Category: Plant of the Month

It’s not exactly nettle time yet.  Spring felt so early (two weeks ago. Now we’re back in deep freeze, yuck!) this year, I feel like I should be out harvesting already, but the nettles I have seen are up only a few inches and that seems a little too labour intensive to make it worth my time and bring back some bags full of prickly goodness. You could certainly harvest when they first emerge, they’re really at their best when small and young, but I want to collect quite a bit so I wait until they’re more like 6 inches high with a few more leaves.

Almost everyone knows how stinging nettle feels from accidental contact.  It’s not evil, it’s just protecting it’s incredibly nutritious self.  It’s high in protein, has a flavour similar to spinach, (and yes, that’s a bit like saying any new white meat ‘tastes like chicken’ 😉  it is rich in vitamins A, K and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium.  If it were not covered in this effective defense system, herbivores would mow it to the ground for the food value, and it would not survive!

Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica. Wikipedia commons

Why does it sting? Stinging nettles are covered with countless tiny hollow hairs called trichomes. When something brushes against these hairs, their very fragile silica tips break off, and the remainder of the hair can then act like a needle. It pierces the skin, and releases a cocktail of various chemicals from the base of the hair, and it’s these that cause the sting. Not all compounds have been identified, but it definitely contains histamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Serotonin does not only make you happy. When injected by the stinging nettle it functions as an irritant, leading to pain. Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that also hurts when it comes in the form of nettles, and histamine we know well from allergic reactions, although it too has multiple functions in the body. Oxalic and tataric acid may also be responsible for the persistence of pain, although the study that showed this to be true was actually on Urtica thunbergiana, not U. dioica. Moroidin, leukotriene C4 and leukotriene B4 may also be found in nettle stings. How badly it stings is going to vary from place to place and season to season, full sun to shade.  Nettles quite likely have the ability to modulate what kind and how much of these substances they contain depending on the risk of being eaten.

Plantago major. Photo by Rasbak

What helps the sting?  If you get stung, first try not to scratch or rub it.  I know, ow, but you’ll only make it worse. Wash off the area, preferably with soap, to remove the hairs and chemicals responsible for the sting. You can use a piece of duct tape to pull out any remaining hairs. You can try chewing up a plantain leaf, Plantago major (which is usually pretty close by) and putting it on the sting.  This generally helps me right away.  Same goes for crushed jewelweed. (Impatiens noli tangere) I’ve seen dock recommended in a ton of places, but in my personal experience it doesn’t work very well. Maybe I have the wrong Rumex? Baking soda made into a paste helps soothe the area. Calamine does help, antihistamine cream, and aloe gel may all help with the persistent sting and redness.  Keep it cool, possibly with an ice pack.  Heat will make the reaction worse. No hot showers while it’s still hurting.

Getting Some Nettle. In general, ground that doesn’t run out of water seasonally, good, slightly acid soil, and the border between woods and fields is ideal nettle hunting country. Nettles love a dark, fertile loam and can be great indicators of areas where the soil is rich, maybe with old deposits of manure, deep leaf litter in fall, or old garden plots. Nettles like growing above ditches and streams, too. Just maybe avoid the ditch by the roadside.  Ick.

Harvesting Roots. Even if it’s a touch early to harvest the top parts of the plant now, it IS a great time to harvest the roots. I like harvesting roots while plants are at least semi dormant, and at least with a tiny frill of new leaves on top, you can tell where they are. Dig outside the foliage area and under the plant at least a foot to get the roots without damaging them. Also, don’t be an ass.  Ideally, a forager should be able to collect without damaging the patch or even making it obvious that you’ve been there.  Don’t take more than a quarter of any patch, space out your digs, fill in your holes and replace the duff. A casual hiker-by should not be able to tell what you’ve done.

Once you have your roots, thoroughly clean them in fresh water.  I do this in the sink with a drain sieve in because you’re going to have to scrub a fair bit to get every last bit of dirt off. Chop the roots into small pieces to use. The smaller the size, the easier it is to get everything out of them if you’re going to make tea or tincture. If you’re planning on freezing the root to preserve it you can leave it as whole as possible to keep it from losing vit. C and oxidizing. (drying is good too, the mineral content won’t degrade but freezing preserves the root in as fresh a state as possible with vitamins intact.)

