Sunday, November 23, 2014

Poinsettias at the Plant Farm

I went on one of the poinsettia tours at the Plant Farm nursery on Friday and boy, did I see a lot of absolutely gorgeous poinsettias! Thousands of them, in fact.

The Plant Farm is located at 14208 E. 4th Ave. in Spokane Valley. They have several enormous greenhouses that are filled with beautifully grown plants and an attractive gift shop with plants and decorative items. They are open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Here is a sampling of what I saw:


'Christmas Day'

'Christmas Feelings Pink'

'Ice Crystal'


'Red Glitter'

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Winter garden update #1

If I've piqued your curiosity in the past couple of months by writing about growing veggies through the winter months, you will be interested to hear how that project is going.

I've made some mistakes but have also learned a lot so you get to benefit from my new-found wisdom!

You'll recall that my husband Bill and I built a small hoop house (plastic-covered greenhouse) about a month ago. We even filmed a small video on the project, which you can find on my YouTube channel, in case you missed it or want to refresh your memory.

The hoop house covers two 3' by 8' raised beds in my veggie garden. In those beds, I'm growing the following salad greens: red lettuce, mizuna, tat soi, arugula, mache (aka, corn salad) and kale. All had been doing splendidly and I'd harvested quite a bit from the beds... that is, until the "polar vortex" hit the Inland Northwest a couple of weeks ago.

When I checked on everything, the plants were looking pretty sad! Most were wilted-looking and lying on the ground. How depressing.

I decided not to panic because I've read that winter vegetables can look pretty dreadful when the temperatures really dip but that they perk up again when it's a bit warmer.

Today, I checked on them again and here's what I saw:

The mizuna (foreground) has new sprouts; tat soi in rear.
1. The lettuce is still looking awful but I knew it would be the least hardy of the lot. I grew lettuce into December last year, then it died back when we had that bitterly cold weather. The amazing thing is that it grew back from the roots about halfway through the winter and produced quite well. So there's no point in pulling up the plants.

2. The tat soi is perking up, although there are quite a few frost-damaged leaves.
Corn salad, kale &arugula looking better.

3. The kale is looking better, which is encouraging.

4. While the mizuna was the most vibrant of the salad greens, many of the outer leaves have died... but the nice thing I saw was some new growth out of the center of the plants. (see photo above)

5. The arugula also has some frost-damaged leaves but the main growth of the plants is perking up.

6. The mache, or corn salad, hasn't batted an eye at the frigid temperatures we had, but then, they're just little seedlings at this point. You might recall how I had dreadful germination when I sowed the seeds a couple of months ago. I kept waiting for them to sprout, which threw me off a bit on my timing, but finally sowed new seeds -- and much more thickly -- about a month ago. They germinated well but are growing quite slowly.

What mistakes have I made?
  • I should have situated the hoop house in a sunnier area of the garden. Fortunately, it's movable, so I won't make that mistake next fall! It's currently located directly to the north of my small greenhouse. When we went out to the hoop house this morning, we noticed the greenhouse was casting a shadow (see photo to right) on it since the sun is so low in the sky these days. We did remove some shade cloth that was hanging inside the greenhouse on the south side, so perhaps that will let a little more light through to the hoop house. I've been doing some reading and it appears light is the most critical aspect for success.
  • The plants might also be doing better if I started them ahead of time in flats and transplanted them into the hoop house beds rather than just sowing seeds directly in the beds.
  • I could have done a better job of thinning the seedlings for better spacing. This is important, particularly if any slugs have found their way into the bed. They just love it when plants are close together because it makes it easier for them to move around. You'd think a slug isn't tough enough to withstand cold temperatures but they are -- I learned that last year when I came across a couple in the dead of winter! This year I put down some organic slug bait and also caught and removed a large one about 3 weeks ago.
I'm continuing to learn interesting things as I read and research the topic of growing veggies through the winter. Stay tuned for the next update... which hopefully will include better news!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book review: "Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States"

by Susan Mulvihill

I’m always on the lookout for helpful, new gardening books and have found a good one for experienced and aspiring veggie gardeners alike.

“Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States” (Timber Press, 224 pp., $19.95), written by Mary Ann Newcomer, was published earlier this year.

But don’t let that reference to the mountain states put you off! This book covers the intermountain west, which includes Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, northern Nevada, eastern Washington (ah, there we are!) and eastern Oregon.

After covering the features of, and weather variations in, each of the above regions, the author
discusses the various aspects of vegetable gardening that we need to know: watering methods, soil types, organic practices and how to sow seeds.

The following chapter is all about planning for your garden: choosing an ideal site, why it’s important to rotate crops, and the best plant supports for tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Mary Ann is a strong proponent of planning ahead and emphasizes the importance of not planting more veggies than your garden can support. An important lesson for all of us, right?

From there, she proceeds into a month-by-month to-do section which makes it easy to stay on task throughout the year. She divides the tasks by climate zone, so it doesn’t matter whether you live in zone 3 or zone 7 -- you’ll know what to do and when.

Throughout the calendar section, there are reminders for new gardeners to be wary of the changeable spring weather this region is known for. The author recommends keeping a journal, especially about weather-related dates and events that affect one’s garden.

There are also many interesting tips sprinkled throughout the book. While reading it, I learned how to pre-warm the soil in spring, ways to deal with earwigs and slugs organically, and how to make organic manure tea.

Other useful information includes reminders to pick vegetables regularly so they continue to produce, when and how to harvest garlic, how to store the last of the veggies in fall, and how to save seeds.

In her “Edibles from A to Z” section, Mary Ann covers the most important information on growing and harvesting over 30 popular vegetables, herbs and berries, and makes variety recommendations to boot. There are also planting and harvesting charts for zones 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and zone 7.

I recently met Mary Ann while she was in Spokane for a speaking engagement and discovered her delightful sense of humor, which is evident throughout the book.  While there aren’t any photos in it, readers won’t miss them because the text is so engaging.

I think “Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States” would be ideal for new vegetable gardeners -- especially for the timing of tasks -- or those who have moved here from warmer climates and are trying to get the hang of gardening in such a different region. But for those of us who have grown veggies for a long time, she demonstrates that you can teach old dogs new tricks!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Holiday arrangements primer

Last Saturday, I attended Master Gardener Steve Nokes' talk on creating holiday arrangements. He had a lot of great tips and has given me permission to share them with you.

During his talk, he created a Thanksgiving floral arrangement and a holiday table centerpiece. I didn't want to disrupt things by taking photos, so just sat quietly taking notes. Here's what he had to say:

Working with cut flowers...
  • If picking flowers from your garden, place them into warm water first to avoid shocking them; when you're ready to put the arrangement together, put cold water in the vase.
  • Whether the flowers are from the store or your garden, Steve says they'll last longer if you cut them underwater; this keeps air from blocking water that needs to go up the stem.
  • He also suggests cutting the stem on an angle which exposes more plant tissue and prevents the stem from sitting flat at the bottom the vase, thus allowing it to more easily take up water.
  • Pick a vase that isn't any shorter than half the height of the flowers you'll be putting into it.
  • The smaller flowers and/or buds go at the top of the arrangements (to mimic nature), so those stems should be the longest.
  • Steve says there's no need to add anything to the water (such as the packets that often come with store-bought cut flowers or other products) but he does "condition" the water he puts into the vase by filling it ahead of time and letting it set for a few hours; this allows any chlorine in the water to dissipate.
  • You can use "frogs" (a florist's tool that has metal vertical pins that you push the stems down into) to hold plants up straight. Another item you can use are marbles, which you can find in the florist's supply area of a craft store.
  • Before putting any flowers into the vase, remove leaves from any part of the stems that will be underwater. Those leaves can pollute the water as they decompose, which is a "death sentence for the flowers," Steve advises.
  • Once your arrangement is satisfactory to you, dress it up by putting a placemat or table topper underneath. For Thanksgiving arrangements, you can add small ears of dried "Indian" corn or white pumpkins. Pine cones would work well for Christmas arrangements.
  • Mist the flowers every so often to keep them fresh-looking and make them last up to 2 weeks.

