Category: Plant of the Month


cottonwoods fallen budsCottonwoods seem to get a whole lot of bad press and not enough praise.  As soon as the fluff starts to fly in late spring/ early summer people seem to want to gripe about it. Oh sure, some do enjoy the warm season snow, delicate as goosedown, swirling, lofting and icing the sidewalks. It’s a little magical when the flurries are a-fly. I promise  it is not making you sneeze, it’s just what you see in front of you while other tree and grass pollens play merry hell with your sinuses. Cottonwood pollen is released long before the flurf flies- that’s actually the mature seed with a silken sail attached.

There’s also the abundant branch shedding, of course.  It’s not a tree for the obsessively tidy. It’s branching is abundant, even shaggy, and the wood snaps easily in high winds, leading to littered landscapes.  (But if you have a chipper, or are a wizard with the shears, lots of lovely ramial wood chips for soil improvement.)  It rots quickly and also makes great mushroom logs if you have larger diameter fallen branches to dispose of.

I notice when I look up cottonwood trees, everyone writes as if the local tree is ‘THE’ cottonwood.  In fact, it’s a large number of populus that people call “Cottonwood”. In the West coast of North America, my ‘hood, it’s Populus trichocarpa. Most widely distributed is Populus tremuloides (mainly Canada, but found as far south as central Mexico.) Populus deltoides mainly from the central and East USA, but a bit into the Southern Canadian prairies. Populus grandidentata in the East in a swoosh from the Great Lakes to the coast. There’s a whack of them. If you care to make a precise ID of your particular poplar (yes, I also mean cottonwood)- check the ranges. Google ‘Populus’ with your state or province and you should be able to figure out which one you’re looking at. It also hybridizes easily where ranges intersect- just to throw a curveball into your I.D.  It’s not limited to the Americas either- Europe and Asia have plenty of poplars, too.

All varieties can be used in much the same way, though, and while one variety might be medicinally superior, I don’t know which. I’d need a lab and USDA level access to fresh samples. The spring bud resin of any can be used to make a soothing anti-infammatory salve.  Also called Balm of Gilead, use of cottonwood bud salve is very old and very widespread- you can find it in Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal, Russian formulas using bear grease, the Salish peoples of the Pacific Northwest-essentially, everybody who has had access figured out this tree’s resin was a storehouse of medicinal power. Collecting windblown buds in early spring seems the epitome of ethical wildcrafting!cottonwood buds

Poplars grow fast. I guess you might need to, when your substrate is quite likely to shift without the stabilizing influence of your roots. They prefer moist soils, rivers and lakes in most varieties, but definitely abundant surface moisture when the seeds sprout, since they are viable only for a short time.  Water probably distributes as much seed and live material as the air filled with ‘snow’. My nearby Fraser River has large islands in the middle of it essentially made of cottonwoods alone, catching the suspended silt and sand. They shift position stealthily on dark nights…. well, maybe not that fast, but they do creep around. Cottonwood roots easily from dropped branches in spring, and sprouts vigorously from deer and beaver-girdled young trees, it’s a very vigorously alive tree.  Propagation is ridiculously simple.  A tilted log may become a mother of thousands.

The classic river or lakeside profile of the local cottonwood is crowded, shaggy, swoopy- classic cottonwood profilethe branches seem to sag under their own weight, and then optimistically rise up at the tips, almost making an ‘s’ with longer branches. When older, trunks grey and fissure, growing corky. When young they grow in gregarious groups, but are very shade intolerant trees, so tend to grow in groups of similar age.  Young seedlings soon expire in the heavy shade of abundant parent trees.

Cottonwoods can live a few hundred years- as much as 400, but usually don’t.  Typically cottonwoods succumb to rot, or undermining by water, or some other accident at 70-100. Living on riverbanks can be precarious.  They often break records for girth within their span, however.  The largest trees in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are cottonwoods.

Early settlers would keep an eye out for cottonwood when travelling, as it’s presence indicated water.  They made frequent and widespread use of the fast growing tree for windbreaks, fenceposts, firewood and basketry. Wherever cottonwood is found, the people living among them have a history of use.  The Salish called it ‘The Tree of Life’, the Mojave people used it for practically everything one might use a tree for, the Hopi carved the roots into Kachina dolls. It’s a symbol of benevolent spirits and abundant life wherever it grows. The cambium is edible, and even tasty when the down is flying.cottonwoods branchy br

Other Uses

The wood of the tree itself isn’t as soft as the breakable branches might imply, and makes a very serviceable lumber. It’s fairly soft for making furniture with but oiling it helps prevent scratching and denting, and using it for things like trim or moldings is just fine. Since it grows so fast, that makes it quite a good choice for agroforestry projects. The trees can be coppiced for animal fodder. The wood holds inks unusually well, and makes excellent boxes and baskets, cut thin. Approved by the FDA for food containers and very workable, cottonwood also makes good bowls and cups. It’s light and ideal for models and children’s toys. As firewood it makes 16.8 million BTU’s per cord- not great, actually-but abundant! Cottonwood that has fallen as a result of rot smells a little funky though, so you might want to save that for outdoor fires.

Often thought of as a ‘waste’ tree, cottonwoods are in fact a storehouse of medicine, fast wood, wildlife support and great permaculture potential. See if you can find some at a river near you!

Fun Fact: Pando is a clonal colony of Populus tremuloides in Utah so big that it’s the heaviest (and at an estimated 80,000 years, one of the oldest) known organism.

It’s snowing again.

It’s been a rough winter here.  Yes, I know the rest of Canada is laughing at the West coast while we despair over a few measly snowfalls and a few weeks (on and off) under zero, but it’s driving us here in Lotus land crazy. We don’t know what to do with all this white stuff and it’s well past time to put in peas.

Hand in hand with the horror of repeated slushy meltdowns and extended freezes, goes dead plants.  In addition to the certainly dead and dishearteningly soft, there’s the ones we’re not really sure about yet, until new green shoots convince us that all hope is not lost. One after another pass inspected through my hands while I clean up the nursery, nicking the bark, looking for the glimmer of green that spells life. Bushes are frostburnt, newly planted perennials squashed into submission, tree limbs forlornly dangle after ice storms have had their way. It’s more than a little depressing.  I was wondering what to write about this month, while I would normally be lyrically inspired by the first of the spring bulbs and the imminence of cherry blossoms, right now I’m most inspired by the stuff I know isn’t dead.

The Haskaps.