Harvesting Aerial Parts. There’s a number of hacks to avoid getting stung.  #1 would be wearing gloves, of course, but if you’re like me you don’t remember to bring gloves when the mood strikes to jump out of the car and start bagging some handy herb. Very young nettles sometimes don’t sting- so now, when they’re 2-3 inches tall and just emerging, is the least annoying time to harvest.  However, the intensity of sting seems to vary WIDELY depending on where you are in the country or even in the same woods, so don’t depend on that.  If you’re near a stream, there may be clay around.  You can coat your hands in clay before picking, and it does help a lot. You can use big leaves to protect your hands but that’s very fussy and not great for a lot of picking. Knowing how to handle the nettle helps, if you’re careful.  Nettle hairs on the stem usually have a direction to them, so take a peek first. You can pick with bare hands if the only pressure is in the same direction as the hairs, pressing the hairs against the stem.  It’s tricky, but possible. My preferred method is a snip and flick one. I use scissors or pruners (whatever’s in my pocket) to snip off stems, pick the nettle up with the scissors, and flick it into the bag. Easy!

Photo by me -Leila Bee

Preserving the harvest.  You can dry nettles to preserve them for later, and I do- dry stuff packs down and stores so nicely! Dried, powdered nettle is great for adding to smoothies or stew. If you want the fullest range of benefits preserved, I would freeze it. Chop to get rid of stems, and blanch quickly (60-90 seconds) in hot water, put into a cold water bath to stop further cooking, then drain or squeeze out the excess water to freeze.  Chopping them up first means you get more in a bag. You can also make nettle pesto, and freeze it in ice cube trays which can be eaten as is or thrown into other recipes for a nutritional boost. Freeze drying is the ultimate method of preservation, but that either requires a fair bit of time or special equipment.

Mondo Medicinal Value

Nettle is a BIG subject with a long, long history of use, widespread distribution,  and has actually been studied extensively with hundreds of clinical trials to back up it’s numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.  I’m going to try my best to put as many as I can here, so bear with me. It might get long. I’ll try not to be too dry.

I’ve heard nettles called both a man’s herb, and a women’s tonic.  It’s both and neither.  Nettle has clear benefits for hormone related conditions no matter which tackle you are packing, and plenty of nutrition for anybody.

Prostate Health. Nettle root can be used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia, also known as an enlarged prostate, nettle root may provide relief from symptoms of this condition, particularly when taken in tandem with other medicinal herbs, such as saw palmetto. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, nettle root can help reduce the urge to urinate constantly, as well as reduce the amount of urine and dripping post-urination. But nettle root does not, unlike other medications, reduce the size of the prostate; it only provides some relief from the symptoms.  It also seems that when stinging nettle (along with other supplements) is combined with antibiotics to treat chronic bacterial prostatitis that the elimination of symptoms and long-term outcome is better than taking just an antibiotic alone. Nettle also has beneficial effects on androgenic alopecia (male pattern baldness).  So if your hair’s thinning, you may want to think about trying nettle root.

Side note- if you use pine pollen as a testosterone booster, combining it with nettle will compound the effects.

Menstruation, PCOS.  Taking nettle leaf as a vegetable or tea can reduce a heavy period to a more normal one and help prevent anemia with a large dose of iron that’s easily assimilated. Sufferers of PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome) may be able to use nettle root to assuage symptoms. There are several natural substances that bind to and stimulate sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which then binds some of the testosterone in our blood stream, which in turn reduces the hyperandrogenism of PCOS. The root of the nettles plant contains many lignans and these compounds have an affinity to SHBG in humans. Nettles root can also affect aromatase inhibition which could inhibit the conversion of the weaker testosterone to dihydrotestosterone.

I can’t find a definite yay or nay on whether it’s good for pregnancy or not.  Some sources say yes, some no, because it does have an effect on hormones but is highly nutritious and has many benefits for someone with a higher demand on vitamins and minerals. (Personally I’d say it’s a good thing, but I’d ask your doctor, I’m no expert on pregnancy.) After the kid’s out though, definitely eat those nettles, as they aid in milk production in lactating mothers. They also help with a bunch of postpartum problems like bleeding, general nutrition and UTI’s.

