Thursday, April 24, 2008

AAS Selections

Wow, we had a great turnout over the weekend for our seminars. Kim and Pam did a presentation on annuals and perennials, I did one on vegetables and herbs, and Kerry and Mike showed how to attract birds, butterflies and bees to your gardens. It was also our Art in the Garden art show, with lots of new artists and some of our favorites from previous shows.

In the news today was an article about the price of food, especially rice. One way to keep the food bill down and eat healthier at the same time is to plant a vegetable garden. Even if you don’t have a lot of room, many vegetables do well in containers or can be easily integrated into your existing annual and perennial beds. I have two half whiskey barrels on either side of my garage devoted to vegetables. I just planted a 4-pack of butterhead lettuce. In a couple of weeks I will add a tomato, an eggplant and a pepper, as well as a few herbs. It’s only me here so I really don’t need much. (Which brings up another subject: As some of you may know I am in the process of getting a divorce. The garden center is not the ideal place to meet single people so if you have an older brother or a younger uncle let me know. I was married to Mr. Ross for 25 years so obviously I’m not that picky.)

I have a few tips for when you are select plants or seeds for the vegetable garden. The first is look for the letters AAS. This stands for All-America Selection and means that it has been grown in trial gardens all over the US and has been judged to be superior in garden performance. Each year since 1933 the AAS organization has announced the winning varieties in several catagories: annual plant, annual bedding plant and vegetable.

There are three trial gardens in Illinois and 12 display gardens. The nearest display garden to Crystal Lake is L & M Gardens on Randall Road in St. Charles. Catigny Gardens in Wheaton is also a display garden. Per AAS rules, each display garden must hold an "open day," in which the public is invited to view the gardens and it must be publicized in the local media.

This year’s selection for vegetables is an eggplant, "Hansel." This eggplant produces finger sized clusters of fruit on a short, compact plant. The fruit mature about 10 days earlier than the comparison eggplant. If left on the plant the fruit continue to grow in size but remain tender and do not turn bitter. At less than three feet tall, this eggplant is great for containers.
Previous year’s winners include: pepper "Holy Mole," carrot "Purple Haze," eggplant "Fairy Tale," and a melon "Amy." To find out about these vegetable varieties and the winners of the annual plant and bedding plant winners go to
Here are two more websites with information on gardening: The Cornell University website has growing tips for all types of vegetables. They have also implemented a project so that everyday gardeners can rate individual varieties. You have to register and give your location if you want to post a comment, but you can browse the database without registering. If you want to try a new variety but aren't sure how it will perform, check out The University of Illinois also has a good web site with vegetable growing tips:

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Birds and the Bees

I have always enjoyed watching the wildlife in my garden. I don’t mind sharing (too much) with the rabbits and deer and seeing what else wanders through. When I lived north of Crystal Lake we had deer, racoons, possums, the occasional coyote and, of course, birds. One year for a brief week we had a scarlet tanager at the feeder. As the weather breaks and we get busy with gardening and other activities, let’s not forget the birds. Even if you fed the birds during the winter, with the decline in habitat, they still need supplemental feeding.

Some birds to stick around all winter, such as the goldfinches and the juncoes. Some of the migratory birds have already returned. I’ve seen robins since February. The oriole will be returning shortly. The male arrives first, usually around mid-April, to scout out food sources and nesting sites. If you hope to attract these lovely birds to your garden, put out food now. They will eat from a nectar feeder similar to a hummingbird feeder with orange flavored nectar or you can use an oriole feeder designed to hold an orange half.

Other guests to our garden that we should encourage are bees. Bees are the workhorse of the garden because without them we would have no fruiting crops or seed production of other ornamental plants. Bees are responsible for pollinating over 100,000 species of plants and 130 commercial crops. The best bee pollinator is not the honey bee or the bumble bee but is the orchard mason bee. This is a non-aggressive bee that does not produce honey, live in a hive or take care of its young, therefore they have nothing to be aggressive about. They lay eggs in holes in wood. You can provide bee nesting holes and even buy the bees to introduce into your garden. They do their pollinating in the spring so it is not too late to get them. If you have fruit trees in your garden, this would help in increasing the yield.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Portugal and England

Two weeks ago I visited my daughter, who is on her semester abroad in Denmark. I didn’t want to go somewhere cold and dark when it’s been cold and dark here all winter, so we compromised and went to Portugal. We spent a week in Faro, which is in the very southern part of Portugal, about three hours south of Lisbon.

