March 21, 2010

Planting Peas

English Peas
Any gardening blog worth its words this week will either be posting about four leafed clovers, or planting peas, for in many areas, particularly Zone 4-6, mid-March, on or near Saint Paticks Day, is the traditional time to plant peas, but why? Well, gardening is a practice with lots of heritage, after all, there was time not long ago, when all of our food actually came from our gardens. Our lives depended on what we could grow successfully, so that we could eat. In northern areas where there is snow on the ground until Mid March, especially in USDA Zone 5, it was common to hear old timers refer to certain events as guidance in planting or harvesting certain crops. Full moons, spring peepers, maple blossoms, forsythia flowers, all have corresponding agricultural events in the great datebook of old-timer farmers, and as many of these things work, we continue the tradition.

Peas can’t be grown by anyone, they prefer a cool, long, spring and ideally, one which is extended well into early June. Since we can’t guarantee air temperatures in the highly variable transitional months of March, April and May, we all take our chances with Peas, and our odds are better if we plant early, or, as the seed packets often advise, “as soon as the ground can be worked”. If you are a new gardener, it’s easy to believe that all seeds from packets, can just be sprinkled in rows in the ground, and they will grow, but there is far more to know. Even today, I have to remind myself to read-up a bit more on everything that I sow, for if success has avoided you with a certain flower or veggie, simply learning what they require culturally, is step number one. Basil need temperatures above 75 degrees to sprout, and if you’ve struggled in growing Bells of Ireland ( Moluccela laevis), they require near freezing outdoor temperatures and outdoor sowing, in order to sprout and grow.

My Parents always planted their shell peas in March, as soon as the snow melted, and a pitchfork could turn the soil over without it being soggy. Muddy soil is not preferable, for seed will rot. I have learned that with my modern lifestyle ( work, long hours at the office, and little time to weed) that small, raised beds now make much more sense than the long, 60 foot rows that my parents would plant in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Now that I think about it, I have about 35 years of experience with growing peas of all sorts, so, though not an expert, I can say that I have experience with multiple healthy crops of Snap Peas, Snow Peas, Shell Peas, English Peas and cut flower Sweet Peas, so I will share the methods I have tried, and what has worked best.

The late Jim Crockett was fond of saying, "If you are stingy with your peas, they'll be stingy with you." Indeed, I remember when he hosted what was then my favorite TV show next to Batman in the early 1970’s, Crocket’s Victory Garden, where he demonstrated how to plant your peas thickly in wide rows, so that they can climb up both sides of a fence. .

Here is what you will need.

A. Pea Seeds ( any type, but consider the height, you may want dwarfer varieties to avoid elaborate staking).

B. Some sort of staking material, which is critical, even for dwarfer varieties. You may simply cut brush and branches now and let them dry, such as birch, but they will need about 3 weeks to dry dead to avoid sprouts on the branches one stuck in the ground, or, you an buy netting, chicken wire or mesh. Bamboo poles, or traditional staking will not work, and tying string to sticks will only result in broken pea stems after a heavy rain. Just think like a pea – it’s all about the tendrils, and what tendrils will like-mainly, netting tightly stapled to strong 2x4’s. Since most peas will grow 6 feet tall, this is a major element to factor in.

I use either branches from tree trimmings, mostly birch since you want ‘twiggyness’, and I shove the branches in just after sowing . Since I plant the seeds in trenches that are deep, and wide ( see below), the branches already mark where the peas are planted, and once they germinate, I the branches are already there, so I don’t ruin any roots or tender shoots. Plus, by adding the staking material in now, you are less likely to forget once the peas require it, which happens to be at the busiest time of the gardening year, around June 1st.

B. Legume Inoculant – Sounds scary, but it’s safe and organic. Inoculant is a powder, a living bacteria, like (Yogurt for Peas – good bacteria to help them grow) . Inoculant is alive like yeast, so handle it carefully, keep it in a cool, dry place, and don’t over heat it. Use it all once opened, or toss the extra for it will die if kept over a season.

It is used to dust dampened seed of agricultural legume crops like beans peas and soybeans, so that they can form root nodules that will allow them to attract more naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria (called rhyzobium). You can see these nitrogen fixing nodules if you pull your plants up out of the ground in mid-summer, they are little pink bumps. Inoculant comes crop-specific, so read the label carefully, for there is one specific for beans or for peas. There is also as a combo form, which is most common for home gardeners.

There are lots of discussions on-line about whether there are any studies or not showing crops with or without, but I trust the agricultural experts on this one, and since it is not a chemical, I use it. Your soil may not require it, and others can grow good crops without, so I leave it up to you. You would need to buy it so that you have it when you plant your peas over the next few weeks, I always forget and need to order it separately. I get mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but a combo Bean, Pea and Soybean Inoculant is available from Seeds of Change. Your local Agway or farm supply store may carry it also.