Hemostatic. Due to the large amount of vit. K in nettles, which is required for regular clotting, it’s great for treating bleeding (It’s not a first aid measure though). Midwives often use it for spotting during pregnancy, it can regulate periods that are too heavy, counteracting persistent bleeding during menopause, and other types of excessive bleeding.  That being said- if you don’t know why you’re bleeding see your doctor, don’t just drink tea and hope for the best!

Allergies. Interesting that something containing histamine will help arrest or reduce allergic reactions, but it certainly does! A 2009 study also showed that nettle inhibited proinflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis by antagonizing histamine 1 receptor, inhibiting prostaglandin (PG) formation and inhibiting degranulation. This is great news for people who experience seasonal allergies, or who have histamine sensitivity. Works best for seasonal allergies if you start taking nettles before the known triggers start so the body is already less reactive to histamines by the time the pollen starts to fly. It will still help after, but proactive use gets better results.

UTI’s, Kidney Stones. Nettle is sometimes used to treat urinary tract infections (including chronic ones), cystitis, kidney stones and other kidney troubles.  It is diuretic, so yes, you will pee a bit extra if you’re taking nettle.  One note of caution if you’re using it to treat bladder or kidney problems, you have to do the harvest before it goes into flower. Calcium oxalate crystals form on the leaves after flowering and these will have the opposite effect, irritating the bladder and kidneys.  So spring collection only, for that!

Arthritis. Nettle can be used to treat pain in the muscles and joints. For the last 2000 years at least, people simply stung themselves with a handful of the aerial parts, which would certainly result in irritation and pain, but afterward reduces swelling and pain from the arthritis.  Now it could be that this is due to nerve distraction effect like capcaisin, but more likely the sting injects a histaminic substance and the body mounts an antihistaminic reaction, some of which goes to the sting, some to the other inflammation. We’re still not sure exactly how it works.  Nettle is most commonly used to treat osteoarthritis. A 2013 issue of “Phytomedicine” found that stinging nettle, including the root, when extracted into an oil-based solution, helped reduce inflammation. So even topically in salve, nettle could be of use! Great potential was indicated, but further study is still required. As usual, right?

Gout. Nettle lowers the concentration of uric acid in the blood, so is also helpful for gout.  It may help in the case of many types of joint pain by promoting the elimination of uric acid from joints with a gentle, alkalizing diuretic activity. Again, you want to harvest the pre flowering top parts to avoid calcium oxalate crystals.

Cautions. In addition to possible side effects, stinging nettle, as a supplement and as a foodstuff, may cause adverse side effects with certain medicines. If you are taking blood thinners or high blood pressure medication, be aware that stinging nettle can affect your blood’s clotting ability, as well as potentially lower your blood pressure, reducing and enhancing the effects of these medications respectively. Nettle may also increase the effects of diabetes drugs, diuretics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Stinging nettle may make it harder for your body to rid itself of lithium as a result of its diuretic effect.

Young nettles with purple tints- photo Leila Bee

‘Let Food be thy Medicine’…. Eat them because they taste GOOD. Aside from all the carrying on about how great they are for you, nettles are simply a tasty spring green.  Sometimes I’ll just eat a steamed bowl of nettles with butter on it and nothing else. Nomnomnom. They’re a bit spinachy, but nettles have their own flavour and you’ll just have to try them and see. This is one time that taking your medicine will taste just fine. There’s a ton of recipes out there, but you can basically use them in anything you’d use a hearty green leafy thing in. Here’s a bunch of recipes to start with.

But Wait, There’s MORE!

Cordage and Fibres for Weaving. So far it’s been all about the spring harvest.  When it comes to using them for the fibre, you actually want to wait until late summer or early fall, when the stems are at their tallest and stretchiest, because if you want to use them for weaving or cordage you want the longest strands you can get. Small tip- shade grown nettles are taller, sun grown have stronger fibres. rather than put the whole process in this post, I’m going to give you a link to a step by step instruction with pictures here.

Dye. Nettles make a good dye, and although the colour is fairly muted it’s also surprisingly lightfast for a vegetable dye. You’re not going to get an emerald green, although a little copper in the dye bath will turn up the green a bit. Here’s a good tutorial on nettle dye.

