Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Growing Tomatoes with Kozy Coats

Heirloom tomato harvest, including 'Anna Russian', 'Oxheart Pink', 'Black Brandywine', 'Yellow Brandywine', 'Crimson Cushion', 'Black Prince'
I've been experimenting with growing tomatoes using Kozy Coats (which are very similar to Wall-o-Waters). That's those weird-looking plastic cones made of tubes filled with water. (The only difference between Kozy Coats and Wall-o-Waters is that the KCs are red and the W-o-Ws are green.)
Kozy Coats with tomato plants inside, late April
 The basic idea is that you can put your tomato transplants out earlier than normal inside the Kozy Coats, which should result in an earlier harvest. The tubes of water heat up during the day, then give off warmth at night. Also, the shape of the structure itself protects plants from cold winds and traps warm air inside. It works like a little mini-greenhouse/cloche for each tomato. The company claims that you can set your plants out when the ground is still frozen, by setting up the Kozy Coat a couple weeks early to thaw the soil. I've never tried to go quite THAT early, but I have planted tomatoes as early as April 5 (where our "normal" tomato planting time is about May 20). In April and early May we definitely still get freezing temps at night here, and plenty of cold days as well.

Tomato growing inside Kozy Koat, late April
So the question is, does it work? Short answer: yes. I definitely get earlier harvests this way. More complicated question: is it worth it?  Answer: it depends...

Tomato plants in June
Using Kozy Coats requires quite a bit of extra work, and a certain amount of peril (mostly to the plants, although the gardener is in significant danger of getting SOAKING wet when trying to fill the blasted things). Putting plants in the ground six weeks earlier gives me tomatoes in hand only about two weeks earlier than normal. Is two more weeks of tomatoes worth the work and risk? Only you can decide...

Things that can/will go wrong:
  • Disease and death - Light is transmitted through the colored plastic, and air does circulate a little through the top, but both air circulation and light transmission are diminished. If you hit a long stretch of particularly gray, damp weather, your tomatoes may get diseased, grow poorly (resulting in no earlier harvest), or even die. In six years of growing tomatoes using Kozy Coats I've lost only one plant. But success is definitely better in years when spring days are bright and sunny. Cold nights, however, really do not seem to be an issue at all, nor does snow.
  • Sunburn - When temps warm up, you need to remove the Kozy Coats, or the tomatoes can actually fry in there. This needs to be handled delicately, and you have the same potential problems you do with hardening plants off. Just popping the protection off suddenly, especially on a bright day, will cause the leaves to get sunburned and perhaps fall off. Ideally you want to take them off for a few hours each day, putting them back on at night, and extending the fresh-air time gradually. (I am much too lazy to follow my own advice here, and no plant has ever died of sunburn for me, but they look pretty awful when they first come out.)
  • Cold wet gardener - Filling the tubes with water is probably a 3-person job at least (which I always do by myself, since my husband and daughter magically disappear when non-fun tasks arise). The Kozy Coats stand up well once all the tubes are filled, but it's like trying to hold up a heavy mass of drunken jello until then. It's not physically possible to hold open the tube for filling without getting extremely wet, even if you miraculously manage not to topple any onto your feet. And remember, it's now 4-6 weeks before you're tomatoes want to be outside, so prepare to be very, VERY cold.
  • Limited choice - If you buy your tomato transplants, you will find at best limited availability of varieties so early in the season. In early days before I got into seed starting, I ended up buying varieties I was not particularly interested in (even - shudder - HYBRIDS!) because that was all I could find for sale in April. So the bad news is you'll just have to begin your heirloom tomato seed starting mania, if you've somehow managed to escape it so far :-)
  • Your neighbors will look at you real funny. But we're all used to that, right?
So am I willing to risk all of this just for two measly extra weeks of tomatoes? YOU BET I AM! And if you have eaten one of these guys plucked straight from the vine, you surely understand why.
Tomato 'Brandywine'

Sunday, February 26, 2012

UNfavorite Annuals

Earlier I took a look at some of my very favorite annuals to grow from seed. Here are some seed-grown annuals that are at the opposite end of the spectrum for me, for one reason or another.

Caveat: these flowers may be just fine in another situation, or perhaps if you know how to treat them right. They may in fact be on your list of favorites, and perhaps I am unfairly maligning them. Please don't be offended or arrest me for plant calumny - this is just my two cents based on my particular growing experience!