Step By Step Guide to Growing Garden Peas

1. Buy Pea seeds, any kind, but buy a lot. The small packets will not do. Plan on a 1 Lb. bag per row 8 -10 feet long. Yes, a Lb per row. Read on.

2. Dump the dry pea seeds into a large salad bowl, and dampen them with water. Then carefully pour out the water, the goal here is to just dampen the seed so that the inoculant powder will stick. Pour in your inoculant, stir it around with your hand to dust all of the seed with the back powder, and you are ready to sow.

3. I dig a trench about 1 foot wide, and as long as a raised bed ( mine are 8 feet). The trench is about a foot deep, and I slightly flatten out the bottom.

4. Sow the seed by broadcasting it by handfuls into the bottom of the trench. Don’t be stingy, the seeds can touch, and the dense planting will help hold itself up.

5. Cover the seed with 1 inch of soil, peas will swell with the soil moisture and will sprout as the weather naturally warms. The 70 degree warm spring days and cool nights will help. Peas like to grow in cool weather ( 40 -55 degrees F.) but germinate best with some warmth, although, I have had little luck germinating seeds indoors or in the greenhouse, only because I get single plants, and a row of single pea plants will yield hardly enough peas to satisfy a snack in the garden. On must plant many peas, especially English peas, if you plan to shell them. I plant mostly Sugar Snap types and edible pod varieties, since the yield is better for a small space. If you have a small garden, remember that a 10 foot row of shelled peas will only yield barely a cereal bowl full of shelled peas, whereas a 10 foot row of Sugar Snap may reward you with a bushel and a half if planted thickly.

As any gardener will tell you, eating a fresh pea from the garden is amazing, and this is the primary reason why informed gardeners bother to grow peas. I think, tomatoes and peas are the two vegetables that taste nothing like a store bought vegetable, and rarely do fresh peas even make it into the house. Oh yeah, sweet corn, too. If this is the experience you are looking for, go get plantin’ them peas!

March 17, 2010

Bells of Ireland, They're magically delicious! ( but, they're from Turkey)

I don’t know about you, but somehow I associate Bells of Ireland with those other annuals that we always dream of growing but never really do, and for what ever reason, I lump them together with Kochia, the Fire Bush, Cardinal Flower ( Ipomoea horstfalliae) and other rarely grown 'common' annuals, or, as I like to call them - “Those Annuals with the photos they never have updated in thirty years that we never really grow”. (But, secretly, I want to). And so, this year, I will.

But where to start?

I've tried growing Bells of Ireland in the past, even started some in the greenhouse once, but never really had luck. Not surprising, since here is the moment of truth. I get lazy with the easy stuff. Mainly annuals. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it's not unusual for me to just order loads of seed, and sow it in big flats, without researching exactly what is required to get a certain species to grow perfectly. Only recently have I really started researching in exacting detail what some plants require culturally, but mostly, I exercise this research with rare bulb seed, alpines and perennials, since they are far more challenging ( and expensive), and the rewards of growing something from seed which is challenging is quite exciting. But for whatever reason, I never really read the details on the common annuals and vegetables, and I imagine that that is what many of us do - the assumption that 'common' equates with 'easy'. Not true.

My policy with this blog, is to only write about plants which I have grown, or have experience with growing, for there are far too many garden writers who simply Google the cultural requirements, yet they have never grown the plant themselves. the plant itself is far from new, however, since there are records of it being grown as far back as 1570, but it is rarely seen in gardens today. So, to be honest, I am writing this a year too early in some respects, since I am still trying to master Molucella laevis, the Bells of Ireland and to become a promoter of it lovely, green bracts which will add a well needed green in contemporary gardens today.

Apparently, in order to get Molucella laevis grown to cultural perfection, it is best to forget everything written and follow the only proven method that I know of, and that is to sow the seeds in the grown, where they are to grow, for like many plants from the Caucasus, they form a long tap root, and any divergence of this root in a pot, will cause the seedlings to stump, and will rarely let the plants reach the 4 foot magnificence which they can be. So ignore those seed packets that advise that you start seeds 6-8 weeks indoors before planting out. You will be disappointed. Most important, the seeds need light to germinate, and at least three weeks of cold weather near freezing, so March and Early April is the only time to sow in Zone 5, and careful tending will be required to keep birds and Irish Terriers from digging up the seed before it sprouts. Once germinated, the weaker seedlings can be ( must be) pulled out and put to sleep, for there is no replanting plants with tap roots ( like carrots).