How do I love thee, Haskap? Let me count the ways.  Firstly, cold hardiness. At the top of my list, presently, for obvious reasons.  Although we often have serious zone envy when it comes to more southerly regions, in the case of the Haskap the south envies us. The warmest USDA zone it can tolerate currently is zone 8, and that’s really pushing it. Most of the cultivars would prefer it much colder. To be really honest, they are not the best berry bush choice in my own zone 7, more of an interesting addition to the garden to provide season extension, as (reason to love it #2) it fruits earlier than almost anything else in the garden, sometimes even before strawberries. And you can grow it in zone 1! 1!! Haskap has been successfully grown in Moose Factory, which is an actual Canadian city name, I kid you not.  I also love it because it puts up with a huge variety of soils and plant combinations are virtually endless.

haskap-berry

‘Boreal Blizzard’ a new release from the University of Saskatchewan breeding program

The multiplicity of names is not helpful to the newbie. Haskap, Honeyberry, Blue Honeysuckle, Fly Honeysuckle (or swampfly honeysuckle, which makes me feel more than a little sorry for the people who named it.  I can imagine what boreal harvesting is like in a bog in the nice weather. Bug city.) It’s Lonicera caerulea, with a whole host of variety names depending on the origin of the plant and which botanist you’re speaking to. I defer to Haskap, for a few reasons.  The University of Saskatchewan breeding program, an invaluable source of information and stock, calls them that. The name Haskap is derived from the Ainu (the original inhabitants of Hokkaido) name for the berry. Honeyberry seems like a marketing trick, and calling it a honeysuckle just confuses people.

Named varieties are mostly  Russian and Japanese plants, or crosses of the two, but since it’s a circumboreal plant, there’s potential sources spread all around the northern world.

Cultivation

It prefers a cold, boreal climate (or at the warmest coastal temperate) and tends to grow wild in swampy areas.  I’m not saying that they should grow in low and saturated soil, but on a berm in said soil-yes. More on that from Dr. Bors of University of Saskatchewan here. Boreal chinampas, anyone? Keeping that in mind, some of the mildew issues that they can have I suspect are triggered by low soil moisture and planting should be sited carefully to keep water needs in mind. Shallow rooted plants can be fussy like that.  Haskaps are resentful of tillage as the roots naturally spread out quite wide and not deep, which should be just fine in a mixed garden, forest garden, or permaculture setting since we prefer no till methods anyway. pH is not much of a concern, which is promising for maximising your options- Haskaps tolerate from pH 5 to 8! In the wild, they will grow next to blueberries or cranberries and don’t seem to compete negatively with any specific plant family, so could potentially be worked into a number of plant guild combinations. They are tame things, and don’t self seed or sucker, and attractively blue-green and roundish when fully grown. LaHave farms in Nova Scotia has a great page with many more details on cultivation here .

Taste

220px-loniceraberrydiversity

The shape of different cultivars is hugely diverse

I want to be fair about this.  The taste of Haskap  berries is highly variable and often quite tart.  The brix is high in some cultivars, but always sweet-tart, and in the case of some, (usually the ones with more Russian parentage in them) a little bitter. Your response is going to depend a whole lot on your own sense of taste. They are truly complex tasting though, process beautifully, make amazing wine and juice.  As distinct as a black currants’ flavour is from red or white, the Haskap is not really like a blueberry or a raspberry, although the marketing would have you think so. It’s unique. If you only eat a few raw from one bush, you’re not really giving it a fair chance.  Haskaps should also be purple fleshed when ripe, not green inside.  They colour up nice and blue before they’re actually ripe so that can result in disappointment, too. It’s in the processing that they really shine, as the deep colour means it’s both pumped full of antioxidants and an effective food dye, and they seem skinless when cooked. It basically just dissolves, making fillings and jams smoother. Drying also enhances the flavour, and that’s the way the Japanese like to consume them. I had some in a yogurt that was practically transcendental.

Curious Tendencies

They have confusing pollination requirements. Haskaps do best when combined with other Haskaps that have different parentage but bloom at the same time. This is further complicated by growing the same plants in different climate zones where plant flowering may or may not overlap. There isn’t at present a comprehensive pollination chart of everything out there because commercial development is ongoing, widespread in multiple languages, and new varieties get released every year.  (Breeding with Haskap is actually fairly fast, because they can be started with fresh seed shortly after harvest and get to fruiting size quickly.) To further confound the issue, you have rebrandings and renamings. I saw Borealis being called ‘Mrs. Honeyberry’, and Aroura ‘Mr. Honeyberry’ by a local grower, confusing the issue unnecessarily.  Auroura and Borealis wasn’t obvious enough? Haskaps do not have separate sexes, they have perfect flowers.  They just apparently prefer an exotic stranger to a sibling. You’re really best to get multiple varieties if you have space to do so, if you don’t, then at least two intended as a pair. Planting strategies: U of Sk pollination strategy Chart for some of the most popular varieties: Pollination Chart Dr. Maxine Thompson’s varieties, with approximate bloom times here  I am working on consolidating information on Haskaps from the different breeding programs- they tend to have pollination charts on their own field material but not the intersection of plants from the other programs. You’re still best off hedging your bets trying several varieties at once! Then just get more of the ones you like and you’ll already have good cross pollination.

They can get mildewy.  As I mentioned, I suspect that they are sensitive to drought, and this may trigger mildew growth.  They also like going into dormancy early if stressed so may look like absolute hell in summer.  I know I’d like to recommend them as an edible ornamental but only if it’s not the feature. They are a pretty glaucous colour and bushy if grown in fertile soil, so you could– but if I were installing a foolproof, has to look perfect edible landscape, I probably wouldn’t.

Getting Some

Currently they are still on the trendy new plants lists and not widely understood. The pollination confusion doesn’t help, the fact that they go for exorbitant prices in northerly climates where they’re most needed (2 Gal pot goes for $25 in Edmonton, sheesh!) also doesn’t help, and people who buy fruit bushes for fresh eating in the garden were sold a raw bill of goods with slick marketing, incomplete information, and varieties that didn’t perform well in warmer climates. Early adopters may have bought ones where the flavour was distinctly meh.  Not encouraging.

But take heart! Breeders have been hard at work and if you are one of those in zone 5 or colder you can basically take your pick of varieties and likely do just fine. Due to the risk of an early bloom with no pollinators active, or refreeze after spring growth, people in zone 6 and up are probably best going with Dr. Maxine Thompson’s breeds which are tested in zone 8a and better suited to warmer zones with less risk of early emergence. Most retail garden centres by now have some Haskaps, although they may know nothing about them and you should do your own research if you want to ensure compatible pollination. Serious about getting a decent amount? You can order from LoveHoneyberry in the USA. For Canada there’s a list of propagators here

I want to thank Dr. Bob Bors, Dr. Maxine Thompson and Lidia Delafield for their dedication and hard work in improving Haskap varieties and extending the climate range possible to grow it in.

Write about a radish. Too many people write about the moon. The night is black … A radish rises in the waiting sky. – Karla Kuskin

Not often a prized poster vegetable, the radish seems to have languished in the footnotes of garden manuals, some only note that they are gratifyingly easy and very little else.  Easy they may be to grow, but there is an almost infinite variety of radish in addition to the one most familiar to the North American, a small bulbous cerise root that makes a cheerful, if likely ignored appearance on tupperware veggie plates alongside the cauliflower and carrots.

There’s such an enormous array of radishes available for the growing that it’s worth exploring some of the other types so you can enjoy them in almost every month of the year.  Raphanus Sativus has many cultivars and comes in round, oblong, carrot shaped, white, pink, yellow, bicolored & purple roots.  There are radishes sweet and tender, long and crisp, like gigantic smooth pale carrots, indecent in their smooth phallic forms.  There are radishes that demonically sear the palate in an unexpected contrast to their round innocence. Some varieties are grown exclusively for their greens. Radish seeds can also be used to produce oil.