Animal Fodder. Although they won’t generally touch it in the field, farm animals who like vegetative matter quite enjoy nettles once dried, blanched, or baled into hay.  It’s as good for them as it is for us, so if you’re at all concerned that your animals aren’t getting enough nutrition, try adding dried nettles to their feed. The abundant carotenoids give egg yolks a punch of colour, so try adding some nettle to the chicken feed in the cold months when there’s not a lot of fresh green around. Enhancing milk production works for goats, sheep and cows as it does for us, so nettles for your livestock is a great addition during baby season.

Compost. Nettles are an excellent compost accelerator, especially if you’re a little heavy on the carbon in your heap. If your heap is a little sluggish, try turning the layers over with a few armfuls of nettle. Stems are fine, although chopping everything a bit helps speed up decomposition.  No roots, unless you want a nettle forest!

Biodynamic prep #504 is made with nettle. Steiner said that using the compost prep nettle is “like an infusion of intelligence for the soil” (Agriculture, 100) For this prep, collect nettles before flowering, dry them, and bury them stuffed into clay pots or wooden boxes laid mouth to mouth in the soil, in fall. They’re supposed to stay there for a full year.   (note- I like a lot of things about biodynamic farming, and I’ve seen things work when I can’t really quantify WHY, but I’m very attached to being able to prove results and reason out how they work, so I’m a little reticent to start talking about enhancing the ‘intelligence of the soil’.)

Fermented Nettle for Liquid Feed: This is more like a Korean Natural Farming technique, but Victorians used it in steam heated glasshouses too.  It works.  It stinks, but it WORKS. Make some fermented nettle liquid fertilizer by filling a large jar or bucket with the leaves and stems, bruising the foliage first. Weight down the nettles with a rock or whatever you have laying around and then cover with water. Only fill three-quarters of the bucket with water to allow room for the foam that will be created during the brewing process. Use non-chlorinated water, possibly from a rain barrel, and set the bucket somewhere you won’t smell it. Leave the mix for one to three weeks to ferment, stirring every couple of days until it stops bubbling. Finally, strain out the nettles and dilute the concoction at one part fertilizer to 10 parts water for watering plants or 1:20 for direct foliar application. Use leftovers in compost, or keep the bucket going now that you have a fermentation ‘mother’ by adding new bruised plant material and water.

Butterflies! Nettles are essential food for a few types of butterflies, as the sting keeps grazing animals off the plants and the caterpillars safe until they pupate. If you like Peacock, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell or Comma butterflies, don’t take down that patch on your property.

That’s…not even everything, I’m sure.  Whew.

After all this delving I’ll be sure to be on top of my nettle harvest this year.  With all these benefits, I really don’t want to run out again. (Shakes last bag with a handful of sad dried leaves in it.)

Happy Harvesting!




Oh, Onions.

Ode To The Onion 
by Pablo Neruda
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
the table
of the poor.You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemoneand the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

Red Soldier Beetles making sweet, sweet love on an onion flower.

