SMALL SPACE GARDENING – From seed to bouquet: grow your own flowers for cutting

Zowie! Yellow Flame is a semi-tall zinnia with a unique bicolor pattern of blooms with scarlet-rose center and yellow petal edges. (photo courtesy of All-America Selections)

by Melinda Myers

You don’t need a lot of space or a big budget to grow and enjoy garden-fresh bouquets. Just fill a few vacant spaces, add an extra row in garden beds or fill a container with easy care flowers started from seeds.

You’ll jump-start the season and enjoy earlier blooms by starting some of the seeds indoors to transfer into the garden after the danger of frost has passed. If you’re not in a hurry, want to stretch your budget and extend your garden’s bloom time, sow some seeds directly in the garden. Just follow the directions on the seed packet.

Annual flowers like these are known for season long bloom and a long vase life. You’ll need to plant annuals each year, but you may decide the continuous bloom is well worth the effort. Supplementing them with perennial flowers and bulbs means you need to plant fewer annuals each year for a season filled with colorful garden-fresh bouquets.

Here are a few easy-care annual flowers that you can start from seed indoors or directly in the garden. These beauties will brighten those sunny spots in the landscape and bouquets in your home.

Start zinnia seeds indoors four weeks before the last spring frost or sow them directly in the garden. Either way, you’ll have flowers about eight weeks after planting the seeds. Grow taller varieties like Benary’s Giant for long stems, Queeny Lime Orange or Zowie! Yellow Flame for eye-catching color or Profusion and Zahara for small daisy-like flowers on compact mildew resistant plants in your low maintenance cut flower garden.

Like zinnias, cosmos make a great cut flower and both are heat and drought tolerant in the garden. Start cosmos seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last spring frost or directly in the garden. The fine foliage adds texture to the garden and the white, pink, lavender blooms light up the mid-summer through fall garden. Plant tall varieties en mass to eliminate the need for staking. Or grow shorter varieties like Sonata and Cosmic. Once you plant cosmos in the garden, you may be rewarded with volunteer seedlings in subsequent years.

Marigolds have long been favorites in the garden, but they also make great cut flowers. Like zinnias, you can start them indoors or directly in the garden and have flowers in about eight weeks. Include a variety of single, double, large and small flowers to create a marigold only arrangement or mix with other flowers. The Gem series of marigolds have lacy leaves with a citrusy scent and small single flowers all summer long. Not only are these 12-inch tall plants great in arrangements, but the flowers are also edible and attract beneficial insects to your garden.

Include calendula, another edible flower, in your garden and arrangements. Plant seeds directly in the garden in fall through spring when growing in the Deep South, Gulf and Pacific Coast areas. Those in other regions can plant seeds directly in the garden after the danger of heavy frost has passed. Also known as pot marigolds, these plants thrive in cooler temperatures. If plants fade as temperatures rise, cut them back, continue to water as needed and watch for new flowers when the weather cools. These will reseed readily so watch for welcome seedlings the following year.

Sunflowers make dramatic statements in the garden and in the flower vase. The 2022 All-America Selections winner, Concert Bell grows 10 to 12 flowers on each stem. You’ll have a ready-made bouquet with each stem removed. Suncredible® Yellow sunflower produces four-inch flowers on two to three feet tall plants. The plants continue to bloom throughout the season even if you don’t remove the faded flowers.

Keep the flowers coming to enjoy in the garden and arrangements with regular picking. The more you pick, the more flowers you’ll have. Share extras with friends, neighbors, or senior centers. Studies at Rutgers University found cut flowers immediately increased happiness and had a long-term positive impact on the recipient’s mood.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook, 2nd Edition and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her website is www.melindamyers.com.

SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Take a color-themed approach for more attractive arrangements

by Melinda Myers

Growing dahlias is a must for anyone who loves cutting and arranging flowers. But there are hundreds of beautiful dahlia varieties to choose from and that can be overwhelming. To make the selection process easier, choose compatible colors that will look good together in the garden and in arrangements.

The combination of peach and burgundy is both striking and sophisticated. Peach-colored flowers add a fresh and soothing feel to the garden. Dahlia American Dawn is a blend of peach, mango, and papaya with plum-purple highlights. Good partners include other varieties in the same warm, sunset tones, such as dinnerplate dahlia Belle of Barmera, decorative dahlia Great Silence and ball dahlia Maarn.

Planting dahlias in a perennial garden ensures non-stop color from July into October. The fluttering, melon-colored blooms of HS Date work particularly well, due to this variety’s maroon foliage and open growth habit. Complete your peach and burgundy theme with the dark-hued flowers of Rip City. These large, velvety flowers are almost black in the center and soften to wine-red toward the petal edges. Add ball dahlia Jowey Mirella for blooms that are smaller in size yet equally striking.

For another eye-catching color combination, narrow your selection to dahlias with purple and hot-pink flowers. Historically, purple was associated with royalty, spirituality, and knowledge. While pastel purple evokes a sense of calm and serenity, deeper tones add drama and excitement. Dinnerplate dahlia Lilac Time is an heirloom variety with fluffy, lavender blooms that can measure eight to ten inches across. Be sure to also include flowers in juicy grape and violet hues such as dahlias Thomas Edison, Cartouche and Purple Taiheijo.

