Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

November 2009

Hen Party in the Garden

Hen Party in the Garden

The gardening season ends with a cackle at my house. After the beds and borders are cleared, the tomato cages are stacked, and the garden tools cleaned and put away, it’s time to let the chickens run free. During the rest of the year, the 35 hens and 4 roosters live in an old-fashioned chicken house with a large wire run that allows them access to the outdoors. This keeps them from scratching up baby plants or devouring our vegetables (as well as protecting them from being eaten themselves). But, in late Fall, I open the door and set the birds free. They scatter like children at recess. Running here, scratching there, they dine on slow-moving insects, rotting apples in the orchard, and weed seeds at the yard’s edge—magically transforming the remnants of our yard and garden into rich, flavorful eggs. Plus, they brighten the now-drab garden: Buff Orpingtons, multi-colored Araucanas, Silver-laced Wyandottes, Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Speckled Sussex are just a few of the colorful breeds in our feathered clean-up crew.


Sometimes it takes a bird dog to sniff out nature’s undercover secrets. Nothing–not even mucky creek beds, sticky cobwebs, and prickly burs and brambles–can deter Lily, my Golden Retriever, when she’s on the scent trail of a critter. Autumn is her season to shine. With unleashed joy, she noses her way through fields of grass the same golden hue of her hair, as if playing a perpetual game of hide-and-seek in which she’s always the seeker. Yet, Lily’s a team player and pauses frequently to make sure I’m close behind and included in the fun. Had I waded through the frost-covered grasses alone last weekend, I might have focused solely on keeping my footing and uneventfully passed by the flock of pheasants safely slumbering in a thicket of wild plum. But with Lily tagging along, the roosters startled and took flight for fields afar in a spectacular flurry of red heads and multi-colored tail feathers. This weekend, Lily and I will be joined on our walks by Buddy, my good friend’s spirited Golden. Who knows what their Lilytwo noses will turn up?


Rutabaga growing in my garden this summer

Rutabaga growing in my garden this summer

Rutabaga is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables. It gets no respect. This cross between a cabbage and a turnip is little known even in areas with cool season climates, where it grows best. This, perhaps, stems from its origin as animal fodder in southern Europe. But Scandinavians soon discovered that rutabaga provided a welcome addition to fall and winter fare, so much so, that another common name for the vegetable is swede.

The cruciferous crop suffered further indignity at the Ithaca (New York) Farmers’ Market, where more than a decade ago, some vendors started what has become the International Rutabaga Curl to use up their excess produce. Participants pitch the vegetables at a circular target 79 feet distant (the official length of a curling court.) This year, a local columnist suggested that the Des Moines Farmers’ Market form its own rutabaga curling team to challenge the New Yorkers. Who knows? If this catches on, perhaps rutabaga curling will become an Olympic sport, and bring the vegetable some deserved recognition.

rutabaga twinI grew rutabagas in my garden for the first time this year. It turns out to have been a great year for them in Iowa because we had one of the coolest and wettest summers on record. Normally rutabagas are harvested when they reach about 3 to 5 inches in diameter, but I left some in the ground until this last week. The fused pair of rutabagas at right measured 9 inches across and weighed in at 9 pounds! The roots keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 months.

The traditional way to serve rutabaga is cooked and mashed, similar to potatoes. I remember our elementary school cooks, Olga and Hilda, serving them up on occasion as part of our hot lunch program in Minnesota. I wasn’t impressed with the dish. But then, it WAS a school lunch.

rutabaga sliced

I’ve since learned to appreciate the mildly tangy crunch of raw rutabagas. Remove the purplish skin to reveal the creamy yellow heart of the root. Slice lengthwise and serve as is, or dress with a creamy dip. Your kids (or spouse) may be fooled into thinking they’re eating uncooked French fries. Recently when I took some to work, the slices aroused curiosity. Guesses as to their identity included potato and jicama, which they do resemble when served this way. Some described the flavor as a cross between cauliflower and turnip, which isn’t far off from the plant’s true origin.

Have you grown rutabagas in your garden? Why not give them a try next year? If you decide you don’t like them, you can always start up a rutabaga curling league.


Plant on the left was grown in topsoil cut with peat moss; plant on the right was grown in quality potting mix amended with sand and compost.

Plant on the left was grown in topsoil cut with peat moss; plant on the right was grown in quality potting mix amended with sand and compost.

If ever I needed proof that good potting mix matters to plants, I got it last weekend while repotting chestnut seedlings. These two seedlings were grown in the same size pot, in the same lighting conditions, and with the same watering and fertilizing regimen. Yet you can see the vast difference in root development. Plus, the chestnut on the right is substantially taller, as you’ll see in the photo below.

I remember what happened. I had run out of potting mix, so I substituted topsoil for a small number of seedlings. Even after “cutting” it with peat moss, the topsoil was too heavy and thick to be used as a container medium.

Moral of the story: use a good potting mix (here’s one I use) and beef it up with compost (and sand, if you’re working with woody plants). Avoid using topsoil in containers even if it’s amended. Your plants will be larger and stronger. And the more extensive root system will help plants deal with drought and neglect.

Another look at the difference between seedlings grown in topsoil vs. potting mix amended with compost and sand.

Another look at the difference between seedlings grown in topsoil vs. potting mix amended with compost and sand.



dahlia-photo

Bishop of Llandaff dahlia

Every fall, I dread digging and storing summer bulbs such as dahlias and cannas. By summer’s end, many of these plants have developed large, heavy masses of roots that can be a nightmare to wrestle out of the ground. But, with an Iowa winter on the horizon, I know these tender beauties need get moved into our basement as soon as possible. By far, my favorite summer bulb is Bishop of Llandaff dahlia. Besides its brilliant red flowers, this vigorous variety is prized for its eye-catching maroon foliage. It generally grows about 3 feet tall, but for some reason, this year I had some plants that grew almost shoulder high. With a patch of ‘Bronze’ fennel behind them and a bed of ‘Amber’ Flower Carpet roses at their feet, the dahlias were in good company all summer long. Learn more about dahlias or see some of our favorites.


Chocolate Cosmos

Chocolate Cosmos

My friends know me to have two big weaknesses: plants and chocolate. So it’s only natural that I’m intrigued at combining the two.

And apparently I’m not the only one who thinks that way, given the number of plants that have chocolate in their name, including ‘Chocolate Chip’ ajuga, ‘Summer Chocolate’ mimosa, ‘Chocolate Soldier’ columbine, ‘Milk Chocolate’ foxglove, and ‘Hot Chocolate’ rose. As you might guess, these plants all feature rich, purple or brown foliage or flowers. (Garden design hint: These plants typically look extra gorgeous when paired with light blue flowers such as lead plant, flax, bachelor’s button, or blue lobelia.)

If color alone doesn’t suit your chocolate cravings, try chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) and chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata) — both of which actually smell of chocolate.

And top your chocolate garden off with cocoa hull mulch. This fine-textured mulch really does smell of rich, wonderful cocoa as it helps the soil hold moisture and keeps back weeds. (One note: Cocoa hull mulch is poisonous to dogs should they decide to eat it.)


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