Portugal has a much more temperate climate than ours so they are way ahead of us in bloom time. Orange and lemon trees were in bloom and everywhere we went you could smell fragrance. Things that we can only grow as annuals are perennials there. For example, Michael likes to use lantana in some of his containers because they attract butterflies and they are pretty heat tolerant. In our climate they never get very big and are only an annual. In Portugal (and other temperate climates), they are used as hedges!

Another plant we saw used extensively in public flowerbeds was cineraria. This is a cool season plant that we only sell in our retail greenhouse as a house plant, but with its colorful, large daisy-like flowers it makes a stunning bedding plant.
This is the solana plant in tree form. It is in the nightshade family and thus toxic (but so are tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant!) In the states it can be found in California and Arizona and most varieties I found in my on-line research were only 1-2 feet tall. This tree had to be a good 6' tall!

One day we took the train to Tavira, a small town east of Faro. It is home to a Moorish castle complete with gardens. This bed is edged with santolina, a fragrant herb used for medicinal purposes only. It is hardy to zone 6 and makes a great clipped hedge. Inside the border yellow gazania are blooming. Down in the town center was a small park. It was odd to see both pine trees and palm trees growing together. Here they used the traditional pansy as the bedding plantas well as snapdragons, but there are also hibiscus already in bloom. We also saw poinsettias the size of small trees!

On my way home I had to overnight in London and I spent Sunday afternoon wandering through Hyde Park. To the south, Hyde Park is bordered by the toney Kensington and Knightsbridge neighborhoods of London and on the northeast corner is Speakers Corner, where anyone with a soapbox and an opinion can get up a speak. It was the first day of Europe’s daylight savings and lots of people were out enjoying a long and relatively sunny Sunday afternoon. I wandered through the rose garden to see what was in bloom. Unfortunately, I accidently shot most of my London pictures into the "black hole" when transferring them from my camera but I do remember a lot of what was there.

Of course, London, too, is weeks ahead of us in their bloom time and a lot of the early bulbs had already finished. There were a few daffodils left and some tulips were still blooming. I saw fritillary, which is a great bulb to use here since deer and rabbits don’t like it much. Also blooming were the hellebores, another early spring blooming plant, often called the Lenton rose. It is also deer resistant! Another perennial plant I saw used as ground cover was Pulmonaria, or lungwort. This plant has a long, slender fuzzy green leaf with white speckles. It has a blue or sometimes pink flower in early spring and the unique foliage gives it a year round interest. The annual beds I saw were edged with primrose with many cold tolerant annuals intermixed with bulbs in the center.

It is fun to visit other countries and see their gardening traditions. Of course, England is famous as being a country of gardeners, but other countries have their traditions also. Even how we refer to our gardens is very telling about how we feel about gardening. We in America refer to our entire outside area as the "yard" and an individual bed as a "garden," in England a "yard" is a utility area where the garden shed and the compost pile are located and the garden is the lawn and all of the beds combined. My great aunt, also a big traveler, once visited a friend in England and asked to see her garden and the friend replied, "My dear, it is all the garden." Sometimes seeing how other people do things gets us to think outside the box and use plants in ways we hadn’t thought before, like using the pulmonaria as a ground cover instead of a specimen plant, or adding shrubs to our perennial beds, as they do in England with their mixed borders or even adding edibles to our perennial and annual beds, a big favorite of mine.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

More on Seed Starting

Seed Starting

A few weeks ago I blogged about our colleague, Michael, who starts seeds in his basement. I thought you might be interested in how we do it on a large scale here at the ‘Side.

We grow all our own vegetables from seed and start around 1 March, with the peppers and tomatoes, then the lettuce, cabbage and other cucubits, and finally the squash, melons and eggplant (the French call them "aubergines," which I think sounds much more elegant but Lori won’t let me call them that on the signs). We also stagger our seedings so that we, and you, can have successive plantings. We make sure that we have the more popular vegetables in several container sizes. The tomatoes here are being grown in a four-pack, but we also grow them as single plants in 4" square pots (we call them 4D pots) as well as 6" square containers. Earlier in the year, we seeded tomatoes in plug trays and Friday the guys transplanted those into one and 2 gallon containers.

Some of the seeds are so small the girls accidently put two seeds in a pot. After they germinate, the second seedling is pricked out and transplanted to its own container. Here Anastasia is transplanting some pepper seedlings.

Here are the cool season lettuces and the onions in the very back of the house. The onions have been given a "hair cut," so they don’t get floppy.
We keep the temperature in the houses at about 65 degrees. Sometimes it feels like a sauna in those houses and if it is cold outside, my glasses always fog up when I leave the house! We don't want it too warm though and have the plants mature before it is time to plant outside so it is a real juggling act to keep the houses at the right temperature when we have sunny days. We check the temperatures during the day and often have to open and close the doors several times to regulate the temperature.