Most of the smaller ones will mature in 3-4 weeks, which makes them an excellent catch crop for small spaces and intensively grown kitchen gardens.  Many are compact enough to be grown in containers, and fast enough to delight young children who are new to gardening. Although typically only the root is consumed, the leaves and seeds are also edible- one of my favourite treats is from late fall, uncollected radish plants may yield  fat pods full of radish sprouts.  Milder radishes make excellent additions to vegetable dishes, stir fries, salads & slaws.

The descriptive Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing” and refers to the rapid germination of these plants. Raphanistrum from the same Greek root is an old name once used for this genus. The common name “radish” is derived from Latin (Radix = root). Their true origin is vague, often said to be Asian, it is a wild plant growing all across Europe and Asia, and so very unclear where the plants that led to it’s domestication and taming of the fiery root originated. The greatest diversity of radish varieties are found in the eastern Mediterranean and near the Caspian Sea, which suggests but does not confirm that area as the place of origin. However, what is known is that many different varieties of radishes spread all over Europe and Asia, with different countries preferring specific varieties. Black radishes of R. niger were favorites in Spain, and another popular European variety to use in kitchen gardens was called R. radicula. In Asia, different varieties were cultivated; among them the R. longipinnatus, also known as Daikon, in China, and the R. raphanistroides variety in Japan.

The history of radishes is hard to unravel with any precision, they have certainly been  cultivated for food since well before Roman times when documentation becomes radically more plentiful. Roman records reveal descriptions of radishes in many colours and sizes, some as heavy as (reportedly) 100 pounds each. (As an aside, I suspect this refers to horseradish once again.  A large horseradish could be truly enormous, and both were often referred to simply as “radish”, but I could be wrong, the Sakurajima daikon is a hot-flavored variety which is typically grown to around 10 kg (22 lb), but which can grow to 30 kg (66 lb).) Radishes were cultivated in Egypt prior to the construction of the pyramids, and Herodotus of Helicarnassus related in his “Histories”, written from the 450s to the 420s BC:  “There is an inscription in Egyptian characters on the pyramid which records the quantity of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the labourers who constructed it; and I perfectly well remember that the interpreter who read the writing to me said that the money expended in this way was 1600 talents of silver.” Whether the radishes were valued primarily as a food item or for medicinal characteristics is not clear.  Onions and garlic were certainly prized as food and medicine, so it’s probable they were considered to be both. (Beer, bread, onions garlic and radishes~ seriously, those Egyptians must have had some killer dragon breath!) The Isrealites acquired a taste for radish after leaving Egypt, and brought the root with them. The Talmud mentions the use of radish seeds to produce oil, and considered eating radishes to have health benefits. In my quest I turned up an ancient Greek punishment for adultery utilizing radishes. Yes, I know, not quite what you were expecting, sodomy with a  root vegetable… it was a common device in plays of the time, but whether or not it was actually done is debatable, considering you had to catch the couple in the act. Radishes were so valued in Greece that golden radishes were offered to the god Apollo. At least that’s the oft-repeated rumour.  On looking into the tale, it appears that horseradish is actually the plant said by the Oracle at Delphi to be ‘worth it’s weight in gold’  which makes a bit more sense to me, radishes being such a fast crop to grow. The quote as I have found it is: ““the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold” Lead was a valued metal in that time, this quote should not be taken to imply the radish had no worth.  In the historical records, Galen of Pergamon wrote that radishes were eaten in the region around 129-199 A.D. Also, the Greek physician Dioscorides documented drawings of radishes. However, these radishes were large, long varieties, from which the Long Black Spanish radish is descended.

The Chinese grew them as early as 700 B.C., probably earlier but it’s always hard to trace the path of vegetables historically. (again they may have come out of Asia.  Or possibly Turkey. Or the Ukraine.  Nobody actually knows yet.) Once they were introduced to Japan, they became even more popular.  Even today, the radish is the most popular root crop in Japan.  Asian cooking would not be the same without radishes, pickled, sauteed, in soups, stews, raw, dried…generally it is the larger, longer maturing radishes like the Daikon used in Asian cookery but not entirely. Certainly the array of Daikon types in Asian countries is wide.

Adding to the complications of the history of the radish is its many different names. In Europe, many of the names sound similar, from ramoraccio in Italian to armoracia in Greek, both used to describe radishes. By contrast, the names for radish in Semitic languages range from fugal in Hebrew to fuil, fidgle or figl in Arabic. In India the name for their radish variety is moola, and then the Chinese and Japanese also have entirely differing names for the radish. Sometimes, if the names for a certain plant are similar, the way a plant has traveled can be traced, but the many for radishes prevent a definite conclusion on the origination or even early propagation of the radish. Western Europe, though documentation is understandable scant has likely had the radish in cultivation since the Romans scattered themselves across it. A vegetable so widely known would have also been widely distributed.  I’ve seen several sources claim that radishes entered the Western diet around 1500, but that just defies logic entirely.  The issue is documentation, written recipes prior to ‘Forme of Cury’ commissioned by King Richard II in 1390 are sparse indeed. Radishes do not leave pips or shells in garbage pits or garderobes either, so it’s much harder to tell their presence in history as opposed to say, stone fruits.

Radish Varieties

Radishes come in many varieties but two growing types. The standard or salad type radish can be sown from early spring until fall. This variety dislikes heat so some growers do not grow them in the summer, or find a cooler place for them to thrive. In September, you can start them up again, and keep getting crops till the soil freezes. Try sowing a new batch every 2 to 3 weeks till the warm summer months.

The second type is known as a winter radish, or Daikon radish. This one takes longer to grow, about 60 days on average. Start these in midsummer, sowing every 2 or 3 weeks, so that your last harvest coincides with the fall frosts. Make sure you harvest before your soil freezes them in though, for unlike other tubular plants they will not overwinter.

Radishes grow well in almost any soil that is prepared well, is fertilized before planting and has adequate moisture maintained. Slow development makes radishes hot in taste and woody in texture. Rich, moist soils make for fast growing, tender plump radishes.

Radishes mature rapidly under favorable conditions and should be checked often for approaching maturity. Harvest should begin as soon as roots reach edible size and should be completed quickly, before heat, pithiness or seedstalks can begin to develop. Pull radishes when they are of usable size and relatively young. Radishes remain in edible condition for only a short time before they become pithy (spongy) and hot. Proper thinning focuses the harvest and avoids disappointing stragglers that have taken too long to grow.

Winter varieties mature more slowly and should be harvested at considerably larger size. Once they reach maturity, they maintain high quality for a fairly long time in the garden, especially in cool fall weather. Size continues to increase under favorable fall conditions. Daikon or Chinese radish, can achieve particularly large size and still maintain excellent quality. Winter radishes can be stored for a few months, given cool moist conditions. Black radishes have a particularly long storage liFe, in fact are best eaten after winter storage when the fiery flavour becomes milder and smoother.