Cosmos 'Daydream' falling on squash
I'll start with Cosmos. I know this is a super popular annual to grow from seed. It does indeed germinate easily (just sow and grow), and the flowers are certainly pretty. The foliage is cool and ferny looking. HOWEVER - in my garden, the plants always get blown over just as soon as they barely begin flowering (if not before). This leads to lots of stem breakage, and a general ugly sprawling mess. Also, in my relatively short growing season they don't start to flower until mid-August. I kept growing cosmos for several years, hoping that the poor performance was just a fluke, and then finally gave it the ax.

Cosmos 'Sonata' also falling on squash, despite wooden supports intending to prevent this


Lavatera 'Mont Blanc' blooming for 4 minutes
Lavatera is an annual that gets praised to the skies in seed catalogs, and always looks stunning in the pictures. (I've learned not to trust most seed catalog descriptions by now, of course - liars!) The plant does indeed grow at a heart-stopping rate, quickly getting large and full of blooms. The flowers are big and abundant. HOWEVER, the plant has an insubstantial and cheap show-offy character that I find frankly irritating. And most importantly, as soon as blooming begins it gets some sort of wilt (?), the foliage turns lurid shades of yellow-brown, and the entire plant collapses in a heap. It looks like slime stew. Fortunately for your stomach, I have no pictures of the plant in this state. Here is a shot just before meltdown:

Lavatera 'Mont Blanc' about to melt (note poor condition of foliage)
As you can imagine, lavatera will not be joining us anymore.


Gomphrena 'Woodcreek Lavender' with Zinnia 'Benary's Giant Salmon' (why?)
This one is totally unfair, but I was so traumatized (and embarrassed) by the combination of Gomphrena 'Woodcreek Lavender' and salmon zinnias in my garden one year that I cannot think of this plant without feeling nausea. (I made this photo EXTRA LARGE so you could enjoy it as well!) Of course, it's not the gomphrena's fault that its flowers are that color. I can't really justify this one, but I just don't like this plant. It looks like it has mauve pimples. And it had the gall to spoil my beautiful zinnia display.

Clarkia elegans

Clarkia elegans 'Appleblossom'
I absolutely love the other types of clarkias I've grown, but clarkia elegans was a real disappointment. Despite frilly pink double flowers (something which normally wakes up the 6-year old girl in me, who generally has the power to override whatever the rest of me is thinking), the ungainly mess of a plant habit caused my adult brain to get cranky and do a veto. It's hard to see in this awful photo, but the plant has branches that stick out in an awkward fashion every which way. The double flowers apparently come as a total surprise to the plant, causing it to fall over in astonishment. Foliage is not attractive and the whole thing looks vaguely weedy. The flowers, habit, and foliage have a kind of incongruity to them, as if the pieces were compiled from leftover bits of other plants. And perhaps most offensive: the flowers LOOK like they should be fragrant, but they're not! (how dare they?)

Bells of Ireland

Another annual that I will never grow again is Bells of Ireland, molucella laevis. This is what it looks like at first:
Bells of Ireland and annual Candytuft
 So architectural! Such classy green flowers! Stretching proudly towards the sky! I was thrilled enough with it to decide that the odor - which some apparently nose-damaged gardeners have likened to lemon - did not really bother me all that much. Well, as long as I stood quite far away while viewing it. And then it did this:
Bells of Ireland going crazy
The bottom half of the plant turns brown, the top half begins to twist and turn and fall all over the place. It is a 6-foot monster that crushes everything in its path. (It smothered my favorite clarkia!) So, I decided to hold my nose, get near it, and pull it out. By this point it has formed very thick, woody stems that are difficult to break off. It has surprisingly deep roots that resist my attempts to pull them. Naturally, it is also covered in thorn (a detail I had failed to notice before, since I was standing so far away from it). Worst of all, the smell - the awful smell of toxic industrial strength dish detergent mated with skunk - gets on your hands, your clothes, your hair. And will not wash off for days. It smells nothing like lemon, believe me.

So I decided never to plant this awful curse again. Only bad luck for me, because Bells of Ireland reseeds abundantly and widely, as any garden reference can tell you. (I actually do own many garden references and you would think I would consult them before planting something. Yet somehow, I still see a pretty picture in a seed catalog and think "The best way to find out about this plant is to scatter seed in the garden and just see what happens! No need to consult the wisdom of millions of gardeners who have gone before me - that would be a cop-out!") This was about five years ago, and every year since then I have been pulling stinky seedlings. Someone else has inherited my old rented community plot now - poor unfortunate soul! I will miss many things about that old familiar piece of ground - the loamy texture which I broke my back to achieve, the giant pile of free all-you-can-haul compost and leaf mold, the neighborly garden companionship. But molucella, I say goodbye to you with a smile.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Smells and Chirps

The other day I was talking with my daughter (age 5) about how I miss the green leaves and bright flowers of spring. She said: "You know what I miss about spring mom? The smells and the chirps!" Well, I don't have any smells, chirps, greens things or flowers to share from my February garden just yet. But I thought I would post some photos of some of my favorite fragrant flowers, in the hopes that the images will evoke the memory of fragrance past and the dreams of blooms to come.

