Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bearded Irises: Beauty in any Size

Standard

Gardeners, don’t you just love late spring flowers?  The air is lush with fragrances from sugary sweet, reminiscent of grape soda to the deeper, heady floral aromas. Colors explode from dainty pastels of pale pinks and soft yellows spanning the spectrum to regal hues of bold oranges, deep purples, and vibrant bi-colors. But one flower in particular fits this bill.   It’s Bearded Iris!

soft orange iris

soft orange iris

Iris germanica is the scientific name for Bearded Iris, also known as German Iris. These beauties are an herbaceous (non-woody), long-lived perennial that grows from a rhizome (a thick, fleshy underground stem), that is hardy in USDA zones 3 – 10.   They are also the most commonly planted Iris (when compared to Siberian and Japanese Iris).  This particular perennial is easy to spot in a landscape with their long sword-shaped leaves. But when they send up their flowering stalk; the large, colorful flowers are sure to be the center of attention in your spring landscape.  Besides looking great in the landscape, they make an excellent, albeit short-lived cut flower.  Imagine gathering an armful of these fragrant beauties to display throughout your house?

bi-color iris

bi-color iris

Irises are one of the easiest perennials to grow.   They are a delight whether you are a just beginning to garden or your thumb is as green as a spring lawn. They like at least five hours of sunlight per day for maximum bloom. However, they will tolerate some shade, but do not plant them in deeply shaded areas; otherwise, you will have a plant that simply produces foliage, leaving you longing for blossoms.   Also be sure to plant them in a well-drained location as they do not like to be in soggy soil as the rhizomes can be prone to rot.  To avoid this issue, consider planting them on a slope or even in raised beds to ensure good drainage.

Nurseries, garden centers and online retailers have them in stock beginning in early spring. Most retailers that have irises on hand have grown them in containers rather than having just the bare-root rhizomes. However there are some dig-your-own iris operations.  Along the Front Range of Colorado, you can stop by Longs in Boulder to tromp through their fields with a shovel in hand. The key is to plant them so the roots have time to become established before the growing season ends.

white iris

white iris

German Irises come in several different sizes. Miniatures can range in size from 2” – 8” in height and are the earliest bloomers of the bearded. Expect these plants to begin blooming in late March or early April. Since they are such early bloomers, they do very well in regions with a cold season and are wonderful additions to rock gardens. Dwarf Bearded Iris may range in height from 8” – 15” and usually bloom after the miniatures. Both the miniatures and dwarfs are excellent choices for a front-of-the-border planting. Intermediate is the next size up and can vary in height from 16” – 28” tall. And lastly are the tall bearded with heights spanning 28” – 40”.   In our region (Front Range of northern Colorado), these back-of-the-border plants generally begin blooming from late May through early June.

dwarf yellow iris

dwarf yellow iris

Armed with this knowledge, consider adding this time-honored perennial to your landscape. Their beauty as well as heady aroma make them a garden must-have.  Whether you have one bed or dozens, irises will continue to delight you for years to come.

 

Can You Do That? Grafting Tomatoes!

Standard

Whether you start seeds yourself or buy seedlings from a greenhouse or CSA, tomatoes are a garden staple.  They are an easy crop to grow, come in a wide variety of colors, and provide a taste of summer that just can be replicated in grocery store produce.

Heirlooms have been the secret darling of the tomato world for ages, but have only regained popularity in the past decade.  Their flavors are varied and sublime.  But one trait that some heirlooms share is low production, leaving us secretly hoping for just a few more fruits at the end of the season.  But there is something you can do to help increase the yield…grafting!

Maxifort tomatoes for rootstock

Maxifort tomatoes for rootstock

Why graft you ask?  According to North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, some heirloom tomato varieties lack genetic disease resistance.  By grafting heirlooms to soilborne disease resistant rootstocks, you can enjoy the fruit quality of heirlooms with the hardiness of the rootstock.  Other benefits (according to Paramount Seeds) is it improves summer productions and significantly increases the length of time a crop can be harvested.

Now while some people may not feel horticulturally inclined to try their hand at this, I am here to say that is a pretty straightforward  process.  All you need are the proper tools, rootstock, favorite heirloom(s) for the scion, and a desire to try something new.

Maxifort is hands down the number one tomato rootstock in North America.  Don’t let the “rootstock” scare you off.  That simply means that you plant Maxifort seeds, let them germinate and develop into plants with true leaves.  This plant will act at the bottom portion of the graft.  Meanwhile, you can plant your favorite heirloom to use as the ‘scion’ or top portion of the graft.  Seed sources for Maxifort include Paramount Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

materials for grafting

materials for grafting

Items needed for grafting include: tomato seedlings that include Maxifort, razor blade or other sharp cutting tool,  sanitizer (such a hydrogen peroxide) for the cutting tool, labels, and material to bind the graft together (such as floral tape, parafilm, and even drinking straws).  Be sure to sanitize cutting tools and clean the work surface (such as a table or countertop.)