Even if you totally forget about your radishes and let them bolt, don’t despair, the flowers add a pretty, spicy touch to a salad and the seed pods can be eaten fresh, pickled, or sprouted.

Getting Some

Radishes are an ideal trading seed, maintaining viability for long periods even under adverse conditions. Getting a few new varieties to try should not be a difficult task!  Even if you’re not involved in seed swapping, interesting Asian radishes have reached the wider market and it should be fairly easy to find a packet of daikon or black or watermelon radish in your local nursery or feed store. Happy growing!

This year the weather seems to be putting those of us in the Pacific Northwest in our place.  Normally, it’s we who are envied and hated in February or March, lording it over the rest of the latitude and parading about in shorts and sandals.  Well, not so this year. It’s been that chill-to-the-bone 2 degrees over to 2 degrees under sort of wet torture and I tell you, I can’t wait until it’s over with. Some plants have made it through surprisingly well despite the cold, since it hasn’t been TOO cold- like Onions.  I try to do something that is in evidence in the garden or at least soon will be, and one of the few things that seems to be growing in spite of the slush and hail is the onions.  Chives are well up, obviously making good time on the rare days it goes above 6 degrees, the red and Spanish Onions are making firm advances, and The Walking Onions never went away.

If you’ve never heard of Walking Onion, you may have heard another name for it instead.  It may masquerade as Egyptian Onion, Tree Onion, Winter Onion, or Topset Onion, depending on who you ask. Even the latin binomials can get you into trouble- you might find it as allium cepa var. proliferum, var. viviparum, var. bulbiferum…whatever you prefer to call it, genomic evidence has conclusively shown that they are a hybrid of the common onion (A. cepa) and the Welsh onion(A. fistulosum). Personally, that’s all I really need to know- there’s no mistaking it when you see it!

The history of this onion is a bit muddled with heresay and myth, as any plant with a long and convoluted journey will be.  Word has it that the name ‘Egyptian Onion’ actually originated with the gypsies that were said to have transported across Europe with them, not necessarily with the country of Egypt.  Egyptians definitely had the common onion, A.cepa, but the cross of A. fistulosum comes out of Asia.  Just to really mess you up, the Welsh Onion (A. fistulosa) isn’t Welsh at all. “Welsh” preserves the original meaning of the Old English word “welisc”, or Old German “welsche”, meaning “foreign”. To confuse the issue even further, a specimen of this unique onion variety came to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his country in 1587. I have to assume this means it was noted in his magnum opus,  Historia generalis plantarum which listed 2731 plants from his personal experience, near Lyon in France. This variety was ‘officially’ introduced into Great Britain in 1820 from Canada. Which is odd considering the French obviously knew about it more than 200 years before that.  Historians have been puzzled to see the tree onion, along with the Welsh onion, growing wild in North America. I’ve even seen claims that it originated here-probably due to garden escapees, since neither parent plant is native to North America.  Here’s my own pet theory: this hybrid onion was likely in common use by the time the Romans came to Britain, since one parent is from the Middle East, and one from Asia- it seems very likely to me that, since the common Roman did eat plenty of onions and Rome itself being a nexus of trade for Europe, the cross may have occurred during that period. Onions being an easily packed and stored staple, it would have been transported everywhere the Roman army marched, which covers a lot of ground. From Spain, Chris Columbus transported onions to Haiti in 1492-93. Subsequent settlements brought them over again -according to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648. They don’t mention which onions, of course, but the hybrid vigor and easy transport of bulblets from the Walking Onion make it a likely candidate. Spreading from there it could have been rediscovered inCanada and brought toBritain once again. The Walking Onion has almost literally walked it’s way around the world.

The name ‘Walking Onion” comes from its habit of bending over with the weight of the bulblets at the top which then root and form new plants.  It can be so funky looking, sometimes with onions growing yet smaller onions, and those growing yet smaller ones out of that, all curling crazily every which way- you might want it as a curiosity even if you hate onions. Walking Onions are a strongly flavoured onion variety, but the bulbs, greens, and bulblets can all be eaten, and the bulblets are particularly nice to use for pickling or like shallots. This onion is very cold hardy and in milder climates can be picked most of the year (Although in late summer it generally dies down until the weather gets cooler, only a few weeks break.) In areas with more severe winters it could be grown under row covers to prolong the harvest, otherwise it’s one of the first things to make an appearance in the spring garden. These Onions can survive freezing cold winters with temperatures plummeting well below-24°F! They are hardy to zone 3.

Growing Some

Onions-any onions-can be heavy feeders in the garden, although they will survive in harsh conditions with less than ideal soil, you certainly won’t get as much from them that way.  Rich garden soil with plenty of organic matter worked into it and good drainage with plenty of sun exposure is, as usual, the key to getting lots of large, quality vegetables or bulbs.  Onions are perfect for tucking into the garden when you harvest something else, it’s easy to keep some extra sets (bulblets) in the shed to fill in gaps.  (I’ve stored these onions as sets for 2+ years, much longer than you’re supposed to, and they grew just fine when planted, finally.)  Onions-all onions-are great companions for a wide range of plants.  Roses may love garlic, but they love onions too, planting some in your rose garden may increase the perfume, (alliums concentrate sulphur and sulphur improves rose fragrance,) ward off aphid infestations and repel the dreaded black spot.  Actually, if you really want to combat fungal diseases like powdery mildew and black spot, you’re best off chopping up an onion and soaking it in water overnight, adding a drop of mild soap, then spraying the leaves with it directly.  The mild sulphur in the mix is fungicidal and antibacterial and in my experience, works very well.  Its very confusing odour plays insects for fools, and may help protect other crops from routine infestations. Onions partner well with fruit trees, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas, and carrots.  They don’t grow well with legumes or parsley.

Getting Some

Now here’s the tricky part.  I’ve never seen Walking Onion in a regular garden center.  Usually even the fancy types are not labelled well, even in a fancy full color package where you’d expect it.  (Like the ‘red’ garlic I was looking at-seriously?  There’s maybe a hundred types of red garlic-thanks a lot~!) It can be ordered off the web, although you will get bulblets and never seeds, since it rarely sets seed at all.  This is an ideal plant to find at a plant trade or swap session, looking in yards and asking nicely for a handful of sets, or asking around your gardening friends.  So get out there and talk to someone who loves their onions.

Okay, okay, I won’t do another one on a common fruit this month- I thought I might try instead, an uncommon vegetable- Goldenrod.

Goldenrod? Seriously?  I see you looking at the screen in bafflement…Goldenrod or Solidago has been saddled with a bad name, and one I think it doesn’t really deserve as it is an extremely useful plant in the ornamental and veggie garden, and it’s pretty smack-you-in-the-eye gorgeous when in full bloom.

Goldenrod in Fountain County Indiana

I both love and rue the Goldenrod in my garden- there’s a big patch of it that had become entangled with an azalea sometime before I took possession of the yard.  I’d sure like to see what colour that azalea is- but the goldenrod hogs all the nutrients and it has never bloomed.  Every year, I swear I’m going to dig out the entire plot, remove all the underground stems of solidago and let the azalea be what it should. And yet- when it blooms, glorious and gold in late summer, six feet high, it’s just so damn regal I just can’t bring myself to root it out.

