Straight and Narrow

After the first rush of excitement when the plant catalogs start pouring into the mailbox each winter, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed by the variety of plants available.

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While it would be lovely to have the money and space to plant some of everything, that’s not reality for the vast majority of us. Sure, maybe you can plant twenty kinds of seeds, but planting twenty kinds of fruit trees is less likely to be an option. Everything in the catalogs is bound to look appealing in the dead of winter. Narrowing down the choices is part science, part art, and part deciding you’ve packed and repacked your parachute enough times and taking the jump.

In order to spread the costs out and avoid decision fatigue, my own approach has been to focus on one section of our property each year, all the while keeping my big picture in mind: grow a variety of food, plant enough to share, give the plants what they need, minimize labor, and aim for pretty.

The area I am working on this year has a mulberry tree and a small wisteria, each about fifteen years old. The mulberry fruited its first and second years, but hasn’t since. This was a disappointment, as mulberries are one of my favorite childhood foods, so I knew I wanted more mulberries. Other than that, I was open to anything.

For each plant I considered, I researched the following questions:

Will it grow well in my zone? (Zone 6)

When does it fruit? (I’d like to be harvesting continually, rather than all at once.)

How big is it? (Will I have room for it, and will it thrive among nearby plantings?)

Is it self-pollinating? (If not, I’ll need more than one.)

Does it have thorns? (I’m anti-thorn.)

What kind of soil and sun does it need? (Wet, hot, shady, dry?)

Do I want to eat it? (Just because I can grow it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)

Do I like the way it looks? (I’d sacrifice looks for flavor if necessary, but it rarely is.)

Is there likely to be a market for excess? (Not a concern for everyone, but as I sell produce and preserves and hope to sell a greater quantity in the future, important for me to consider.)

I settled on three varieties of mulberry: Illinois Everbearing, Shangri La, and Weeping Mulberry. The Illinois is a large tree that begins fruiting in June. The Shangri La will fruit a bit earlier, beginning in May, and is mid-sized at about 20 feet. Smallest of all is the Weeping Mulberry, which is the kind I grew up with, making it more a nostalgic choice than a strategic one.

Along with the mulberries I’ll be planting two pawpaw trees, Sunflower Pawpaw and SAA Overleese Pawpaw. Again, one is a bit larger than the other. My objective is to create something of a food forest – a garden which mimics nature, where plants grow in layers, tall trees spaced widely to provide an open canopy, shorter trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants nestled around and under. Plants in straight rows may look tidy, but I want to garden as a participant in nature, not a director.

To begin my shrub level I chose three varieties of honeyberry (Blue Moon, Blue Pacific, and Blue Velvet) and to get started on the groundcover I chose wintergreen. The honeyberries will bloom early and the wintergreen late, extending my fruit harvesting season.

I’ll likely need more for the shrub layer, and will plant some bulbs and possibly some herbs as well, but we’ll be off to a good start this spring. All told, I’ll spend about $300 on this area. That’s about half as much as we spend each month on groceries for our family of four. Not small change, but I’d just as soon have my savings grow in my backyard as in the bank.

Happy New Year

As a gardener, my internal calendar doesn’t quite match up with the one that governs other people.

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Garlic goes in the ground at the end of October, marking the start of my new gardening year. I planted over 200 cloves yesterday, on what was luckily for me a gorgeous fall afternoon.

If you’ve never grown garlic, I recommend giving it a try. You can find all sorts of instructions for complicating the issue, but in my experience keeping it simple works just fine. Separate your garlic into cloves – don’t peel them – and pop them in the ground with the pointy side up. Give each one enough space to grow into a head of garlic. They’ll be ready to harvest some time in July, when the leaves of the plant begin to yellow and die.

Garlic from a grocery store may not sprout, as it is sometimes treated to prevent that from happening, so your best bet is to buy from a garden supplier. But if all you have access to is what’s at your local grocery, give it a try. Food generally wants to grow, and will if given a chance.

Smell My Feet

Halloween is coming.

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Your payback for scooping mounds of stringy, wet, goopy mess with nothing but a spoon and your bare hand? Something good to eat.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Preheat oven to 400.

Rinse seeds.

For every 1/2 cup of seeds, mix 2 cups water with 1 Tablespoon salt.

Put the seeds in the salt water and bring to a good boil.

Remove the seeds from the water, spread them on a cookie sheet, and sprinkle with salt, cayenne, cinnamon and sugar, whatever you like.

Bake for 10-20 minutes, til crunchy.

Slice of Life

I picked myself a bouquet today.

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What’s that, you’re more interested in the slice of pie in the background? Can’t blame you. It’s been a pie kind of week around here, for sure.

Pumpkin Pie

Preheat oven to 375.

Combine:

16 oz pumpkin puree

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

Break up 3 eggs, then lightly beat them into the mixture.

Add 1 cup of milk.

Prepare your pie crust and pour in the pumpkin filling. (Need a crust recipe? Try the one I used with the apple pie. You’ll only need half.)

Cover the edges of the pie with tin foil.

Bake 25 minutes.

Remove the tin foil and bake an additional 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Mum’s the Word

Somehow I made it over 40 years without realizing mums were chrysanthemums.

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Never said I was a genius.

Mums can be overdone, but they’re our best bet for color outside of falling leaves in October. I’ve seen some beautiful gardens around town with shades of orange and gold, a perfect complement to what’s happening around them, but I prefer bright color in my own yard for as long as I can have it. Happily mums can fit that bill as well, as they grow in a wide variety of colors.

Divide and Conquer

Now’s the time to divide plants.

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One nice thing about transplanting perennials in the fall is that the plants are about to die back anyway, so even if they have a bit of a shock and their leaves struggle or wither, they’re likely to come back in the spring just fine.

Talk of green thumbs can give the impression that plants are very fragile, but they’re not. I separated huge bunches of daylilies this week. Other than making sure the roots weren’t in the air long enough to dry out, I didn’t give them any special treatment, and was in fact a bit rough with them. I used a nice sharp shovel to cut through the clumps of roots, pulled the plants apart, then into the ground they went.

I don’t have any real design plan for my gardens, so when I separate perennials and move them around I make my best guess as to what might work in a given location. After a few years of doing this things start to come together, maybe not in a way that would end up in any magazines, but in a way I’m happy with. In gardening the fun really is in the process – the digging, the planning, the daydreaming – not only in the end result.

Space Invaders

If you’re looking for a fall-blooming flower and don’t mind if it takes over your space a bit, perennial Ageratum is a good choice.

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It wants to spread and does so via rhizomes, so it’s perfect for filling in a large area quickly. Nondescript throughout the summer, it comes into its own in late September or early October, and will bloom straight through the first frost. The color is quite vibrant, contrasting nicely with russets and oranges of autumn. Right now mine is blooming next to bright pink asters, and I can almost pretend I’m warm.

Warm Wishes

We’re a bit late getting the firewood in this year.

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The just about empty shed was starting to make me feel a bit panicky. A day with the log splitter made a good start, and we’ll finish up this weekend, assuming the weather cooperates. We’re working with some very gnarly wood from a tree that was hundreds of years old. This will be the fourth year it’s kept us warm, and we made two side tables from it as well. I wish it was still standing in its old spot, but I’m glad to know none of it has gone to waste.