Working with greens for a table centerpiece...
  • When making dinner table arrangements, Steve suggests keeping it low and wide so guests can see each other over it.
  • He first soaked a block of florist's "oasis" in water until it was heavy and completely saturated. This is what he would place into a shallow dish and then push the greens into it. He mentioned that if you feel like the oasis might tip over later, this is the time to use some green adhesive florist's tape to attach it to the dish by running it from one edge of the dish, up and over the oasis and then down onto the opposite side of the dish.
  • Next, he pushed a florist's green plastic candle holder into the center of the oasis, which he would use later.
  • He was using prunings from a juniper, but cedar, pine and spruce are ideal for use as greens, too.
  • To make greens last, use a commercial spray like "Wilt Stop" which prevents them from drying out. Spray the top and bottom of the greens.
  • Steve doesn't cut the greens underwater like he does with cut flowers; he doesn't feel it's necessary.
  • The stem on each branch was pruned of side branches for the first few inches as that end would be pushed into the oasis. He pushed enough greens into the oasis until you couldn't see it anymore. 
  • Next, he had some trimmings from an Oregon grape; he added those to the arrangement for a pleasing accent since the leaves are shiny and have interesting shapes. It was also pruned in the above manner before being added to the oasis. The whole time, Steve followed his advice by keeping the arrangement nice and low.
  • Once he was pleased with how everything looked, he placed a candle into the candle holder. The result was a very simple yet elegant centerpiece.
I hope you'll find Steve's tips helpful as you start creating your own holiday arrangements!

Monday, November 17, 2014

What to do with a parsnip!

As I mentioned in my last post, I dug up the last of my root crops the weekend before last, right before the ground froze. One of those crops is parsnips. I've grown parsnips for years and can't imagine a garden -- or winter kitchen -- without them.

Anytime I give a garden talk and mention that I grow parsnips, I invariably see a few wrinkled noses. So now it's time for me to take on a "Mom" role and say, "Don't tell me you don't like them without trying them!" (you used to say that to your kids, right?)

Parsnips look like white carrots on steroids. They tend to have quite sturdy roots. But the similarity ends there. They don't really taste like carrots because they have a sweet, nutty taste. I think parsnips are at their best when roasted in the oven.

I've often roasted them in large chunks with other root vegetables like beets, onions and carrots. A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar adds a lovely flavor. But there are many other ways to prepare them.

One of my favorite recipes is a potato-parsnip gratin where you thinly slice equal amounts of each, then layer them in a shallow casserole dish along with slices of onions. You pour a medium white sauce over everything, top it with shredded Swiss cheese, and bake it in the oven. Mm-mmm! (I don't know where the recipe came from so can't print it here, but if you'd like it, just drop me a note at

Another recipe I plan to try this Thanksgiving is mashed parsnips and potatoes that sounds delicious. You use equal proportions of both veggies, cook them in boiling water just like you would regular for mashed potatoes from scratch, then puree them while adding in melted butter, chopped herbs, and salt and pepper. It should make a fabulous side dish!

So how do you grow parsnips anyway? They are related to carrots so the cultural requirements are the same. I plant them in rows rather than broadcasting the seeds in a block because it's much easier to thin the seedlings later. I sow the seeds in early spring, about 1 inch apart. I water them in, then cover the row with a board (usually a spare 2x4) which prevents the soil from forming a crust on the surface, which makes it hard for the seedlings to break through. I remove the board after a week.

Once the seedlings are about 3 inches tall, I thin them 3 to 4 inches apart. That's the one difference from growing carrots which can be spaced a little more closely. However, parsnips tend to be 2 to 3, or even 4 inches in diameter so they need a little more space. And that's it! You just water them through the summer and early fall, and harvest them before the ground freezes.

Store them in a dark, cool and somewhat moist environment. I usually put them into plastic bread bags and store them in our refrigerator's produce drawer. Root cellars work great, as do bins of dampened sand that are either in a cold environment like a garage or sunk into the ground.