Goldenrod is native to North America, with a sprinkling of species in Eurasia and South America, and one cannot peruse any text on ethnobotany without coming across the traditional uses of goldenrod in herbal treatments for colds, liver and kidney troubles, fever, skin ailments, nausea and as a general tonic tea. It was also included in some smoking mixtures or used as a smudge. To the Omaha tribe, it was an indicator plant that bloomed when the corn was ripening and harvest nearing.

Solidago canadensis

There haven’t been a lot of good studies on solidago, but it’s almost universally used by native Americans and Europeans alike for very similar reasons- I think there has to be some properties that haven’t been fully explored yet. The few studies that have been done reveal it to be anti-inflammatory, relieve muscle spasms, fight infections, and lower blood pressure.  It does seem to have diuretic properties, and is used in Europe to treat urinary tract inflammation and to prevent or treat kidney stones. In fact, goldenrod is commonly found in teas to help “flush out” kidney stones and stop inflammatory diseases of the urinary tract.  But herbal uses are just the beginning!

The young greens can be eaten as a vegetable, steamed and buttered in spring when still tender. The leaves, flowers and stems can be collected to make herbal infusions and teas. The flowers and seeds are edible raw.  And here’s another kicker-it makes rubber! Well, to be specific, it makes latex, but that can be converted into rubber quite easily.  Thomas Edison managed to breed a variety of solidago that yielded as high as 12% rubber.  (Incidentally, this is not the only plant to produce lots of latex.  Common dandelion is a great latex producer, too.)

AND- yes, there’s more to this multifunctional plant- it makes an unbeatable companion plant for the gardener- attracting massive amounts of predatory insects, butterflies and bees.  This plant produces a LOT of nectar and may just be the most popular plant in the garden in August, buzzing with activity.  It’s a must for butterfly gardens, many species find it highly attractive. Now- this is a bit icky, but if you’re an organic gardener you’ll appreciate it- this plant attracts hordes of aphids that are plant-specific, meaning they won’t touch the plants next to it. Mine’s always coated in grey aphids come late spring, but then the ladybugs arrive and begin to breed- there could not be a better nursery for ladybugs and other predatory insects. Simply put, if you want predators, you need prey- and you’ll have that in spades. And the goldenrod doesn’t even seem to CARE that it’s coated in bugs-it does just fine despite the annual infestation.

Carnica bee on Solidago

If all this wasn’t enough to encourage you to plant a little patch of goldenrod, the thing that makes it a pest also makes it a boon to amateur gardeners and people faced with a harsh spot where little else will thrive- Goldenrod will grow almost anywhere.  It prefers full sun but will make do with light shade, enjoys poor, rocky soils that horrify delicate perennials but will also grow in good garden soil (a cautionary note- it may go INSANE in good garden soil so don’t plant it where you’ll never be able to dig it out when it spreads. Or put it in a pot.) It is extremely hardy: Solidago canadensis is good to zone 3 and there are even hardier ones available. This is a plant that needs to be treated badly, in short.  Plant it in a pocket surrounded by packed, gritty soil- do not fertilize.  Cut back to the ground when the stems have died.  It will be well behaved and a valued addition to the garden- but give it good, rich garden soil and lovingly ladle compost on the plant as if it needed cosseting and it may become a rapacious monster, bullying less vigorous plants into submission.

Getting Some

Almost needless to say, goldenrod grows easily from seed that has been stratified (chilled in an artificial winter,) and can also be cloned from divisions of the original clump.  It should not be too hard to find a specimen in a nursery, but the consensus is still split between it being a weed or an ornamental plant, so it’s not carried in large numbers like fall asters, although they belong to the same family and bloom at the same time.  Purple asters, by the way, look fantastic paired with goldenrod! If you’re desperate for a plant and cannot find any in your local nurseries, you can probably find some walking in open areas in late summer, early fall- they are a native plant. Of course, I would never recommend digging up plants from the wild- but they can spare a root clod or two and there’s always collecting the seed.

Oh, and if you haven’t already found out- Goldenrod does not cause seasonal allergies! It has a heavy, sticky pollen that is carried from flower to flower by insects, not the wind. Something else is making you sneeze.

May your August be Golden;-)

I guess I’m on a bit of a campaign for plants that produce something useful or tasty, and that probably isn’t going to stop any time soon.  I do enjoy a useful plant in the garden!  The not-so-humble blueberry, however, is a plant most deserving of praise and planting in the ornamental garden. Or anywhere you can spare a place for two or three- or six or nine;-)  Where to begin?

How long have blueberries been around, really? The answer is just about the entirety of human history- the ancestors of the modern blueberry bush, which comprise a wide variety of Vaccinium species, are widespread and varied, ranging a wide variety of climates although most species are from cooler temperate climes.  A berry that is collected and dried easily, it lends itself to preservation in lands where food availability is very seasonal- and was used by nearly every culture in Europe and the Americas as a food source. The Vaccinium family includes such well-known berries as lingonberry, cranberry, bilberry, huckleberry and whortleberry- there are hundreds of them , it’s a large family. Common names for plants in the family vary from one region to another- don’t argue about the name though, just eat it!

There are a few people credited with the evolution of the blueberry- John and William Bartram certainly had some influence. An American naturalist when America was still a relatively new concept, John brought his son William with him on extensive collecting trips, teaching him how to draw and passing on his delight in the plants and animals of his native countryside.  Part of their work was to assess and recommend plants to the homesteads of Georgia- Vaccinium species were among them.  Also, John sent many packages of seeds and samples to various people in Europe, so quite likely some hybridizing occurred there as well.Another person given credit is Luther Burbank, a man responsible for the Burbank potato, Shasta Daisy and more than 800 other strains of fruits, vegetables, fodder and grains. However prolific Burbank was, though, he didn’t contribute much to the improvement of the blueberry other than noting that it was a berry of interest and should be developed.  The real makers of the modern blueberry are Elizabeth Coleman White and Frederick Colville.  Elizabeth was the daughter of a gentleman farmer and grew up farming cranberries, becoming interested in blueberry propagation in 1911, she collaborated with Frederick, Chief botanist of the USDA. They are the ones responsible for the transformation of the smallish, large seeded but incredibly delicious wild berries to the large, juicy berries on e-z pick sized bushes. Paying pickers to bring in the largest berries they could find, they doubled the size of berries, earning Frederick the George Roberts White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for contributions to agriculture.  Elizabeth went on to help form the New Jersey Cooperative Blueberry Association in 1927.