Steps to Grafting

  1. Cut the Maxifort seedling at approximately a 45 degree angle through the stem just above the cotyledons .  In our case, they were about 1 1/2″ above the soil surface.  (The seedlings were approximately 4 – 5″ tall.)
  2. Strip away any leaves and toss away the piece above the cut.
  3. Select an heirloom tomato seedling that is approximately the same diameter as the Maxifort.  Slice it at the same angle above the cotyledons.  Toss away the bottom portion, keeping the top for the scion.
  4. Strip away all but the top two leaves.

    removing leaves

    removing leaves

  5. Align the rootstock and scion and carefully wrap with floral tape or parafilm.  (As a side note, a drinking straw worked surprisingly well.  Cut the straw into 1 1/4″ lengths.  Take a section of straw and cut it open vertically.  Open the straw and position it over the graft and allow it to close.  It will be looser than wrapping, but the straw will hold the scion and rootstock.)

    grafting tomatoes

    grafting tomatoes

  6. Label each grafted tomato with the variety name of the scion.
  7. Finally mist, the plants regularly (if you have the space, set up a misting chamber.  The goal is to keep the humidity up while the graft heals in about a week.  Also keep the  newly grafted plants out of direct sunlight and in a temperature range of 70 – 80F).  NOTE: do not water the plants with a hose or watering can as this can dislodge the scion from the rootstock.  Mist the plants instead.

    misting grafted tomatoes

    misting grafted tomatoes

  8. After a week, remove the plants from the misting chamber (but keep indoors) for seven more days.
  9. Plant your grafted tomatoes out in the garden!

Grafting tomatoes has its benefits.  Disease resistance to soilborne diseases, improves summer production, and increases the length of time for harvesting.  Maxifort seeds are available online from several sources and the materials to perform the grafting are pretty basic (if you skip the parafilm and go with either floral tape or drinking straws).  Imagine harvesting more heirloom tomatoes from a single plant?  If you are a tomato fan, give it a try.  You too, may enjoy the benefits of grafted tomatoes.

 

 

A Modern Spin on Backyard Homesteading

Standard

While the Homestead Act of 1862 granted land to applicants after five years of living on the land and demonstrating improvements (such as planting windbreaks and constructing buildings), modern homesteading has no such requirements.  Believe it or not, it is taking place right now in backyard across urban America.  People are returning to a lifestyle of self-sufficiency lived by many of great-grandparents.  The best part?  Anybody can do it.

lettuce in hanging basket

lettuce in hanging basket

Now while raising your own produce may seem daunting, it is very rewarding.  As a fruit, herb, and vegetable gardener, my family is literally living off the land.  We raise as much as we can to feed ourselves.  With cold frames, harvest season runs from April through December.  With the extended growing season, that means fewer trips to the grocery store.  Examples of what we raise includes: apples, plums, strawberries, raspberries, parsley, oregano, lettuce, peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, garlic, cabbage, and whatever else we can shoe-horn into our garden beds.  But to ensure you eat what you harvest, plant what you like.  Not a fan of kohlrabi?  Plant something you want to eat instead.  Also take advantage of planting in pots or even hanging baskets.

A modern homesteader does not need (nor necessarily have) acres of land.  It may be 1/4 acre or perhaps a 5,000 sq ft backyard or less.  Residents of townhouses, patio homes, or apartments may have a patios or fire escapes as their ‘plot’.  Several sunny windows with pots may be the extent of  a garden, but produce can be raised.  And it is something that you grew… no grocery store required.

backyard eggs

backyard eggs

Communities across the country are approving municipal codes that make it easier for residents to be more self-sufficient.  Some of these ordinances fall under the heading of ‘urban agriculture’.  Examples of your own community may allow (but check your code just to be in compliance) are: chickens, bee hives, miniature goats, and rabbits.  All of these creatures adapt (and fit) in a backyard setting.  Clucking, buzzing, and bleating are becoming common sounds in neighborhoods across America.  Imagine gathering fresh eggs daily, enjoying honey from your hives, and drinking a glass of milk fresh from your goats?  Local food does not get any more local than this.

Composting is a skill that fits in the modern homestead.  Compost is basically plant recycling.  Plant materials naturally decompose with the assistance of water, oxygen, and heat.  Vegetative debris from your garden or kitchen, as well as dirty straw from your chicken coop can all be composted.  These items which normally may be destined for the landfill can be returned to your garden in the form of compost.  Once the compost is ready, it can be applied to your garden beds.  Best of all, it is free and it will help improve the structure of you soil as well as add much-needed organic matter.

Canning is a skill of the modern homesteader.  Popular through 1950s,  this skill began to wane as companies began to mass produce canned goods in earnest.  But with the rise of the local food movement and self-sufficiency, this skill is making a comeback.   Cooperative extension programs and local chefs are teaching the art and science of canning (both water bath and pressure cooker).   People are taking pride in ‘putting up’ their own tomatoes, jellies, jams, and pickles.   Stores such as hardware and kitchen goods are stocking jars, preserving pans, lids, rims, and canning books ready to supply eager canners.  Garden harvests are preserved for the winter months.

produce canned from the garden

produce canned from the garden

Clothes lines also offer the modern homesteader another step towards self-sufficiency.  (Now for some communities, HOAs (Home Owners Association) do not allow clothes line stating that they are either an eye-sore or do not fit in with the community aesthetics.)  This no-cost method of line-drying sheets, towels, and clothes is a little more time-consuming that using a commercially made clothes dryer, but the act of hanging clothes on the line is a simple pleasure.  Drifting off to sleep on sheets that smell of fresh air is sublime… no dryer sheet can equal that experience.  All that is needed is a line strung between two posts and clothes pins.  (Don’t worry… they are making a comeback as well.  To find them in stores, look for clothes baskets… they will be nearby.)

Backyard homesteading is within your reach, whether you garden, keep bees, raise chickens, compost, or milk your own miniature goats. The size of your property does not matter, it is what you do with what you have.  Composting makes use of vegetative materials you have on hand.  Adopt a self-sufficient attitude… you can dry clothes on a line for free rather than spending money on gas or electricity to run a clothes dryer.  Modern homesteading is here to stay.