November 2009

Eric Liskey

Freshness never tasted stronger

Written on November 30, 2009 at 4:38 pm , by

I’m a big fan of horseradish, particularly with red meat. Nothing makes a steak taste better, in my opinion. So I thought I would grow some horseradish in the garden this year. I did, and harvested it this past weekend (they say it tastes better after the first frost). The recipes you find out on the web are mostly pretty similar. Vinegar, a pinch of salt, and grated horseradish root. Just peel the root, grate it finely directly into vinegar (the vinegar is vital – it preserves the flavor). That’s all there is to it.

Horseradish -- It's what's with my dinner (if dinner is beef).

Horseradish -- It's what's with my dinner (if dinner is beef).

So, my father-in-law  (also a horseradish aficionado) and I dug, washed, peeled, grated and mixed. And the result was better than I anticipated. The flavor was so good it was startling. As was the heat. Horseradish is strange that way. Chiles get you in the tastebuds (and gut and anywhere else the peppers come in contact). Horseradish is not hot in your mouth. It’s hot when you exhale. It’s like someone running a blowtorch up your nose. Really. But you learn to breathe with a certain discipline, and then—back to the flavor.  Mmmmm!

Creamy horseradish sauce is very popular. Probably because it’s not as hot. It’s not hard to make—mainly, it involves adding sour or heavy cream (and various other things, depending on the recipe) in addition to vinegar. Just for fun, my father-in-law read off the ingredients listed on a jar of the store-bought sauce stuff. Horseradish was only the eighth ingredient on the list! No wonder the fresh, unadulterated stuff is so much better.

Horseradish plants are attractive. They have really large leaves that tend to flop a bit (my biggest complaint about them) but they’re nice-looking nonetheless. So I placed a few in my flowerbeds, and they blended in well. Digging them up is kind of a chore, though, and pretty disruptive in an established bed. For that reason alone, I’d suggest keeping them in a veggie garden. Or any patch of ground where digging a large hole won’t cause problems.

Horseradish roots. Not beautiful, but tasty.

Horseradish roots. Not beautiful, but tasty.

Horseradish plants are perennial, hardy to Zone 2, and you harvest roots in fall (or spring, if you like). It’s easiest to replant a small root immediately, so there’s a new one start next spring. Loose, deep soil helps — these things grow half way to China, and getting them out without breaking the roots isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.

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Everyday Gardeners

bedtime for berries

Written on November 27, 2009 at 6:48 am , by

Usually by the middle of November my strawberries are safely snuggled under several inches of mulch, ready for winter cold and snow. But this year has been so mild that I’m holding off with the final covering until we get a few nights down around 20 degrees F. As I was trimming back perennials I scattered a light later of ornamental grass stems over the berry plants. The strawberry leaves are turning red, indicating that they’re going into dormancy, but I’ll wait for the final blanket of mulch until the ground has a thin frozen crust.

Trimmings from ornamental grasses make good winter mulch for strawberries.

Trimmings from ornamental grasses make good winter mulch for strawberries.

Years ago when I ran a commercial pick-your-own strawberry farm, I used chopped cornstalks to mulch the 5-acre berry patch because cornstalks were available essentially for free from nearby farmland, and my uncle Troy, who felt sorry for a poor struggling beginning farmer, gave me a good deal on his labor for chopping and stacking. It took a couple of weeks of long, hard labor to mulch the entire commercial patch, but it won’t take long to finish covering my 150-square-foot home garden patch of berries. When real November weather finally arrives, I’ll cut back the rest of my grasses and use the cut stems for additional mulch. If you don’t have enough ornamental grasses to provide all the mulch that you need, weed-free straw is another good option. Avoid the temptation to pile on fallen leaves, however. They mat down and smother the berry plants.

Earliglo strawberries resting on a bed of grassy mulch.

Earliglo strawberries resting on a bed of grassy mulch.

Next spring you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor. Remember to rake the mulch away from the crowns when temperatures warm into the 70s for several days in a row (usually late March or early April here in central Iowa). Leave a couple of inches of mulch on the ground near the plants to keep the developing fruits off the soil. The berries will remain cleaner and more disease-free. Pictured at right are some Earliglo strawberries from my backyard patch. They’re one of my favorite varieties for flavor. What varieties grow best where you live?

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Justin W. Hancock

Toyota and Plants

Written on November 25, 2009 at 6:01 pm , by

I just read in an e-mail newsletter that car maker Toyota (manufacturer, actually, of my own car), has a “biotechnology and afforestation” wing that’s in the “greenification business” (terms from their Web site).

