchini extras and allow other gardeners to try an heirloom variety that they found out they loved!  We often would harvest vegetables and either give away or trade for something we weren't growing.  We got a spaghetti squash last year for some winter squash, giving us a break from the overload of produce.  We still had more than plenty for fresh eating and preserving.  We like to grow an abundance so we can give it away as well...

Bonus Friendships: Our community garden is located behind a large local church and we were able to reconnect with friends from there and meet different people around us.  It's always great to cultivate new friendships.

The Disadvantages?

Traveling to your garden.  This means you have to carry your tools with you unless your community or shared garden offers storage or shared tools.  

Having to be more organized about working in the garden.  It's important to work in the garden 2-3 times a week in the beginning of planting, to water and weed.  If not - weeds will quickly wreak havoc in your garden.  Once the garden is established, we usually go once a week to water if needed and to keep up with weeds. We need to go more often once harvest begins. Sometimes it's easy to forget a garden, so planning on what days to go is crucial. 

Following the community garden's rules.  Every  community garden needs rules in order to keep peace and structure.  It's important to be supportive of the rules and guidelines in order to respect and honor the vision of the garden.  You will want to be on friendly terms with other growers and know if its vision will be compatible with your gardening beliefs.  Also, you will want to consider if you're willing to compromise in any area.

Having to adjust to different growing conditions. I thought I knew a lot about gardening until we started gardening in other places.  All of sudden, we had to deal with different soil conditions, sometimes different frost zones, different plant diseases and especially different insect pests.  In our community garden, we planted tomatoes but were flanked by potato growers.  This caused a huge surge in the potato beetle population which in turn worked on devouring our tomatoes and ruining our eggplant.  Also, the soil was so sandy that our first crop of green beans plants were the size of a full grown green bean.  We were ready to give up, but found that other crops that didn't do well at our house were thriving at this garden.  So we gave up on the tomatoes, (grew them successfully again at home) but planted root crops for a few years until we built the soil up.  So this I look at a disadvantage, but also as an advantage.

A few more tips to consider:

Be purposeful about what you plant.  Vegetables such as green beans, and onions can easily get lost in weeds AND it can happen fast.  If you only want to visit your garden once a week, these crops won't do as well.  I'm speaking this from experience! We grow lots of summer and winter squash as they are much easier to keep up with and grow better at the community garden than in our backyard space.

Consider mulching to conserve water and suppress weeds.  We mulch heavily with black and white newspaper topped with straw to keep up with the never ending weeds.  Shredded leaves are another great resource.

Overall, our shared gardening experiences have been well worth the extra work.  We are able to grow abundant vegetables there that the insects will ravage a few miles away and it's been working for us for a number of years now. This is a great bonus when gardening without using pesticides.

Even if you have plenty of space to garden, you may want to consider garden lending to help someone else out.  If you do, it would be important to establish rules and guidelines in order to maintain your relationship with those who are gardening with you.  It's a great way to teach a new gardener too and pass on valuable information to others in your community.

Have you ever gardened with someone else or in a community garden?  What was your favorite experience from it?

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sneak Peek at Spring Blooming Primrose (Cowslip)

Yellow Flowering Primula Veris
I couldn't resist going into the archives to pull out this photo of my Primula Veris or otherwise known as the herbal Cowslip.  I took it last spring but never used the photos for anything.  

I planted this primula some years was from a gardening friend who was in his upper 70's  and who could garden circles around me.  His energy was incredible and his gardens extensive.  A former English teacher, he bought interesting plants and bulbs from all over the world and this was one of many plants he passed on to me.  

I really didn't know much about it except that it was a primrose, and not the ones you commonly find in the stores.  So, I did a bit of research to learn more about this beautiful hardy perennial with its sunshine-y petals.

It is thought that the name "cowslip" comes from when it was found blooming in the meadows where cows were pastured. It is a low-growing plant with a rosette of leaves that produces a stalks of 10-30 flowers on a single stem.  It is a parent of the modern primrose and blooms from April to May.  It's also a favorite food of rabbits and I'm thankful my one specimen has survived the many rabbits in our little bit of suburbia. 

Some of its herbal uses are for insomnia and anxiety in tincture form.  The petals are thought to have a calming effect and promote sweating in the case of fevers. Ointments with the petals are used for sunburns and skin blemishes.

Common Name: Cowslip
I've not used mine medicinally as I have other plants that I can use that are more plentiful for the same things.  I just like how dependably beautiful this plant is year from year.  I have it planted in an east location in part shade where it does well.  It doesn't like hot summers though, so I try to water it occasionally when I see it wilting.  

If you don't have one of these beauties in your perennial border, you may want to check them out, they're are worth having and they won't disappoint.