Blueberries love acid, sharply draining soils. Wild blueberries are found on sandy, humusy soils- full of organic material like decomposing leaf litter but porous and fast to drain.  Yes, they do grow in bogs and will tolerate being partly submerged for short periods, but permanently waterlogged soil means eventual demise. Consistent available moisture is also necessary for good production. (I say this while two of my blueberry bushes regard me accusingly with singed leaves and a not-juicy-at-all crop because I forgot to water them while the weather was cool and we had little rainfall. D’oh!) Commercial blueberry farmers often mulch berries with sawdust to promote a more fibrous root system, and you can do this at home too, but don’t plant them in sawdust! Wood fibre takes nitrogen out of the soil while it decomposes, and blueberries have very low nitrogen requirements, but a light mulch yearly is enough fresh wood on the soil.  You can mix some black (composted) bark mulch into the planting hole when you put them in, but no more than 1/4 the total volume of your mix. Peat moss is good to use in your soil mix when planting, but remember that peat moss, though providing ideal acidity, is nutrient free- you’ll still need fertilizer, organic or otherwise. A balanced organic fertilizer will help build up the soil more than a chemical one, but a slow releasing granular fruit fertilizer or a rhodo/azealea fertilizer is the best choice if that’s your route.  In an organic fertilizer, anything slightly lower in nitrogen and higher in potassium & phosphorus would be fine.  In the Pacific Northwest you shouldn’t need aluminum sulphate or other acidifying additives.  If you don’t lime your plants, you’ll be fine-our soil tends to be naturally acidic.  Mulch with sawdust or (I like the look better) with composted black bark mulch over fallen leaves in fall. If your plants are not very green or not growing well, mulch with something ‘rich’ in spring like compost or worm castings.  Oh, and bone meal goes in the hole.  Bone meal always goes in the hole.  Situate your plants where they will get 6 hours full sunlight or more, the more sunshine they get the more abundant -and sweeter!- the berries will be.

The pollinate debate.  Blueberries are completely demanding princesses when it comes to pollination. Some people will tell you to obtain massive amounts of plants to ensure pollination, some recommend different varieties planted together, others say two plants is enough- none of them are wrong.  The straight dope is that blueberries require pollination multiple times per berry- if you want large ones.

‘According to Aalders (1958) every blueberry fruit should contain at least 6 to 10 viable seeds. When there are less than 6 seeds, the fruit may be small and/or drop prematurely. He reported that every additional seed is responsible for a 5% increase in fruit weight and a half-day advance in fruit maturity.

Fruit development is therefore directly related to the number of viable seeds which are set. These seeds produce “hormones” which act as magnets for drawing on the plant’s resources and making the fruit grow in size. The greater the number of viable seeds, the larger will be the size of the fruit and the greater will be the ability of the fruit to resist heat and water stress. Under poor growing conditions, fruits with few viable seeds will stay small and may abort or die. All attempts to increase the number of viable seeds within the fruit will result in a yield increase. In general, a little blueberry contains less than 8 viable seeds, a medium-sized blueberry contains 10 to 15, and a large blueberry contains 16 to 18.’ Department of Agriculture and Aquaculture New Brunswick

To add insult to injury, some cultivars are very infertile and won’t pollinate themselves.  This is where planting different varieties comes in handy, but be certain to get plants that are in bloom simultaneously, or your efforts will come to an unproductive end. Most highbush blueberries (most common in our temperate climate) are self fertile and if you have a cultivar name, you can check if the variety you have is self fertile or not.  Planting in multiples, whether they are the same cultivars or not, are always best- this method attracts more bees, keeps them around longer going back and forth, and exponentially increases the chances your flowers will be pollinated repeatedly. However you CAN get berries on a single bush that is self fertile. Chances of this being successful are better if you have other flowers that bloom the same time around Pieris japonica, other heaths and vacciniums, late winter/early spring blooming heather, etc. You probably still won’t get as many berries, or as large, but it is possible to get berries on one bush. But don’t you want lots of big berries?  Of course you do- so plant plenty of bushes.

Blueberry Varieties
Highbush blueberries are the most commonly seen type in our area. The vast blueberry fields in the lower mainland are almost exclusively northern highbush types. The plants, as the name suggests, grow quite tall, some to 6 feet if left unpruned. They produce some of the largest berries and are very cold hardy, most cultivars growing in zones 4-8, though there are individual variations.  ‘Bluecrop’ is the local industry standard as it is easy to machine harvest, but there are many worth planting in the garden that are not viable commercially.  ‘Chandler’ and ‘Darrow’ have the largest berries.

Half- high blueberries are a cross between highbush and lowbush types, with a height in the middle of the two.  They are even more cold hardy than highbush, and the berries, though usually smaller, are closer to the intense flavour of their wild cousins.

Lowbush blueberries have a much lower growing pattern, usually no more than about 1 1/2 feet high. These grow less like bushes, and in some ways are more like a groundcover. They spread through underground runners, and are not so much distinct bushes but more of a mass of plants.  Fruit generally forms on the second year’s growth. More difficult to pick, but extremely tasty ‘wild’ type blueberries are produced.

Rabbiteye Blueberries (aka Southern Highbush Blueberry, Southern Black Blueberry, and Smallflower Blueberry) are a southern crop, preferring zones 7-9.  They form extremely tall bushes as high as 10 feet, have excellent flavour and ripen later in the year then other types.  Rabbiteye has been developed from blueberries native to the southeastern states- they may also be referred to as Vaccinium virgatum or v.ashei.

There are always new plants coming on the market, as breeders hybridize the various blueberries to get new and ‘better’ plants.  Highbush, lowbush and rabbiteye have all been used to breed new plants, so it’s possible to get a rabbiteye/highbush/lowbush cross!

Wild Blueberries Dewey Lake QRP Backpacking trip

And now for the best part.  Blueberry bushes are pretty! Dense and bushy, easily pruned into shapes or hedges, with small but attractive flowers in early spring that attract bees, their real showmanship comes into play in fall when first frost turns the leaves scarlet, wine and orange.  When the leaves drop, they reveal stems in hot bright colors of red to gold depending on variety.  And there’s few sights prettier to me than a fully loaded bush of dusty blue berries on a hot July day!

To choose by ornamental value, here’s a handy chart with most of the commonly available blueberries in the Pacific Northwest listed with fall colours : http://www.fallcreeknursery.com/Nursery/VarietyChart/

I think the health benefits of blueberries have been touted more than enough that I need not include any information on that front.

They are good for you, ’nuff said. Yum!

Strawberries- reife Erdbeeren

June is the month for strawberries. In the fields, they are usually ripening sweet and fat and ruby red in the early days of the month.  In a lucky, warm and sunshine-y year, you may get some early ripening varieties before the end of May, especially if you go so far as to cheat and use Reemay (a light, porous white cloth) or clear plastic on the rows, but most gardeners don’t go to such lengths and tend to enjoy them only when they ripen naturally.

No fruit could be easier for the gardener with very little space.  As long as you have some space with full sunlight (8 hrs. direct light per day or more) you can fit a few plants in. Strawberries take well to being in raised containers and hanging baskets, window boxes and balconies, even a single plant can go in a wall sconce that has a planting pocket.  Of course, they can also go in the garden! I like them in the ornamental garden too, as they give a dedicated weeder some sweet rewards on a hot summer’s day!

