April 2019


Hopefully these April showers will let up sometime soon so I can get into the garden and start planting spring leafy greens. My vegetable garden is in the lower, moister section of the yard, which is great in dry years but difficult to get into during wet springs.

Being a big fan of salads as well as stir-fries, leafy greens are a quick easy crop to grow in the spring and again in the fall. With few exceptions, leafy greens are cool season crops. They will bolt, or go to seed, during hot weather. When selecting greens for spring planting, look for bolt resistant or slow to bolt varieties.

Lettuce bolting

Lettuce plants elongating as they start to bolt. Photo by dmp, 2019

While leafy greens can tolerate more shade than tomatoes or squash, they are most productive when they receive 6 or more hours of direct sunlight each day. Select a site with a well-drained, fertile soil with a pH in the mid 6’s. Work in a bit of compost or other form of organic matter before planting.

Most greens are easily started from seed sown as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. Seeds can be sown in rows or broadcast over sections of planting beds depending on your garden layout. Typically, seeds would be planted about a quarter to half inch deep. Try to space the larger seeds an inch or so apart if planting in rows. Tiny seeds are hard to plant singly but do your best to distribute them as evenly as you can down the row. If broadcasting, scratch up the prepared soil with a rake or cultivator and lightly scatter the seeds. Then lightly rake over them again to cover lightly with soil.

chard seeds

Planting chard seeds. Photo by dmp, 2019

The most difficult part when growing greens is to decide which varieties to plants. Luscious lettuces come in leaf, buttercrunch and romaine types. Leaves may be light green, dark green, red, splotched or speckled. With so many choices, why not try a leaf lettuce mix. I usually get one from Pine Tree Seeds (www.superseeds.com) but other seed catalogs likely carry mixtures as well. Whether you are growing a lettuce mix or a single variety, the plants all seem to mature at once so make 2 or 3 smaller plantings at 2-week intervals for a longer harvest. Unlike many vegetables, lettuce really can’t be stored that long and even we salad lovers can only consume so much salad!

Lettuce mix

Leafy lettuce mix. Photo by dmp, 2019

While I really like spinach, between planting it late because of wet soil condition and attacks by leaf miners, I find chard to be a pretty palatable substitute. Plus, chard tolerates heat better. Being related to beets, its flavor is similar to spinach but perhaps a bit saltier and earthy. While I find the white stemmed ‘Fordhook’ variety to be most productive, the varieties with pink, yellow, orange or red stems look great in the garden and also, on the dinner plate. Young leaves may be eaten raw but the older leaves and stems are best cooked.

Red chard

Red veined chard. Photo by dmp, 2019

A remarkable number of Asian greens are available to the home gardener in both leafy green selections, like Pak choy and heading sorts such as Chinese cabbage. The same brassica pests that attack my cabbages and broccoli love many of the Asian greens so I have been growing very quick to mature selections like Fun Jen, which matures in 35 days. Seeds of Asian greens usually germinate very quickly – 5 days or less.

Chinese cabbage

Chinese cabbage. Photo by dmp, 2019

Mustards add zest to salads, stir-fries and other dishes. Both red and green varieties germinate in 3 to 5 days under ideal conditions. Plants can get sizeable so give them at least 12 inches between plants unless you are continuously cutting them back for baby greens. As the temperatures climb higher, they get hotter and more pungent; and then they bloom. Late summer sown crops tend to become mellower so I leave a few plants to blossom and set seed. New seedlings germinate usually in late July and August and I just move them into a bed and enjoy harvest number 2 in October.

mustard in bloom

Mustard in bloom. Photo by dmp, 2019

So many people I know rave about kale and collard greens. They are great sources of fiber and nutrients but these are greens I need to cook – either sautéed in stir-fries or as a side dish, or as an addition to soups and stews. The plants often get quite large and can often hang on until the cooler fall temperatures arrive. Remember to pick 2 or 3 leaves per plant each week to encourage new growth. Watch for the same caterpillars that feed on your other cole crops. I have noted that the red kale varieties seem to be less attractive to insect pests than the green ones.

collards w holes

Collard greens with holes, photo by dmp, 2019

It’s hard to decide which is tastier – beets or beet greens. Why settle for one when with careful selection, you can have both. ‘Bull’s Blood’ with its succulent dark red foliage is my favorite but several other beet varieties produce both tasty leaves as well as dense, sweet roots.

beets & carrots LR

Beets and carrots. Photo by Lisa Rivers.

The seeds of all of these leafy greens are sown closer than the recommended spacing anticipating that crowded young seedlings will be thinned to roomier spacings. Use the tender thinnings in salads and space smaller greens at 6-inch intervals and larger greens, like Chinese cabbage, collards and kale at 10 to 12 inch spacings.