So give parsnips a try! You can start by trying some from the store and go from there. I'm hoping you'll pick up some seeds and grow them next year.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Root crop report

Before our "polar vortex" hit earlier this week, I dug up the last of my root crops. Once the temperatures dip well below freezing, it's just about impossible to get them out of the ground so I knew it was a "now-or-never" situation.

I dug up leeks, beets, carrots and parsnips. I'm pleased with how well everything grew and thought you might like to hear what the final results were, since it's how I decide what to grow in the next gardening season. There's also storage information at the end.

Leeks - I mentioned this on my Facebook page recently but it bears repeating here. I normally grow 'King Richard' leeks because they mature fairly quickly (about 75 days) and develop thick stems. This year, I had some free seeds from a British gardening magazine I picked up so decided to try a completely different variety. It was Bluegreen Autumn 'Porbella'. I'd never heard of it before. They were slow-growing and I never could find out how many days it would take for them to reach maturity. By the time I harvested them this fall, most were thick enough but certainly not as robust as 'King Richard'. We've enjoyed some of them in leek-and-potato soup so far and will use the rest in a special casserole recipe or two. However, next year, I'll definitely grow 'King Richard' again!

Beets - I grew two varieties, 'Golden' and 'Detroit Dark Red'. While 'Golden' are a beautiful color, I'd have to say the 'Detroit Dark Reds' grew much better. The roots are more tender and even though I planted the seeds in the spring, the roots didn't become pithy or tough. I've heard beets grow better when planted in mid- to late summer and harvested in the fall. I just might try that next year. I'll probably just grow 'Detroit Dark Red', too.

'Tendersweet' (L), 'Starica' (R)
'Purple Haze'
Carrots - This year, I grew 3 different varieties: 'Tendersweet', 'Starica' and 'Purple Haze'. As you can see in the photo to the right, 'Tendersweet' (on left) has long, slender roots... so long, in fact, that they were a challenge to get out of the ground without breaking the roots! Some of them were over 12 inches long, which was impressive. They grew really well. 'Starica' (on the right) -- which I also grew last year -- has the stubbier, but still nice, roots. The next photo shows the 'Purple Haze', which I readily admit I grew for the novelty of it. The roots are dark purple on the outside and orange on the inside. What I don't like about this variety is that the dark purple actually stains just about anything it comes into contact with (sink, cutting board, fingers, etc.). I don't feel the need to grow them again. They did have a decent flavor, though, and if you're looking for something novel, it's a good choice! Just don't place them next to any other type of food that will absorb that deep purple color. I'll plant 'Tendersweet' and 'Starica' again next year... well, unless something interesting catches my eye, of course!


Parsnips (to left) - I have grown parsnips for years and just love their sweet, almost nutty flavor. This year, I grew 'Albion' and, as you can see, it was very successful. The roots are all a really nice size. That was just from a single 8-foot-long row, with the plants spaced nearly 4 inches apart! I'm going to write more about growing and eating parsnips later this week, but I'll leave it at this: if you you've never given them a try, you owe it to yourself to pick some up at the grocery store or farmer's market and see what you've been missing! Stay tuned for more info on them...

Storage of root crops - If you're wondering how I store the above types of  root crops, I generally rinse the soil off the roots, let them set in a cool, dark area for a day or two, put them into plastic bags and keep them in the refrigerator. A root cellar would work great, too, but that's not an option for me. One other possibility is to store them in single layers, separated by damp sand, either in a plastic tub sunk into the ground or kept in your garage. Some folks sink a small metal or plastic trash can into the ground. No matter what, store them in single layers just in case some develop mold. That way, you won't lose everything.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don't cut back all of the flower heads!

As you tidy up your annuals and perennials this fall, consider leaving some of the flower head for the birds that visit your garden this winter.

Seeds are highly nutritious and just what birds need during the colder months of the year. Even though I'd love to have a pristine garden by the time the ground freezes each fall, I'm careful to leave the seed heads of black-eye Susans (Rudbeckia), purple coneflower (Echinacea) and globe thistle (Echinops) in place for them to eat.

In addition to providing them with much-needed winter food, I have to admit I enjoy watching them gently land on the flower stalks and seeing the seed heads bobbing back and forth as they try to snag some seeds! (Hey, it's cheap entertainment, right?)