What would our meals be without onions? Like a kiss without a hug, I say! Sure, it lacks the structural necessity of eggs, or the  essential savour of salt, it’s not like you couldn’t live without the onion, I suppose.  But who wants to??  Cook up a pan of onions, and it already smells like FOOD in the kitchen, you pull drifters off the sidewalk and husbands from the yard, sell boy scout hot dogs by the pound, all because of the delicious smell of onions.  Now, I won’t go into the cookery of them (other than to say you can’t caramelize an onion in ten minutes no matter what anyone tells you so don’t try…) because that’s not my wheelhouse.  Nope, I’m going to talk about
growing them.
So, why can’t you grow big, fat onions like the grocery store sells?  WHY?? Onions are actually tough bastards.  Anyone can grow an onion and they’ll probably be okay no matter how terrible a gardener you are. But big, fat, juicy, resplendent onions luscious as the globes of a lingerie model’s bottom?  That’s trickier.
Firstly, onions grow in layers, which I’m sure you figured out already, but may not have realized that each leaf corresponds to one of those crystalline shells. If you have 12 leaves you get 12 rings.  Fat juicy healthy leaves make-well, you get the picture. Those leaves will transfer their carbohydrates into the bulb, making that sucker plump up- this is the ‘bulbing’ stage. After that starts no more leaves will be produced. So before you get to the big fat onion satisfaction part, you have to grow the top bits as big and green and leafy as possible.
So how d’you do that?  First, we must begin with where you live and what kind of onion you’re going to grow. We’re talking about Allium cepa here, the bulbing or common onion.  I’ll save the other members of the family for another post.
There’s short day, intermediate, and long day onions.  Which one will do the best for you depends mainly on your latitude, and a little bit on how early you get started. The goal is to pick a variety that gives you as long as possible to grow as many large leaves prior to bulbing. The variety, however, must not require so many hours of day length that your area will not reach the bulbing threshold needed to trigger the start of the bulbing process. In the Northern Hemisphere, the farther you are from the equator, the longer the days will be during the summer and, therefore, the longer period that you have to create foliage. In general, long day types are better keepers than short day types.
So essentially, if you live above 35th parallel of latitude you want long day onions, below it you want short day onions.  If you’re right on it, within a few degrees, there’s intermediates. Or you can try an intermediate pretty much anywhere as they start bulbing when the day length reaches 12 to 14 hours. Almost all areas of the country reach that range of day length.
SO which ones are those, Miz Helpful, right? I won’t be cruel and tell you that your nursery knows best and will automatically carry the ones best suited.  They might, but many companies are terrible at being specific about their onions.  For instance we get bags of sets listed as ‘red’ ‘white’ and ‘yellow’. Gee, thanks a lot. There’s too many damn onions to give you a really full and complete list but here goes with some of the most popular:
Short Day Onions:
Georgia Sweet (aka Yellow Granex, Maui, Noonday)
Texas Legend, Texas Early White, Texas Grano ( if it says “Texas“, it’s probably a short day, ok?)
Red Creole
Southern Belle
Red Burgundy
1015 Supersweet
Pinot Rouge
Mata Hari
Rio Bravo
Milky Way
Intermediate Onions:
Super Star
Red Candy Apple
Australian Brown
White Portugal
Southport Yellow Globe
Southport Red Globe
Early Yellow Globe
Italian Red
Flat Madiera
Rich Sweet White/Yellow Exhibition
Rossa Di Milano
Red Ruby
Red Amposta
White Wing
Long Day Onions:
Red Torpedo (borderline intermediate)
Ailsa Craig
Kelsae (if you’re trying to grow huge prizewinners, this is your onion.)
Walla Walla
Red River
Red Zeppelin
Red Bull
Big Daddy
So, aside from planting the correct type of onion, what else?  Fertilizing.
I know they’re growing under the ground, which means we tend to go heavy on the phosphorus as if it were a potato or beet, but onions actually like a very healthy dose of nitrogen, more like leaf crops.  See, we’re growing leaves to grow the bulb, right?  You want a very fertile soil overall to grow big onions, they are heavy feeders.  However, excess N applications can result in late maturity, large necks that are difficult to cure, soft bulbs, and poor storage quality. A higher percentage of fertilizer N is absorbed by the plant if the fertilizer is applied when the onion root system is well developed. Split applications of nitrogen are used more effectively by the plant than a single pre-plant broadcast application. Fertilizer N applied before planting should be banded well away (6″) from the seed on the furrow side of rows in two-row onion beds. Side dressed nitrogen applications or nitrogen applied in irrigation water can be an effective means of providing supplemental nitrogen to the crop during the season. If rainfall is very heavy, or temperatures are cool, you may want to increase it a little as both of these things will decrease available nitrogen.  Back off the nitrogen applications in mid July.  Too much delays maturity and affects storage quality. My favourite organic high nitrogen fertilizer is blood meal.  You can side dress with it and/or water it in, and it keeps the rabbits and deer away from new greens nicely.
Phosphorus is essential for early growth and best applied before planting, banded 2″ below and to the side of seeds.  That way the rather stubby roots can get to it easily. Bat and bird guano is about the best source possible, rock phosphate is pretty good, bone meal is too slow unless it’s powdered. Fish emulsion or meal is just about perfect if it’s around 4.2.2. or 5.2.2.