Each year I like to try to grow some different leafy green. This year it is watercress, which I think will do best in a pot sitting in a saucer of water. I need 2 cups of watercress for my tarragon chicken salad and if successful, will share growing tips and the recipe with you next year.

Good gardening!

Dawn P.

 

 

forsythia

The earth is continuing to awake this week, wide-eyed and full of vigor. The most obvious, in-your-face sign is the bright and intense yellow flowers of forsythia popping up and out of landscapes and yards. There is nothing subtle about forsythia. It is loud and screaming to be seen. A designing friend once called it the “spring vomit defiling the landscape.”  Another bit of sage wisdom on color theory about yellow was offered from a quilt teacher, “A little yellow goes a long way.” But I think forsythia’s splash is just what is needed after months of grey and browns of winter, especially a winter without the white of snow cover.  Forsythia shocks us out of the winter doldrums and seems to waken all the other flowers.

forsthyia in the woods

 

Forsythias bloom on wood grown in the previous year. Prune forsythia the spring immediately after flowering. Flower buds develop during the summer and fall, and fall, winter or early spring pruning will remove them. Forsythia is a non-native plant here. Most species are from Asia with one originating in Southeastern Europe.  Forsythia is often used a marker and reminder to apply crabgrass preventer. Once the forsythia is starting to drop its flowers, the timing is right to apply pre-emergent fertilizer. The same ground temperatures at that stage of blooming are the same ground temperatures to initiate crabgrass seed germination. Good to know.

Daffodils complement the landscape, drawing eyes away from possible blinding by overplanted forsythia hedges. Daffodils come in varying shades of yellow from soft, pale yellows and whites to deep, yellows with almost orange trumpets. Bulbs planted in clumps look more natural than soldier straight rows, although rows add a sense of formality and satisfy the orderly type of gardeners. All parts of the daffodil plant is toxic to animals, making is a good choice where deer and voles are common to visit.

daffodil clumps

Directly following the forsythia flowers, several showy trees begin blooming. First is the star magnolia, (Magnolia stellata), with its white star-like flowers. Any winds will move the tepals, and if you squint hard enough, look like twinkling stars. Star magnolia is native to Japan and is a common specimen tree here in the U.S..  Flowers delicate often succumb to frost damage and turning brown tinged.

 

Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), blooms a week or two later than the star magnolia. Saucer magnolia flowers are cup shaped in various shades of pink depending on variety. The parents of this hybrid are Magnolia denudate x Magnolia liliiflorsa, both native to China. I love the smooth grey bark visible during the winter once the leaves drop, providing great winter interest.

 Another softer and less yellow flowering shrub blooming currently is Cornell pink azalea AKA Korean azalea, (Rhododendron mucronulatum). Blossoms come out before the leaves turning the multi-stemmed shrub into a mass of many clear pink flowers. It is native to Korea, Russia, Mongolia and Northern China. Bees especially appreciate its rich nectar source and often are can be seen visiting at all times of day.

Rhododendron mucronulatum. Azalea Pamm Cooper photo

Spicebush, (Lindera benzoin), is a native understory shrub with subtle, pale yellow flowers attached along branches before leaves emerge. Look into the woods to see a bit of dotted yellow haze in wet areas. Leaves can be used to make a tea. Red berries will be produced later in the season providing food for wildlife and birds.

spice bush

Cornelian cherry, (Cornus mas), is not a cherry at all, it is in the dogwood family. Native to Europe where the fruits produced later in the season are used for preserves and syrups, if you can beat the birds to harvest them.  Mature trees develop interesting, exfoliating bark.

Look lower to the ground for first spring flowers. The native bluets (Houstonia caerulea) are beginning their show up. Other common names are Azure Bluet and Quaker Ladies. Find them growing in moist areas near stream banks, rivers and ponds. I see them in natural lawns where no herbicides or weed and feed products were ever used. Cow fields are usually loaded with them in rural areas.

Bluets

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is another native spring flowering plant poking its white blossoms up from the soil with its leaves following below. Flowers are self-pollinating, and then form a seed pod which ripens around July. Ants are important allies in spreading the seeds, and eating the rich lipid coating on the seeds, aiding in germination.  Bloodroot occurs natural in woodland settings, blooming before the tree leaf canopy develops. Bloodroot gets its name from the red juice emitted from rhizomes historically used to dye wool and fabrics. It was also used for medicinal properties in the past.

 

-by Carol Quish

 

Male red-winged blackbird

Spring is when you feel like whistling even with a shoe full of slush.  Doug Larson

Following a relatively mild winter, this spring has been a bit of a chiller so far. Forsythia in the north a yellow bud and central areas of Connecticut barely have yellow flower buds showing and star magnolias are just starting to show a few blooms. Spring may be slow to start, but at least it isn’t winter.