My favorite flower for fragrance is daphne. Not many daphnes are hardy this far north, but 'Carol Mackie' is an exception. In addition to absolutely intoxicating fragrance, it also has beautiful foliage and elegant plant habit. When it is blooming I get down on my hands and knees, put my face in, and just sit there and smell. (People think I'm pretty weird, but that is nothing new.)
Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie'
My favorite fragrant spring bulb would have to be hyacinths. I love the bright, intense color as well as the heavy scent. Yes, they are a bit awkward looking with their stiffness and their lumpy, upright singleness. And the fragrance might be overwhelming, even nauseating for some. But in April, there isn't anything I'd rather see (or smell).
Hyacinth 'Jan Bos' (pink) with unknown purple cultivar
In late May when the rugosa roses bloom, I think I have died and gone to fragrance heaven. They are quite popular in my area and can be found dotted all about people's yards as well as in public display gardens. The fragrance carries and is sweet and intense.
Rosa rugosa 'Scarlet Pavement'
I also love the spicy clove-like aroma of cheddar pinks. It's not an easy plant to grow for me (we have too much rainfall for it here, and I often lose plants over the winter), but that fragrance is so addicting that I keep buying more like a fool anyway. Maybe some day I will build an elevated rock garden for them - a little fragrance altar. This is a not-so-good picture of a plant which is no longer with us.
Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch'
The fragrance of Oriental lilies is so soft and inviting. Right now I have 'Casa Blanca' and this yellow and white one, whose looks I admired as much as the scent. I definitely want to expand my range of lilies in the future - they really carry the garden through the summer months.
Oriental lily 'Time Out'
By the way, this is what it looks like outside now - we had another dusting of snow recently. May the smells and chirps arrive soon!
Cercis canadensis in February snow
P.S.: chirps

Monday, February 20, 2012

Annual Poppies

Annual poppies are a quick way to add a splash of color to your garden. They are easy to grow from seed sown in situ. Like all poppies they do not like to be transplanted, but transplanting can be done when the seedlings are very small. They will grow, bloom, and die back within one growing season, and will often set seed and return on their own for years. Here are some of the annual poppies I've enjoyed growing:

Papaver somniferum - Opium poppy

Papaver somniferum 'Imperial Pink'
 Opium poppies have wonderful spiky blue foliage which is thick and cabbagey. They hold themselves up quite well for a poppy. Bloom time is extremely brief - the flowers will last only a week or two at most. However, the foliage is a fine addition to the garden in spring, and you can pull the plants out after bloom and replace with fall-blooming annuals if you like. These have the largest bloom size of any annual poppy.
Papaver somniferum 'Venus'

Papaver somniferum bud
Look at that fat bud!

Papaver rhoeas - Corn poppy/Shirley poppy

Papaver rhoeas 'Double Mix'
 Wild corn poppies are single and screaming red. They are a stunning sight in bloom and well worth growing in a wild area of the garden. There are also newer selections, like the ones on this page, which are double and come in softer colors. A seed-grown mix will give you a fascinating array of forms and shades, including interesting picotee and fade patterns. Here are a few examples from my garden:
Papaver rhoeas - red fading to white center

Papaver rhoeas - very double salmon pink

Papaver rhoeas - soft pink almost single

Papaver rhoeas - double white with dark pink picotee
Papaver rhoeas - double red

 The foliage of corn poppies is not as attractive as opium poppies. They will not fit into a super formal mixed border, but play pretty nicely with other "gentrified" wildflowers such as larkspur and salvia. They have thin stems and look best supported by a rustic wooden fence or a friendly neighbor. In their favor, the bloom time is definitely longer than opium poppies. Wintersown corn poppies in my garden bloomed for about 4-5 weeks, from mid-June to late July. (It helps if you deadhead, but some continuous bloom will occur even if you don't.) Later blooms will be secondary and tend to be more single. Fair warning: after bloom, the foliage looks just awful! The whole plant turns brown and dies back in a VERY ungraceful manner in August. If this bothers you, you can always pull them out after bloom and pop in some fall-blooming asters.