Potassium isn’t a huge need in most soils, but it is needed, and as long as your soil isn’t alkaline, a sprinkling of wood ash in the soil before planting is great for onions.  (From a nice clean fire obviously, not one you threw plastic wrappers or garbage into because eeeew.) You could also use greensand, granite dust, banana peels (composted), & kelp.
Magnesium.  Epsom salts is not a magic cure for everything- but in this case, it can be really helpful as onions need a decent amount of it, and in the PNW where I live, soils are often magnesium poor. Acid sandy soils often need a little extra.
Sulphur.  Since sulphur is what gives onions their characteristic smell and taste (And tear-inducing qualities) it stands to reason that they need a good dose of available sulphur. Careful with it though, as sulphates acidify soil and onions like it on the sweet side. If you use flowers of sulphur on your soil do it well in advance of planting as soil bacteria can take up to a year to convert it into a form that plants can use.  Plus you’ll get a big bounce in pH as it works that can be hard to keep track of. Kitchen veg scrap compost generally has plenty.
Irrigation: Onions usually have smallish root systems, (although very loose soil can help them grow much bigger,) so attention to irrigation is absolutely necessary for big juicy onions. There’s lots of veg you can force into growing huge deep roots to compensate for less frequent watering, but onions are not one of them. Also, maintaining an even soil moisture is important in reducing incidence of double-centred bulbs. Moisture at the very top of the soil is quite important, so a good mulch (I like straw) is helpful if not essential.  Onions also do not do well with competition from weeds, so- mulch.  You can quit watering when the green tops fall over, which means the onions are imminently ready to come out.
Seeds or Sets?
Most people do buy onion sets, (Those mesh bags with teeny little onions in them) because it’s easy and they’re widely available. Technically, sets are second year plants and they can flower instead of growing a nice bulb if not treated well, or if you get a solid drop in temperature after they start to grow. But hey, if you’re late to the game and feel like the spring is definitely sprung, go for it. I like to know what I’m growing and they are quite often inadequately labelled. I prefer, if I remember to do it early enough, to grow from seed. It is also ridiculously cheap. Your nursery will probably carry young onions ‘in the green’ in pots in spring, looking quite a lot like tufts of grass and those are just fine too. Separate them!  Each little onion needs some space to become a nice big bulb. 4-5 inches apart is good.
Starting Seed
Do it early. February or March is about right for spring sowing.  You can also do it Octoberish if you have very mild weather and plan on planting in fall, or a great growing area indoors to overwinter them in. It’s a good idea to use fresh sterilized starter mix to be on the safe side.  I have also completely disobeyed this rule and been fine. Worm castings enhance germination and I like using them in my starter mix to start seeds.  This is anything but sterile.  It also complicates things, in that any seeds in the castings already will germinate and grow like crazy, so you might have to weed it a bit and that can be irritating (and confusing if you have grass seed germinate).  So- duly warned, make your choice.
Bottom heat is extremely helpful to get even, fast germination of seeds (not just with onions, with pretty much everything.) Onion germination is fastest as 68-77°F (20-25°C), with slight temperature drops at night. You can cheat if you don’t have seed warming mats by putting trays on top of the refrigerator.  Put tops on the trays or put them in a bag so the moisture stays even- in just over a week you should have sprouts. After they sprout though, you need some light.  A couple of fluorescents are totally adequate for this. Seedlings are ready to transplant to larger containers (or possibly outside, with protection like reemay or row covers if you have an early spring) when they have three leaves each. If it is too cold out- definitely wait! Consistent exposure to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for more than 10 days can cause onions to bolt (produce flowers) rather than producing big bulbs.
Planting out
Not too deep!  The neck of the bulb should be just under the surface. Space 4-5 inches apart for large onions, you can crowd if you just want green onions. Make sure you’ve banded your fertilizer or soil amendment into the soil before planting. Mulch to suppress weeds, or sow some fast growing greens like lettuces, something you plan on pulling/cutting young so it doesn’t shade out the onions too much.
Important question- if you’re going to try to grow all your onions for a year, how many would you grow? Average consumption is somewhere around twenty lbs. per person, per year.  Assuming you do a good job you can expect 10-15 lbs per 10 ft. row. Always expect lower than average yields to be on the safe side.  You have no idea what’s coming your way. So if you really want to be hedging your bets with extra onions to give away or french onion soup all winter, twenty feet per person!

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.


‘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.


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 .



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 :

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 ( ) 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:  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,


Columbine with bumblebee


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!