Spring peepers are singing, and have been for about three weeks. These harbingers of spring provide a cheery chorus for those fortunate enough to live near ponds. They were joined a couple of weeks later by wood frogs, who have a more throaty but equally welcome spring song.

Spring peepers live up to their name

Painted turtles, the first of which I saw in February on a 60 degree day, can be seen on warmer days sunning themselves on partially submerged logs and rocks. Spotted salamanders have already laid their eggs in vernal pools, and wood frogs should be doing the same now. Check out vernal pools for the eggs of these amphibians, plus you may see some immature salamanders swimming around before they develop lungs and venture onto land.

painted turtle stretching

Painted turtle stretching out

 

Spring azure butterflies, Celastrina ladon, have a single brood, and flight may occur any time between late March and early June here in Connecticut. This is one of our first butterflies to emerge from its chrysalis, and can be seen obtaining nectar from early spring flowers such as bluets and violets.

spring azure on bluet May 19 2016

Spring azure butterfly on a native bluet flower

Another early flying butterfly is the Mourning cloak, easily identified by the upper sides of its large, chocolate brown wings that are edged with cream borders and lined inside that with lavender to blue spots. Imported cabbage white butterflies are arriving from their southern living quarters. This butterfly lays its eggs on members of the brassica family, which includes the wild mustards, including the invasive garlic mustard.

Mourning cloak early spring

Mourning cloak basking in early April

Migrating birds are slow to arrive, but the red-winged blackbirds have been back since early March, although some were even here in late February. Males arrive way ahead of females, which gives them plenty of time to select the best nesting sites in advance. Some warblers may fly through just before invasive honeysuckles leaf out. Palm and black and white warblers are some of the earliest to arrive. Palm warblers flick their rusty tail, much as phoebes do, and they move on northward to their breeding grounds. Many black and white warblers remain here to breed in woodlands.

palm warbler on migration in April pamm Cooper photo

Palm warblers sometimes migrate through before most plants have leafed out

Forsythia and star magnolias are just starting to bloom -later than normal this spring in northern Connecticut, but bloodroot and violets should be blooming any time now. These are important flowers for our spring pollinators. Japanese andromeda, Pieris japonica, has been blooming in some places since late March, and this is also visited by early spring flying bees. Along with pussy willows, this is a great plant for Colletes inaequalis, the earliest ground nesting bee which is active around the time  native willows start to bloom.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese andromeda flowers in late March

Check out streams for marsh marigolds and watercress, and dry sunny, woodland areas for native trout lilies that usually start to bloom in late April or early May. Red trillium, Trillium erectum, sometimes has an overlapping bloom time with bloodroot, depending on the weather.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

Watercress blooming in a woodland brook

 

Raccoons, foxes and many other animals may have their young from early spring through June. Some birds, including great horned owls, may have their young in late winter. Sometimes these owls use the nest that red-tailed or other hawks used the previous year.

baby raccoons June 2

Two week old raccoons in a sunny spot in the woods

 

While the central portions on the United States are having bomb cyclones this week that are bringing heavy snows and severe wind gusts, we should have snow here only in the form of a distant memory. I can live with that.

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

‘Plant a little mint, Madame, then step out of the way so you don’t get hurt!’

anonymous British gardener

Spring is the time when we look forward to putting aside our heavy winter clothing for spring jackets and hearty soups and stews for lighter fare. The first foods that are produced in our gardens in the spring are usually greens such as lettuces and spinach, asparagus, green onions, and peas. And there is no better complement to peas and green onions than mint.

mint

Mint (Mentha) is a fast-growing, aromatic, perennial herb with opposite, toothed leaves, and stems that are square in cross-section. Most varieties reach 1-3’ in height. It prefers a moist but well-drained soil in a neutral pH. Mint can be started indoors from seed or sown outdoors once the ground has warmed and like all seeds, they must be kept moist until they germinate. Choosing to buy seedlings or larger plants will bring a quicker harvest, and I find that I like being able to break off and crush a leaf to see what the mint variety will smell and taste like.

Mint can run rampant over your garden, spreading through underground runners called stolons, and should be either placed where this habit will not be a problem or contained by annual division in the spring.  When I was a novice gardener (and a very green one at that) some 35 years ago, I made the mistake of planting mint in our garden. It took several years to eradicate the mint that threatened to overtake the bed. If you do want to plant mint in the ground, one option is to plant it in a bottomless five-gallon bucket sunk into the ground with only the top couple of inches peeking out.