What strawberries like best is good drainage, a pH slightly below neutral (acid), and a sandy loam soil. (What the heck is that? Sandy loam is spongy yet slightly gritty- if you squeeze a handful into a ball it should hold together but crumble when poked. ) I mulch mine with steer manure in spring-that’s generally all the nutrients they need for the year if the substrate is already pretty good.  They’re fairly tolerant of drier conditions (Some of the best berries I’ve seen were growing in a gravel walkway) but make bigger berries when growing in a soil rich in humus that doesn’t dry out too fast in a run of hot, sunny days.  If planting in containers, go ahead and use potting soil and an organic fertilizer like compost or a commercially available one if you don’t compost (“Gaia Green” products rock, and no, I don’t work for them.) Strawberries grow best with ample water, so do treat your strawberry baskets just as you would a flowering basket, maintaining evenly moist soil and watering generously in the morning on hot days.

When choosing strawberries at the nursery, there’s only a few different types of strawberries but a whole array of cultivar names, it can be confusing when looking at tags that don’t list full information. Here’s what you need to know: the three types that are generally available are June bearing, Everbearing and Day neutral.

June Bearing strawberries produce a single, large crop per year during a 2 – 3 week period in the spring. June bearers are the traditionally grown plants, producing a single flush of flowers and many runners. They are classified into early, mid-season and late varieties. The largest fruits of all the strawberries are generally from June bearing varieties. June bearing strawberries are generally bought in spring, allowed a year to establish, and harvested the following year.

Everbearing strawberries produce two to three harvests of fruit intermittently during the spring, summer and fall. Everbearing plants do not send out many runners. Everbearing strawberries will make fruit the first year you buy them. They and the day neutrals can be planted in  spring or fall.

Day Neutral strawberries will produce fruit throughout the growing season. These strawberries also produce few runners. Everbearing and day neutral strawberries are great when space is limited, but the fruits are usually somewhat smaller than June bearers.

Strawberry Closeup Pips

Scott Bauer- Strawberry

Now, after those types comes the many, many cultivars. I’m not going to give you all the varieties available here, or what’s the best berry.  Why?  Well, it’s too hard to say which is best.  A well grown strawberry in the average garden is delicious no matter what! And I can cheat and give you the link right here ( http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/berries/production_guide_pdf/strawberry_variety_newplant.pdf ) to the most common berries for the Pacific Northwest.

Troubleshooting tips: Strawberries are a favourite for slugs, especially during wet weeks when everything stays moist.  Growing in raised beds with a strip of copper encircling the bed can help a lot, they are shocked by copper and won’t cross it if that’s the only way in.  Sprinkling crushed eggshell around the plants discourages them, as they dislike crossing the sharp edges. Hanging baskets are generally slug-free, too. If the above still isn’t doing the trick,  Safers slug and snail bait works like a dream and won’t hurt pets, kids or birds. The old trick with beer, in my experience, generally doesn’t work out here with our giant Godzilla slugs- I swear they just get stinking drunk and slime away unsteadily for another snack.  If you up the ante a bit though, by adding rum (which is both sweeter and more alcoholic, both of which attract slugs) you might have more success. Of course, there’s also the salt shaker or a brick- squish! I recently encountered a video where a woman reused some plastic bottles as slug guards, and they do look wicked.  Video at this addy:  http://myzerowaste.com/2009/06/plastic-bottles-slug/  Uneven berries are sometimes an issue- this is the result of an unevenly pollinated strawberry. You can do it yourself with a paintbrush- wiggle the brush across the center of each flower, going from one flower to another. Usually it’s a result of cooler, wet weather and a lack of bee and other pollinator activity and should resolve itself when the weather is sunnier.  Sometimes berries rot on the vine, causing you to tear out your hair in frustration when you’ve been eagerly awaiting a nice crop: mulch under the berries to keep them clean and the moisture level in the soil consistent. Yes, you guessed it, straw is perfect for this, but make sure you use straw and not hay because hay will have weed seeds in it. You could use any number of other mulches, too- bark mulch, coco fibre, pine needles, newspaper, cocoa husks, whatever you can get! Professional growers use black plastic to mulch strawberries as it heats up the soil and keeps the berries very clean. I prefer organic materials, but it’s your choice. Remove rotten foliage or berries to interrupt the cycle of the fungus. Ensure plants are not getting too wet or too dry to reduce fungal infections- but sometime the weather just won’t cooperate, like at the moment ( it’s been rainy almost every day for 2 weeks and humid when not raining.) In this case, you will very likely get a rotten berry or two no matter what you do, so don’t worry too much about it.  Toss the rotten ones as soon as you notice, and enjoy what’s left- the next fruit set will likely be better.

Strawberries are a good companion plant with pines, so if you have a space in the sun near a pine tree, try some strawberries! Thyme planted next to it or around it discourages worms, and Borage strengthens the strawberries grown near it. (Borage and Thyme are also huge bee magnets, so they’ll help get berries pollinated.) Strawberries also grow well with lettuce, beans, onions & garlic.  Grow strawberries away from brassicas- cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi etc. They don’t like each other. I like planting sedums around my strawberries.  The low ones make a nice tight groundcover and living mulch, they look pretty together and seem to like one another.

A Bit of History

Parker Earle strawberry

Watercolor Strawberry 1890

Strawberries have a long and interesting history. I’ll try to just skim over the highlights;-)There’s some debate as to where the name actually came from, the straw used to mulch them seems an obvious clue, but it may also be from strew-berry, either from the practice of gathering wild berries which were ‘strewn’ all over in woodland clearings and open fields, or the habit of the plant which ‘strews’ it’s runners in all directions. Since straw mulch for growing large amounts of berries was used fairly recently in history, I think the second origin is more likely. Either way, people have collected wild strawberries for millennia, as evidence has been found for stone-age berry consumption. Strawberries were cultivated by the Romans as early as 200 B.C. In medieval times strawberries were regarded as an aphrodisiac and a soup made of strawberries, borage and soured cream was traditionally served to newlyweds at their wedding.  Sounds good to me! The strawberry of medieval hangings and books is the wild strawberry of Europe, Fragraria vesca, a.k.a. fraises du bois, woodland or alpine strawberry.  It wasn’t really farmed, or specifically transplanted to kitchen gardens until almost the 1600’s- until then it was mainly gathered from the wild. The cultivation of it was introduced from Persia, where they had been deliberately cultivating the berry since pre- Roman times.  But wild strawberries don’t just grow in Europe, they are native to the Americas too.  Fragaria virginiana is the North American variant and has slightly larger berries than the European.  American Indian tribes, most famously the Iroquois, transplanted the berries from the woods and raised them in special beds. This would make  strawberries, along with corn, one of the first farmed foods. The native people used the berry fresh, in bread, drinks, soup and as medicine.  Strawberry shortcake may have it’s origins as a native recipe! In the 1600’s it was brought to Europe for crossbreeding, hoping to create a larger, better berry. Then the seminal event that set the modern strawberry industry on it’s road to truly large berries occurred. It happened that a French spy, named Captain Amede Frezier, was observing Spanish strongholds on the west coast of South America when he discovered the giant-fruited Chilean wild strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, that South American Indians had been cultivating as long as their history could be remembered. The Chilean berry was lumpy and missshapen, but it was BIG, much bigger than any ever seen in North America or Europe. Captain Frezier gathered a few of these plants and brought them back to France. He was not believed when he said the fruit of these plants were the size of large walnuts and he also could not prove it because, unfortunately, all of the plants he had brought with him were female. In order to get them to produce fruit, they were deliberately crossed with the American Wild Strawberry and the end result was the large strawberry, Fragaria ananassa, also called the Pineapple Strawberry. Today, the French word for Strawberry is ‘Fraise’ in honor of the Captain.
The real bulk of the work with Strawberry breeding was intially done by an Englishman, Thomas Andrew Knight, who was the first to breed them in a controlled, systematic manner. American breeders soon followed in producing new hybrids and bigger, better, more prolific berries. But the most important factor in popularizing the Strawberry was not the breeders, but the refrigerated boxcar. New refrigeration techniques in the 1850’s allowed Strawberries and other perishables to be shipped quickly across the country with minimal spoilage, making them accessible to the general public. Suddenly, the popularity of the fruit skyrocketed! ( As did lettuce, but that’s another article.)