Eschscholzia californica - California poppy

California poppy 'Mission Bells'
California poppies are not true poppies, but they are a great little annual for the front of the border. They do not transplant well so you will probably not see them much at nurseries. The best and easiest way is to grow them from seed sown directly in the garden. Seed germinates easily and soon fills your garden with bluish green, filigree foliage. In my garden they bloom continuously right through the summer, from mid June until fall. You will drive yourself insane trying to keep up with the deadheading - astounding number of flowers! It's easier to just shear off the spiky seedpods once in a while when they accumulate. The wild California form is a glorious bright orange, but many cultivars are available too in a wide range of colors. Here are a few more I grew:

California poppy 'Jersey Cream'
 A soft creamy white double form. This one was not as floriferous or vigorous for me as other varieties for some reason. (I guess when they took the orange out, they took the kick out of him too!)

California poppy 'Purple Gleam'
'Purple Gleam' has bright violet pink single flowers on a taller plant. Bloomed like a mad thing.

California poppy 'Thai Silk Lemon'
Here is 'Thai Silk Lemon' looking perky in front of alyssum and morning glory. The soft yellow color blends nicely in the garden.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Flowering Crabapples at the Arboretum

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum has a large and beautiful collection of flowering crabapples. I have never counted the trees but it seems they must have over 100 different cultivars. So many different colors and shapes! I have been there many times and still never managed to see them all. This May visit is like a pilgrimage - as close as we northerners can get to the flowering cherries of Japan. It is not May now - lots of cold, dreary February days to get through still. I will attempt to cheer myself up with some May flowers in this post...

Crabapple 'Indian Magic'
'Indian Magic' is one of my favorites for rich color, and it has a very attractive, spreading shape as you can see below. It is a smaller tree.

Crabapple 'Indian Magic'

Crabapple 'White Candle'
'White Candle' is very tall and stiff. Almost shrub-like (but large). A bit awkward perhaps, but interesting. Those large white flowers and pink buds make it look like it has been dipped in fondant.

Crabapple 'White Candle'

Crabapple 'Van Eseltine'
 'Van Eseltine' has double pink flowers which are stunning up close. The habit is upright and a bit awkward so far. The tree appears to be quite young (it is an area where they have newer plantings), so maybe it will improve its carriage when it matures. I'll keep my eye on it!

Crabapple 'Van Eseltine'

Crabapple 'White Angel'
 'White Angel' is a glorious sight in bloom. The white flowers with pale yellow centers complement the fresh green of the foliage perfectly (to the extent that you can actually see any foliage with all those flowers). The buds are essentially white (just barely tinged with pink), so the overall density of whiteness is not diluted at all from a distance.

Crabapple 'White Angel'

Crabapple 'Rousseau'
I especially love the darker pink/red cultivars. 'Rousseau' is one of my favorites. The reddish buds look like fruits hanging among the olive-green leaves. This is a rather large tree with an elegant, spreading habit. It has a real "presence" in the garden.

Crabapple 'Rousseau'

Crabapple 'Louisa'
'Louisa' is another one of my favorites. I make sure to visit her every year :-) The habit is weeping and full. The flowers are smaller than average, but make up for that with their abundance. The color is hard to describe and to capture on camera. It appears more pink in reality, but a very soft, grayish pink with pearly undertones. The tree seems to glow with a kind of inner softness. I put this one last because I always end my "pilgrimage" with a rest in front of 'Louisa'.
Crabapple 'Louisa'
I had originally planned to plant a crabapple in my own garden, but I decided to try a quince in that spot instead. The yard already has a mature lilac, an amelanchier, and a Canadian redbud (cercis canadensis), plus some large maples. Sunny spots are at a premium, and I want to plant some culinary apples, cherry, quince, and apricot. Flowering crabs are very common street trees here, so I suppose I'll just have to enjoy them in other people's yards!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Asian Greens

I love Asian greens - and they taste best when picked fresh from the garden, of course!

Mustard greens, Bok choi, and Tah tsai
Asian greens are quite easy to grow from seed. Just plant in early spring (for a spring-summer crop) or late summer (for a fall crop), when the weather is cool. They do not generally appreciate hot weather. In my climate, floating row cover is essential to protect plants from flea beetles, which will otherwise chew thousands of tiny holes in the plants, and possibly even kill them. The row cover is light- and water-permeable, and is placed directly over the plants like a blanket. Anchor the edges with logs, stones, or earth. If you take good care of it (which I do not!) it will last several seasons. (I once tried to wash an old, soiled row cover in the washing machine and I can tell you that this does not work! The row cover gets strip-like tears and is ruined.) Here are some of my personal favorite Asian greens:

Baby Bok choi 'Shuko'
Baby bok choi (bok choy, pac choi) is delicious and easy to grow. This is not just an immature form of the regular, stringy, tall bok choi with thick white stems. Baby bok choi is a different vegetable. It has green stems and grows to only about 4-6 inches tall at maturity. All parts are sweet and tender. You can either pick the entire plant when mature (the prettiest option), or continuously harvest the outer leaves until it bolts (the most abundant option). Either way it is delicious added to a stir fry or soup. For me bok choi has just the right balance of spicy brassica flavor and sweetness. I have grown a variety of cultivars including 'Feng Qing', 'Mei Qing', 'Shuko', 'Brisk Green', and 'Ching Chang' and have found them to be very similar.

