Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: Year-Round Gardening

When I think of one of the "Complete Idiot's Guide to Something" books, I envision a manual on some quotidian task that really isn't that complicated but that someone mechanically challenged like me would need help with, i.e., "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Changing your Oil," or maybe "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Changing a Lightbulb." I was therefore taken aback when I received a copy of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Year-Round Gardening" by Delilah Smittle and Sheri Ann Richerson, which seemed to me a topic too challenging for an "Idiot's Guide." After reading it, I learned I was wrong and right at the same time.

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Year-Round Gardening" covers just about everything you need to know for vegetable gardening and a good deal of what you need for strictly ornamental gardening. Soil preparation, no-till methods, and building raised beds are addressed early, followed by seed starting, covers for outdoor gardens, and extensive chapters on greenhouses. Readers will learn the types of greenhouses available, how to establish and maintain one, and even how to create an entire thriving ecosystem within one. Tidbits on garden design concepts, bulb forcing, and grow lights for indoor gardening are peppered throughout the text.

This vast amount of information is clearly presented in a casual, readable tone. It's also well-organized and includes call-outs of key tips and ideas. If you want to garden all year, regardless of your location, this book will explain exactly how to go about doing it.

This book contains many beginner, even idiot-proof, instructions on topics such as starting seeds, making compost, and maintaining healthy soil. But much of the information is not for neophytes who would consider themselves gardening "idiots" and thus consult this book. Rather, the instructions for various row covers and greenhouses are really geared towards experienced gardeners looking to extend the growing season. Even for these folks, some of the ideas are a little complicated. For example, the authors suggest making a special galvanized-pipe implement to measure the distance between seeds when directly sowing them in the garden. Why not just use a tape measure or ruler? They go into great detail on how to build a root cellar, which strikes me as pretty major construction. And I learned that I do garden nearly year-round (by their standards) without even realizing it! If I, as an intermediate gardener at the very least, am intimidated, what would a newbie think?

In short, this book should be renamed "The Guide to Year-Round Gardening" and experienced gardeners should read it for all the exciting ideas and encouragement about how to prolong the gardening experience. Newcomers to gardening should stick to The Vegetable Gardener's Bible or a similar intro-to-edibles book to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

I received a free copy of this book from Penguin Group USA. The opinions are solely my own.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Just as the forced bulbs are starting to fade, seeds are here to take over the gardening-related activities. I have officially received all of the flower, herb and vegetable seeds that I ordered for the year. What you see is a mixture of selections from Botanical Interests, Renee's Garden and Baker Creek. I also ordered some heirloom tomato and pepper transplants from Seed Savers Exchange, but those won't arrive until late May. My seed-growing operation is not powerful enough to grow heat-loving tomatoes and peppers that will get large enough to actually produce fruit, so I'm admitting my limitations and letting others do the work for me!

The only things left to purchase for the vegetable garden will be some hot pepper transplants and onion sets. I would really prefer to grow started onions, but if I fail to find any locally I may have some last-minute onion seeds to buy.

I'm particularly excited about these heirloom summer squash varieties, Trombetta di Albenga from Renee's Garden and Cocozella di Napoli from Baker Creek. The former is a climber bearing fruits described as having a "curvaceous trumpet shape and a mild taste with a hint of nutty artichoke flavor." Let's hope so! The latter is a bush variety with striped fruits. Being "di Napoli" (or "from Naples") myself, I am excited to try this squash that hails from my family's ancestral home.

I'm also looking forward to this trio of organic lettuces from Botanical Interests: Red Sails (leaf), Tom Thumb (butterhead) and Lolla Rossa (leaf). I consume large amounts of lettuce year round so I'm hoping to use some succession planting to have these as long as possible. I'll be growing some other types too, plus Swiss chard.

And I got some hyacinth bean to experiment with growing vines on the patio posts in front of my house. This could be a beautiful success or a massive failure, but I wanted to try this idea with annual vines instead of perennials like clematis just in case of that massive failure. At least I can sweep away the evidence and not feel bad about killing perennials!