Getting Some

Strawberries are available in nurseries early in the year, usually Feb-June.  The most economical way to buy them is in bundles (usually 10 plants each, but check the package.) Sometimes you can get multipacks in the same style of bedding plants, with several individual plugs per package. Strawberries may also be available in planted gallon or two gallon pots, or hanging baskets.  For goodness sake, don’t get your heart set on one plant cultivar because it was in the magazine this month and accept nothing else, because it’s hard to get a bad strawberry if it’s well cultivated- try several kinds, experiment.  What worked well for one person may not be your favourite, what works commercially may not be ideal for a kitchen garden. Nurseries will only carry what works for the local climate, so you’re pretty safe just choosing at random and giving it a try. If it doesn’t work for you (too firm, too soft, too tart, etc.) then try another one next year (or move the plants to another spot) and give away the ones you don’t like (can you imagine anyone saying no?)  Some nurseries sell wild type strawberries, possibly labeled as ‘alpine’ or ‘woodland’.  They’re nice to have and the tiny berries are delish, but one word of caution.  Left unchecked, they can go insane. Rampant. Riotous. If you’re okay with a useful plant growing wildly, then this is a good thing for you, but I thought there should be a warning before you rush out and plant a bunch. Another way for the thrifty gardener to get plants is to take runners from plants you already know and love.  Someone you know have a few plants? Get their runners, which are the ‘pups’ or young plants that grow attached to long stems to the mother plant.  You’re helping the original plant’s berry production by taking the babies away, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble enticing your friends to be generous!

May you smell like dirt,

LeilaBee

Columbine with bumblebee

Aquilegia

The plant that earns first post in May is the humble Columbine, or if you want to be elitist and speak a little Latin, Aquilegia.  Most of the varieties available to purchase in nurseries or as seed are hybrids, but there are species Aquilegias available in some nurseries.  Chances are, you have some growing wild in your region since they are widespread in meadows, forest edges, clearings and higher elevations in the Northern hemisphere.  The Pacific Northwest’s native columbine is Aquilegia formosa, a handsome red and yellow specimen that seems to favour seeping rock walls and vernally moist areas with sharp drainage.

Columbines come in every colour you could desire except true blue- but I think the deep royal purples and almost-blue lilac shades make up for it.  Heights range from short dwarves about 6 inches tall, to giants that reach 4 ft. in good soil with the blossoms tinkling high in the air like coloured bells.  Flowers come in singles, doubles, and even more full blooms. ( No class for triples plus, but columbines have them!)  Plants can be grown easily from seed, but there’s a catch: it takes two years to get a bloom from seed.  The first year you only have foliage.  Once you have them blooming, however, it’s easy to spread the shiny black seed around from the dried capsules and thus be assured of continuous annual flowering.  Columbines are perennial and bloom for several years, but they are short lived and generally last around 5 years, depending on conditions. Columbines hybridize easily, so if you have more than one colour in the garden, the ones that come from seed will be a surprise! They do self-seed, but are easy to uproot and the leaf is fairly distinctive when you are weeding.

As if you needed more reasons to have columbines in the garden, they are great weed suppressors when not in bloom.  The slightly glaucus, shapely foliage heavily shades out plants beneath.  They act like a living mulch in drier areas, shading and cooling the soil. Columbines can be very adaptable, growing in poor soils, shady areas and other tricky spots. Hybrids tend to be more adaptable than species columbines, and plants grown from seed will ‘take’ better in difficult areas.  Another advantage is it’s cold hardiness-most varieties are extremely hardy, some to zone 3.  Bees love columbines!  It’s an excellent flower if you enjoy bees or want to attract pollinators, bumblebees seem to particularly enjoy them.  The best colours to attract them are deep purples, blue and bright yellows.  Hummingbirds will often favor the red and yellow varieties, especially the tall ones. (Plant our native Aquilegia formosa for a super hummingbird treat!) Columbines make excellent cut flowers, too, so grow a few for the cutting garden at least. In a cool place with plenty of water (they suck it up fast!) they can last up to two weeks.

Columbines have been a notable flower for millennia, and have mention in many stories and myths in many cultural traditions. The name columbine comes from the Latin columba for dove, for the blossom was thought to resemble a flock of doves facing inward, and in later centuries the flower came to represent the holy dove of the Christian church. The Latin name Aquilegia comes from another bird, aquila, the eagle, from the resemblance of the spurs to a hooked beak. In the Victorian language of flowers, the columbine represented primarily ‘desertion’ or ‘folly’, with a purple columbine meaning ‘resolved to win’ and red meaning ‘anxious’.  Somehow, a far cry from the image of a gentle dove, isn’t it?  Such a complex and lovely flower cannot help but be the subject of tales of fairies, gods and spirits, I think.  Other fanciful common names include Granny’s Bonnet and  European Crowfoot.

Aquilegia contains toxic alkaloids, some species more than others, particularly in the seed and root, but the extreme bitterness of toxic portions generally prevents accidental poisonings.  The flowers are edible and can be used in salads (I pull off the spurs and discard the hard core with stamens)- I have done this myself and suffered no ill effects, though some websites will say never eat the plant just to be safe.  Of course, never eat any flower that has been sprayed.  The nicest bit is the little bulb at the end of the spurs that contains the nectar- I was introduced to this as a child and plucked more than my share of flower heads just to nibble off the little honeyed drops contained within.

Aquilegia, like all garden ornamentals, sometimes is ‘in’ and sometimes hard to find in sufficient variety.  Virtually any colour or shape can be ordered online by seed if you’re hankering for something special.  Also check in the spring bulbs section of your local nursery (Feb-May), they often have it packaged in bags of dry peat, bare-root. It will be less expensive to get a lot of flowering plants the first year than buying them when in flower, but more expensive than sowing a packet of seeds.  Of course, the cheapest option means looking around at other gardens and asking nicely if you could please have some seed when the gorgeous specimen you have your eye on finishes flowering.  Chances are, they’ll hand you a bagful of seed capsules in late summer.

Happy Planting!

LeilaBee