I think that’s pretty cool of them — and smart marketing. And I was blown away that they said they’ve bred a handful of plant varieties (including a couple of types of salvia) that do a better job of absorbing some types of air pollution than non-hybridized counterparts.

And it has me thinking….as a gardener, it’s changed the way I think about the company.

What about you? Would hold a more favorable view of a car company for supporting gardening like that? Or given what automobiles do to the environment, do you feel that this kind of thing is a necessity and not worth bonus points? Or does it seem like just another marketing ploy to you?

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Justin W. Hancock

Heavenly Hydrangeas

Written on November 25, 2009 at 7:44 am , by

What’s America’s favorite flower? Based on the amount of mail we get about them, I’d guess it’s hydrangeas. It’s not hard to see why, with their beautiful blooms. Add on the fact that hydrangeas are relatively deer resistant (I know there are lots of you out there who may disagree, but many gardeners do grow these shrubs without fear of seeing them mowed down by Bambi) and it’s like a match made in heaven.

If, that is, you choose the right varieties for you. There are several different kinds, and unfortunately none of them are one-size-fits-all plants. Here’s a quick cheat sheet on hydrangea types:

If you have sun, choose varieties of Hydrangea paniculata. They’re also a good bet if you live in a cold climate (Zones 3 or 4). Most are white, but some newer varieties like Quick Fire and Vanilla Strawberry have a red or pink blush.
If you want cut flowers, choose reblooming varieties of Hydrangea macrophylla. They’ll start producing flowers in June and usually continue through fall. Endless Summer is the classic type, but there are others such as the Let’s Dance series or Mini Penny if you look hard enough.
If you want a no-brainer, go with oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). This is the more carefree hydrangea I’ve ever grown, and it puts on the best fall show of any of my hydrangeas, too.

Interest piqued? Learn about other great types and varieties here!
By the way: What’s your favorite hydrangea? Share by commenting below!


Doug Jimerson

The Kale Stands Alone

Written on November 24, 2009 at 9:55 am , by

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, my garden looks like a 1930s black-and-white photo. That’s why I’m thrilled with the last beacons of color from the flowering kale that’s brighter now than when I planted it last spring. The leaves are a bit ragged around the edges (after all, we’ve had snow already!), and the plants are a little leggy, but the color is amazing: vivid pink and blue-green. A Technicolor touch in the monochromatic landscape.

Funny thing is, I’ve never been a fan of ornamental kale. They always seemed too gaudy and only appropriate for fall planting. Even when I found two plants, like stray kittens, sitting on a cart outside of my office last April with a sign saying “free plants,” I wasn’t tempted. Editor Luke Miller had used them as photo shoot props for a story in his magazine Garden Ideas and Outdoor Living. All day long people with spring on their minds passed by the small, orphaned kale. Finally as I was leaving for the day, I took pity on them, brought them home and poked them into an out-of-the-way corner in the garden.

As summer progressed, I turned a blind eye as cabbage looper caterpillars chewed lacy holes in their ruffled leaves. But somehow, the kale held their own. As summer turned to fall, and the rest of the garden faded from successive frosts, the kale got brighter, more vivid. And now those two orphaned kale are the last plants standing in my garden. And, I have to admit they are looking darn good.

So, I’ve made a note for next year’s planting list: plant kale in the spring for big fall color.

The orphan kales make good.

The orphan kales make good.

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Everyday Gardeners

Help Save a Tree—Today Only!

Written on November 23, 2009 at 11:55 am , by

Just got word that the city of Kewanee, Illinois, is scheduled to cut down an historical Osage-orange tree tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov. 24). Why care? Because it is the sole remaining tree of an original hedge row planted in 1840. Yes, BEFORE the Civil War!

This 170-year-old Osage-orange tree is slated to be removed tomorrow unless a stay of execution is obtained.

This 170-year-old Osage-orange tree is slated to be removed tomorrow unless a stay of execution is obtained.

The tree is leaning and there are concerns about safety. However, arborists point out that it has been leaning for decades (see photos below) without causing problems. Osage-orange trees have interweaving fibers that resist splitting, making them very strong. “Its density and shear strength are among the highest of all Temperate Zone trees,” says arborist and author Guy Sternberg. “This modifies all the standard rules about hazard evaluation…”

These 1992 photos show that the tree has been leaning for years.

These 1992 photos show that the tree has been leaning for years.

Supporters of the tree are asking that the removal be postponed until other options have been considered.  Those options include pruning and cabling to alleviate perceived safety issues. At the very least, scion wood should be saved so this historical tree can be cloned.

If you would like to help save this tree, contact the Kewanee city manager (click here for contact info).

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