Besides, why should cows be the only ones to enjoy them?

What's your favorite primrose?

Herbal information resource for this article:

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

One Way to Beat Garden Boredom

Garden boredom?  This may seem like a strange topic in February, but as a "long-time" (20 year) gardener, sometimes the reality of garden work hits home.  I remember years when seed catalogs would come in and I would quickly put them somewhere out of sight so I wouldn't stress out.  Weird right?  Not really. 

It's not difficult to get burned out on the things we enjoy...especially when we feel like we HAVE to do them, anything can become a chore.  

And this brings me to my way I personally beat garden boredom.  It starts now, in January/February, when I have time to think about what I liked growing last year and what I'm growing this year.

Because it's making gardening fun that keeps me coming back.  Even having a large harvest can only satisfy me creatively for a short amount of time.  

I need variety...and that's where my one boredom buster comes in...

Every year I plant different and unusual varieties of vegetables and flowers that draw me back to the soil and inspire me to explore the world of gardening again.

I know.  It's not rocket science.  Chances are you're already doing this.  And if you're new to gardening, everything plant is new.  But this principle has resurrected the love of gardening in me so many times I lost count.

So, here's a short list of some garden veggies I plan on growing this year.  New and different to me, giving me alternative colors, sizes, flavors and textures that compel me to have fun and play in the garden.

Tumbling Tom Yellow Tomatoes

 1. Tumbling Toms: Okay.  I admit I am fascinated by any weeping variety of plant.  And to think I could eat from a hanging plant is even more exciting.  Since I'm so cramped for space, this is a great way to grow a vegetable from a vertical space. I chose the yellow variety thinking the birds won't think these are strawberries and leave them alone...or something like that.  I don't think these will blow me away in the taste department, but they'll do for roasting or throwing on a salad. 

Sweet Pickle Pepper

2. Sweet Pickle Peppers: These type of ornamental peppers have been around for awhile for sure, but I have always encountered the hot variety so this sweet one has reeled me in.  It's colorful, compact and other words, this plant is perfect for my suburban yard.  I read about these peppers from another person's blog and it convinced me to give these little beauties a try.  These would be great if you have young children..they could eat these as a snack on their own.  You can also pickle the leftovers...

Summer Green Tiger Zucchini and Small Wonder Hybrid Squash

3. Space-saving Zucchini and Squash: Well, no need to go into detail here.  These are pretty mainstream veggies but the fact that they can be grown in large containers or in a small garden space make these tempting to grow in my garden this year.  The zucchini is described as having a "delicate, nutty flavor." Sounds amazing.  The spaghetti squash is great because each squash can make one meal.  I usually cut these in half and put them in a skillet filled with some water, cover, simmer gently until done.  

Dragon Tongue Wax Bush Bean

4. Fresh eating and Shell Bean: This plant just screams "Plant Me!!"  You put this in your garden and all your friends will think you're a genius and gardener extraordinaire! Another way to keep me from being bored for sure.  It's beautiful, it's an heirloom, and it's a dual purpose!
I am thinking that I will want to save some of these seeds for next year and maybe even gift some to other gardening friends...I think this one is going to be a winner!

Well, there you have it.  These are just a few of the different plants I'll be growing this year.  Some Asian greens will also be included as well.  Plant your own unusual and exciting varieties of veggies and the garden "hum-drums" will be a thing of the past.  

Colorful, flavorful and interesting... this year's garden promises to be very interesting indeed. 

What are you doing to beat any garden blues?  Growing anything different or exciting?

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Winter's Storms

Baby, it's cold outside but that's okay as long as I'm next to the warmth of our woodstove roaring away on this brutal 12 degree day.  It's not as cold as some spots in the world, so I'm happy with that. But 12 degrees is, well, 12 degrees and that is pretty chilly in my book.

We're on the second wave of snow according to the weather people.  Yesterday was a Lake Effect Snow Storm Warning, now we're getting snow from a Northern Clipper.  One more wave is coming tomorrow through Monday.  We don't have a lot of snow accumulation where we live, but it's enough that the roads are not nice...

That means spending extra time cleaning and thawing your cars before you can think of going somewhere.  That's part of the cost of a winter storm.  It takes more time to get things done, so it slows you down and it's an inconvenience for sure.

But, maybe the slowing down part isn't so bad.  It slows us down to make us realize how good things were before the storm and how fine they'll be after them. 

After all, it takes the storms in life to make us appreciate the sunny days and how the sun always shines after the rain...or snow in this case. 

Storms can either make us afraid or make us stronger.  I like the second choice better...

Here's a short video produced by my son of some winter footage around our small town...enjoy!

Hoary Madtown - A Frozen Wasteland from Luke Roberts on Vimeo.

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