If you are concerned about having a ton of volunteer seedlings come up from any seeds that spill onto the ground, I have to say that I haven't had problems with that. I also like how the seed heads add interest to the winter garden.

So be sure to remember the birds as you straighten up your garden for the next growing season!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cover crop follow-up

Two months ago, I did a short video on growing cover crops and posted information about cover crops on this blog.  I wanted to follow up with you on this important topic so you can see how mine grew and what I've done with them.

In August, I planted Austrian field peas. I chose a legume for a cover crop because legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, which is a really important attribute.

As you can see from the photo above, they had great germination and grew really thickly.

Late last week, I removed the drip irrigation system from each of the beds that the cover crops have been growing in and then used some hedge shears to chop up the plants a bit. (photo at right)

Then I used a shovel and spading fork, to gently turn each clump upside down to cover most of them with an inch or two of soil (bottom photo). This will facilitate decomposition.

Using cover crops is a great way to add nutrients to your soil so future vegetable crops will grow well and be productive. It doesn't take long to plant them and to later turn them under. It was definitely worth my time.

There are some types of cover crops that you grow through the winter and turn under in the spring. Cornell University has a "decision tool" to help you decide which cover crops will work best for your garden and meet your needs. Be sure to check it out.

I purchased my seeds at Northwest Seed & Pet. A Master Gardener colleague of mine recently purchased a "green manure mix" containing field peas, buckeye and winter rye there. I missed out on getting some of those this year but you can bet it will be on my shopping list next summer!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hoop house follow-up

I wanted to let you know about a few modifications we've made to our hoop house in the past few days. My husband, Bill, and I felt it needed to be a bit more "buttoned-up" for the winter.

Here's what we've done:

1) We purchased a 4-inch-wide roll of greenhouse repair tape from FarmTek. You'll recall from my original post that we built the front and back walls of the hoop house separately from the main structure. But there were small gaps between the first and last hoops and their respective end walls -- that didn't seem like it would help keep the veggies growing inside warm enough.

So we used the tape (which works great, by the way) to cover that gap as well as a couple of inches of the plastic on either side of the gap. That will make a huge difference.

2) We picked up some weatherstripping to put along the inside edge of the door frame to eliminate some small gaps which were also letting in cold air. It extends past the opening by a little over an inch to stop any drafts. We used a staple gun to anchor it in place.

3) I was concerned about some narrow gaps between the ground and the bottom edge of a few areas of the 2x4 base so we bout 2 bags of fine bark mulch and sprinkled it all the way around the structure, making sure we'd covered any gaps. Hopefully this will be a good solution.

4) Bill decided he would sleep easier during windstorms if he anchored down the hoop house so he bought (4) 24-inch sticks of rebar and pounded 2 of them into the ground on each side of the structure. Then he screwed in some metal clips to secure them in place. After that big windstorm we had the other night -- during which the hoop house did fine, but it was worrisome! -- Bill felt a little extra security would be worth the effort.

I think the hoop house and the veggies growing inside are in good shape now. It's certainly warmer and more humid in there now.

One other thing that might become an issue is I'm wondering if any field mice might burrow inside, which would be a problem. Fortunately, we have one of those wind-up mouse traps that works great so I'm ready to put that to use if need be.

Stay tuned for updates on how my winter vegetable experiment is coming along...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Great gift idea

I've long been a member of The Friends of Manito because they do so much for Spokane's beloved Manito Park.

So I'm happy to have the opportunity to tell you about a great gift idea that is also a fundraiser for the park. This non-profit organization has once again produced a beautiful calendar featuring stunning photographs taken throughout the seasons in the park.

The calendar costs $15 and is available at both locations of Northwest Seed & Pet, 2 locations of Rosauer's Supermarkets (one 14th Ave. and 29th Ave., both on the South Hill) and at the TFM office, which is located at 4 W. 21st Ave. For more information, call (509) 456-8038. Their office is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

What a super gift idea for gardeners, friends and family members on your list this holiday season!

You can learn more about this wonderful organization by visiting their website at