Mustard 'Pink Pop'
Mustard greens are of course a spicier vegetable, and the spiciness can really vary by cultivar and growing conditions. I mostly grow mustard greens for harvesting at the "baby" stages and for adding to salads. Here are two cultivars I've enjoyed: 'Pink Pop' has light green serrated leaves with pretty ruby pink veins. It's a bit course-textured and hairy when mature, but when young it is tender and not too spicy.

Mustard 'Ruby Streaks'
'Ruby Streaks' mustard has very finely dissected leaves and makes a pretty reddish-purple addition to a salad. The flavor is very mild if picked when young.

Tah Tsai
Tah Tsai (Tatsoi) is one of my favorite Asian vegetables of all. This is not a very good picture - it is actually much cuter than this. The color is an extremely dark green, and the shape is flat and round, like a rosette. It has a serious, lurking sort of look to it, as if it is clinging to the earth. I have the feeling it is afraid it will fall upwards. In my climate I can harvest the outer leaves from a plant continuously from spring through fall some years (if it gets too hot the plant will bolt, however). The flavor is excellent - a wonderful deep "green" flavor which is brassica-like, but not too spicy for me. Tah tsai is also tremendously cold-hardy. It can be overwintered in an unheated greenhouse in my climate, just like spinach. (The plants will freeze temporarily when temps dip well below freezing, but will start growing again once it warms up.)

Chinese cabbage 'Blues'
Chinese cabbage (or Napa cabbage) is of course a well-known Asian vegetable. In my climate it does not grow very well, because it needs a long, cool spring (or fall) in order for the heads to form. Our spring and fall here are just too short for this to happen reliably. I tried a variety of cultivars and the most successful for me was 'Blues'. 'Blues' is a hybrid that is rather small, and heads up relatively quickly. It also resists bolting in warmer weather somewhat. Still, only some of the plants would form heads before the onset of high summer. You may have better luck with chinese cabbage if you are have a longer spring than me. It is wonderfully fresh and crisp when eaten straight from the garden and well worth a try.

Amaranth may not come to mind when you think of Asian vegetables, but Amaranth leaves are eaten by many people throughout south and east Asia. The flavor is excellent - warm and nutty. Unlike the other Asian greens, it is not a brassica and has a very different flavor. The best thing about Amaranth is that it is a tropical plant which grows well in the heat of summer. Seed should be sown only when temperatures are warm. It is not troubled by flea beetles. It grows quickly and gets very large (several feet tall and wide). Harvest by pinching off the branch ends, containing the smallest, tenderest leaves and shoots (like harvesting basil). New branching shoots will form. The larger, older leaves are tough and not the best for eating. If you let it, the plant will flower and is quite ornamental.

Chinese cabbage 'Fun Jen
'Fun Jen' is a hybrid Chinese cabbage that does not look like Chinese cabbage at all. It is leafy and does not form a head. The color is a very pleasing bright spring green, and the the leaves are very soft-textured and wavy. I did not have much luck with it because the soft, juicy texture of the leaves proved to be an absolute slug-magnet under my row cover. It got eaten to strips, as you can see here. Also, it bolted very quickly (as shown in the picture). The flavor, for me, was too bland. I personally prefer a brassier brassica. But it is something different to try - if you can stop the slugs.

Kai Lan
Kai lan (Gai lan) is the best-tasting Asian vegetable I have ever eaten. It is reminiscent of very good broccoli, and perhaps somewhat of arugula, but it has a wonderful sweet nuttiness all its own. You eat the stems (peeled, if mature) and the baby flower florets, like broccoli. Sadly, it does not grow well for me. It also needs a long spring for the stems to mature and get thick (the ones in the photo above are laughably tiny if you've seen good examples of Kai lan!). For me they begin to bolt (as above) when the stems are still very thin, and though tasty, there is just not much vegetable to pick. This is one of the few cases where I can purchase better vegetables than I can grow. You should give it a try if you have a long spring, or do like me and visit your local Asian grocery if not!
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