But before any of these seeds get started indoors or directly in the garden, it will be time to start my native plant seeds next week! My columbine and nodding wild onion seeds have been stratifying away in the fridge for almost four weeks, and I'm looking forward to officially getting the seed season underway! My annual flowers (cosmos, phlox drummondi) and rudbeckia seeds will be soon to follow, with the vegetables getting started in mid-March. I even bought a pseudo-grow light; it's just a regular table lamp with a fluorescent bulb but it's better than nothing! There are truly no places in my house where I can conceivably hang a proper 4-ft fluorescent light, so this is the best I can do. It's not set up yet, but pictures will be coming soon.

Is it seed-o-rama where you are? What will you be starting, and when?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shortest. Bloom Day. Ever

Well, it's not much but they're blooms, damn it! Months have passed since I've had blooms to share for the monthly Garden Bloggers Bloom Day hosted by Carol at May Dreams Garden. But now, in the cold of February, I have 'Blue Jacket' hyacinths, which are following on the heels of the 'Woodstock' bulbs that have unfortunately faded away.

One of them is falling sideways, which I'm afraid is due to an insufficient cold period. So I have learned that not only should I start forcing earlier in the fall (rather than November like this past year), but I should also keep any 'Blue Jacket' bulbs cold for a full 11-12 weeks. Apparently 10 weeks is good for 'Woodstock' but not for everyone else.

The only other (tiny) bloom here--but it is a bloom--is this coleus flower. My coleus continues to defy my imagination with its robustness. I will feel awful when I finally allow the cold weather to remind this plant that in Illinois it's an annual. But hopefully that won't be until next fall. For now I should probably just cut it back a little before it devours its neighbors.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Houseplants, revisited

The Houseplant Census of 2010, hosted by Mr. McGregor's Daughter, is timely for me because there have been a few changes in the houseplant population around here, even since my last post on the topic a few months ago. First, for the happy changes:

My bulbs are blooming!! And the other two should join them soon! I have now figured out which hyacinths were planted where: the two 'Woodstock' ones have revealed themselves, so the 'Blue Jacket's must be flanking them. They already smell wonderful and are bringing a great touch of spring to the house!

My overwintering coleus has also grown to the size of a small shrub. By counting each bulb individually, at this point we're up to 5.

Here's a look at my main stash of houseplants; I use them as a window dressing for the large bay window in our front living room. They make a lovely screen that keeps passers-by from being able to look right in, but they're not an unfriendly set of snapped-shut blinds or curtains. What you see here is my cutting of my night-blooming cereus, some of the re-potted aloes (counting as one), three bromeliads (two are obscured a little to the bottom right, but I'm counting them separately because they're totally different types of tillandsias), an arboricola, and my largest spider plant. So far up to 12.

Here's the momma night-blooming cereus, looking spindly but still putting out some new leaves. No signs of buds yet. Up to 13.

Now for some of the sad changes. In my office window there is a purple passion and my Christmas cactus (repotted recently in the cacti/succulent soil), OK, looking fine, although please excuse that ugly valance--it's been low on the redecorating priority list. But then, in the basket below them is this tragedy:

This is/was my oldest purple passion, and I killed it by repotting it! Last weekend I finally trimmed it down and put it in fresh, new, nutrient-rich potting soil after leaving it in salt-encrusted old soil for years, and look what happened! To make matters worse, I had another purple passion die during the annual Christmas tree exile, probably from overwatering although it had recently bloomed and I'm telling myself it was a natural post-bloom death. Either way, I started this winter with three purple passions, and I'm now down to one! So counting that and the Christmas cactus, the census count is 15.

Lastly, but not pictured, I have one more spider plant and my two baby aloes from the repotting. I'm counting them separately because they are in individual pots. With those three, the grand total is 18.

That is, until seed starting...

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