Once established, you may end up with self seeded 'volunteers' and those will most likely, grow the best, as plants that are self seeded tend to do. They seem to perform best in the vegetable garden, for not only is the soil there more friable and deep, you will be able to keep any competitive weeds down, and, the plants themselves are hard to integrate into planting schemes. If you can find seeds for the other species, Molucella spinosa, (let me know and sell them to me!) you must grow it, for at 7 feet tall and sparkling red spines, I believe that it is far more impressive ( but very rare).
Molucella spinosa

Since green flowers are now very stylish, I have to master these annuals since very few flowers ( or bracts) come in true green. There is Nicotiana langsdorfii, a flowering tobacco with tiny, pendant bells which we love to grow ( and let self seed everywhere), and, a couple of Zinnia cultivars, mainly one called 'Envy', which can yellow a bit if it gets too much sun. But what I am finding in the great blogosphere - No, the entire Internet, is that there is all sorts of advice on mastering Bells of Ireland, most of it contradicts each other, which is not uncommon with something which is rarely grown, since 'borrowed' information is easily shared, and rarely proven wrong. And so it is, with the cultural requirement for Bells of Ireland.

To start with, there are two species of Molucella, and neither are from Ireland, in fact, the only thing 'Irish' about Bells of Ireland is their color. Green. The species are native to the Caucasus Mountains of western Asia, which excites me since this is an area of the world that I am fascinated with, since the bulbs and alpine plants are highly prized by many plant geeks at the moment.

Bells of Ireland, or Molucella laevis is a popular commercial flower crop in Israel,and China, which grows most of the worlds florist stock. But if you want to grow it at home, it's a little more challenging. It is best to sow seeds early, but there are some requirements, mainly, they plants hate any root disturbance, and they germinate best after a cold treatment once planted int he soil. If you live in California, you can sow the seed outdoors when it is still cool, but here in New England, they will need an early start indoors, which is risky, since they also prefer to grow where they are sown. This slight complexity is why many seed packets offer confusing directions - sow outdoors as the preferred method, or start indoors and transplant out just after the last frost, yet the seedling do not want to be transplanted.....so what to do?

Of the two species, Molucella laevis is the more attractive and taller of the two specie, while Molucella spinosa being less showy. M. laevis, now available in some different forms that are dwarfer, have fresh green, unusual, quite large, cup-like bracts from late summer through autumn.There are some wild collection made in Anjar, Beka'a plains, Lebanon, Syria and others from Turkey. The Genus name comes from the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, where the seeds were first thought to have come from. Molucella are classified in the mint family, but easy as mint? No. Still, once you get past the germination part, you are golden ( or, well,...green).

Grow in Full Sun
Plants HATE any root disturbance, have long tap root that needs to be straight
Half Hardy Annual
Tolerant of light frosts as a seedling
The plant has an odd pine-meets-lavender scent
It can grow as tall as 4 feet if grown well and self sown
Seeds need a cold period and light, in order to germinate
Plants relish heat once established ( think- Syria and Afghanistan type of heat, not Ireland type of heat)
Flowers are not really green, but the bracts are.

March 15, 2010

Bird House Round-Up

By Designer/artist Andrew Fallat.

London designer Luke Morgan designed this prototype for a competition, but it shows how creative one can get with forms and graphics.
Some of us add birdhouses to our gardens to attract birds, others may add them for humor, or as art, but either way, birdhouses can be both interesting and useful. I thought that for my second Round Up, that I might look at the range of bird houses that are available, especially those that are more noteworthy, stylish or simply, odd. After all, we all want a little character, too!
Available at Useful Things. Not practical, but, a nice object for those looking for a design that is at least, more tasteful than an English Cottage bird house with shutters and tiny window boxes.
Birdhouses can be practical, modern, silly or quaint. As a bird lover, I tend to focus on the more serious sort of bird house, specifically designed for each species that you wish to attract. If you prefer the traditional forms, and wish to attract certain bird and offer a proper nesting environment, please check out Duncraft, it's where I mail order my bridhouses from for our house wrens and Bluebirds. And, look at these interesting new Hummingbird houses ) plastic and cotton nests, actually, also available from Duncraft.

For the rest of you, instead of looking at adding a cutesy, crafty house ( for, most birds will find a way to nest as long as they can fit through the hole, and that competitive species like English Sparrows don't bother you, here are some more attractive houses that will do more than be just merely decorative. Yes, some of these are merely, decorative!

A design by Bomdesign in the Netherlands.

Kelly Lamb's Geo Birdhouse, for the modernist.

This classic refresh of a gourd house shows how simply color can change an object. Courtesy of Two Straight Lines, this image reminds me to plant bird house gourd seeds again this year. With an early start in the house, one can have many birdhouses next year if the vines are allowed to mature with fruit. Simply pick the gourds after the first frost, and keep in a dry, warm place until you can hear the seeds rattle inside. Be careful or mice will get the seeds!

These fine architect designed birdhouses come from modernbirdhouses.com, and are not only designed well for certain species, but are works of art.

designed by Vancouver designer Thomas Rasmussen who says it is really a bird house.