Growing mint in containers or hanging baskets solves the problem of mint taking over. Container herbs will require more moisture than garden-grown herbs and may benefit from late afternoon shade. And containers can be brought in for the winter. I have had mine in a sunny window since last October and it is still doing well. Below is an image of mint planted amid eggplant in a container.

mint 3

Chocolate mint in flowerFresh leaves should be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Only remove about one-third of the foliage at each harvest. Early morning is best to ensure that the oils are not dried out from the sun. To dry herbs for winter use, the leaves should be harvested prior to flower buds opening. Pinching off leaves will help the plants to fill out. Any mint that is allowed to go to flower will attract a wide variety of pollinators with its white, pale pink, or pale purple blossoms. The image on the right is chocolate mint in flower (image from the NCCD Plant Sale site)

 

True mint varieties are known to cross pollinate with other types of mint when planted within close proximity. This can result in characteristics from different mint types to appear in one plant, leading to unfavorable scents or flavors. There are between 20-25 species of mint in the Mentha genus depending on the source: the following are some of my personal favorites.

Chocolate mint

 

Chocolate mint, Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’, is my top choice, with its brownish-red stems and brown tinged serrated leaves. It is a cultivar of peppermint (which itself is a hybrid of watermint and spearmint) and prefers full sun. I’ve heard the smell and taste compared to an Andes Chocolate Mint, an apt description.

 

 

 

Mint' Spearmint' 2

 

Spearmint, Mentha spicata, also known as common or garden mint, prefers partial shade and a neutral pH. Like all commercial mints, it is sterile and can only be propagated through cuttings.

 

 

 

Mint 'Peppermint'

 

 

Peppermint, Mentha piperita, does not tolerate dry conditions as it is native to stream beds. Black peppermint has deep purple-green leaves and stems and a higher oil content while the white is actually light green and has a milder flavor. It is often used as a digestion aid.

 

 

 

Pineapple mintPineapple mint, Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’, has a lovely, light pineapple scent. As its Latin name suggests the pineapple mint has white-margined, bumpy, hairy, variegated leaves making it a visually interesting addition to any container. It is the variegated cultivar of apple mint, Mentha suaveolens. Sprigs of the unvariegated apple mint may occasionally appear among pineapple mint and should be pinched out. This is called reversion and happens when the less vigorous variegated specimens return to the original sturdier form, due to less chlorophyll being produced by the light sections of their leaves. Grow in full sun for upright plants or partial shade for a sprawling cover. Image by the U of Florida.

 

mint 'Apple'

 

Apple mint, Mentha suaveolens, has woolly, square stems and leaves that are a bit hairy on top and woolly below. It has a very faint, apple-like taste if the leaves are crushed so it is a subtle addition to fruit salads or in drinks.

 

 

 

 

Mint 'Orange' 2

 

 

Orange mint, Mentha x piperita citrata, can reach up to 2 feet in height. It will bloom in the late-spring into summer with lovely small violet flowers.

 

 

 

Some other varieties of mint that I saw recently included a strawberry mint (below, left) that has a fresh strawberry flavor and mint ‘Mojito’ (below, right), with a touch of citrus.

Mint leaves make a delicious addition to beverages such as lemonade, seltzer, or even iced water. Mint ‘tea’ is not a true tea, which must be made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, but in fact a tisane, an infusion made by steeping leaves in hot water. Whether the leaves are fresh or dried, a mint tisane makes a refreshing hot or iced beverage.

When used in culinary dishes, mint can liven up any recipe. As it is native to the Mediterranean it is a common ingredient in many cultures. Greek cuisine uses mint in many dishes. Tzatziki is a sauce made from Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, chopped mint and salt.

taztziki-1.jpg

Its Indian cousin, raita, uses the same ingredients except for the garlic to create a cool sauce to offset the heat of Indian curries. Another Greek dish, tabbouleh, is a great summertime favorite with our family. Usually made with bulgur wheat, I use quinoa as the base grain, and then toss this cold salad with chopped plum tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, and fresh mint. Olive oil, lemon juice, and salt finish off this refreshing cold salad.

 

peas_4_3021757467I have also used fresh mint leaves in homemade strawberry jam, adding the clean, chopped leaves just before ladling the mixture into sterilized jars and putting them into a hot water bath for 10 minutes. A very British spring dish is fresh peas with mint where a sliced scallion is sautéed in butter, then fresh, shelled peas are added along with a pinch of salt, and just enough water to barely cover them. After 2 minutes on a high heat add a small handful of torn mint leaves and cook until the peas are tender. Fresh sugar snap peas can be used in place of the shelled peas.

Some benefits to growing mint are that deer rarely eat it and as an essential oil it can be used to control mites and mosquito larvae or as a repellent to rabbits, dogs, and cats. Even more beneficial is how well it pairs with chocolate! Its no surprise that mint is a symbol of warm feelings, virtue, and eternal refreshment.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton unless otherwise noted.