Complement these moody purples with vivid pink dahlias. Burlesca is a cute little pompon dahlia with tightly rolled petals that reveal hints of peach, burgundy and violet. Fascination’s rose-pink, semi-double flowers contrast beautifully with the plant’s dark foliage and the blossoms are irresistible to bees and butterflies. Ball dahlia Rocco is an all-star variety that is long lasting in both garden and vase.

If you prefer pastels to brights, choose dahlias in shades of pale yellow, soft pink and cream. The enormous flowers of dinnerplate dahlia Café au Lait are a must. Complement them with ball dahlias such as peachy Linda’s Baby or buttery Boom Boom yellow. Decorative dahlia Fluffles has taffy-pink petals that fade to white, while Milena Fleur’s are a mélange of pink, peach and pale butterscotch.

When you start with flowers in compatible colors, designing floral arrangements becomes so much easier. You’ll have all you need to quickly create a centerpiece for any gathering, an impressive bouquet for your own home, or an informal handful of blooms to share with friends.

For more tips about cut flowers, read the Longfield Gardens article How to Design a Cutting Gar­den (www.longfield-gar­dens.com).

Melinda Myers is the author of more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Longfield Gardens for her expertise to write this article. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com.

SMALL SPACE GARDENING: Save money, and boost seed starting success

by Melinda Myers

Boost your success, save money, and reduce plastic waste when starting plants from seeds this year. The options are many, so you are sure to find one that works for you.

Reuse plastic containers for starting plants from seeds. Disinfect the pots, flats, and cell packs before planting to avoid problems with damping off and other diseases. Soak the containers in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for ten minutes. Rinse with clear water. The pots are now clean and safe for starting seeds.

Biodegradable pots are another option. They have been around for many years, eliminating plastic and reducing transplant shock. Just plant the container along with the seedling when moving plants into the garden. You will find degradable pots made from a variety of materials.

Organic gardeners may want to use biodegradable pots made from sustainably grown wood fiber. These contain no glue or binders and are Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listed. Cow pots are not currently OMRI listed but are made from odor-free composted cow manure and an alternative to plastic and peat. These are biodegradable and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil at planting.

Replace plastic seed starting cell packs with Honeycomb Paper pots. This 50-cell interlocking paper seed starter expands to fill a flat for easy planting. Roots expand through the open bottom and the cells easily separate, making it easy to move transplants into the garden. Once in the garden, the paper liners decompose.

Invest once and use the dishwasher-safe Sili-Seedlings Seeding Tray for years of seed starting. These durable and reusable seed trays are made of BPA-free food-grade silicone. The flexible cells allow you to easily pop seedlings out without pulling and tugging. After the transplants are removed, rinse off any remaining soil and place in the dishwasher so the trays are ready to use for future plantings.

Employ self-watering systems like Pop-Out Pots (gardeners.com). Move tomatoes and other transplants from seedling trays into these larger containers. The Pop-Out system, made from recycled polypropylene, uses wicks to move water from the reservoir to the plants as needed. Transplants are easily removed, and both the pots and wicks can be reused after hand washing in hot water.

Skip the pots and avoid transplant shock by using a soil blocker to create an endless supply of soil blocks for planting. Just moisten the potting mix, preferably one with a high percent of organic matter, to help the blocks hold their shape. Press the soil block maker into the moistened potting mix and rock back and forth to fill. Then place the blocks on a clean seed tray. Once planted, water from the bottom to avoid disturbing the soil block.

Look for ways to repurpose any remaining plastic containers. Use smaller containers to apply fertilizer, animal repellents or other granular material. Just scoop and shake to distribute the fertilizer over the garden bed.

Cover plants with empty pots when applying mulch to garden beds. Spread the mulch then lift the pot when the job is finished. Use them for double potting. Grow your plant in an old nursery pot and set it inside a decorative pot that lacks drainage.
Some nurseries are asking customers to return plastic containers and flats for their use. Other plant retailers have an area set aside for customers to return plastic pots for other customers to use or for recycling.

Sustainable gardening starts with products used for starting seeds. Continue the trend throughout the growing season by conserving water, repurposing leaves into mulch and recycling plant trimmings into valuable compost.

Melinda Myers is the author of more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses How to Grow Anything DVD series and the Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Gardener’s Supply for her expertise to write this article. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.

GARDEN WORKS: Are you buried in veggies? Part 1

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

How to enjoy an abundant harvest without wasting it

Does this sound familiar? The intentions were innocent, artfully combined, and dutifully cared for: A few rows of fine, well-prepared garden soil, a few wheel barrelfuls of rich compost, a few packets of seeds, and the gentle stream of water from the watering can; The delicate seedlings, under the watchful eye and loving shadow of the gardener, became strong and thrived. Suddenly, it happened! The veggies decided to proliferate. The zucchini are ballooning into baseball bats, the beans barreling headlong into full production, and the plums are breaking branches. Tomato plants are tumbling onto the ground from the weight of their full fruitage. The climbing squash and cucumber vines, in attempts to grow heavenward, are engulfing every plant and tree in their paths. As the gardener strolls into the garden to check on everything and discovers the profusion, shrieks of nervous delight are heard throughout the land!

In cases like this, timing is everything. The peak of perfection of perishable produce is the point at which procrastination will result in poor results. Wait another day, and the garden treasures will be apt to become garden trash. In other words, start cooking! Not a chef? Not a problem. Preserving the harvest need not be complicated, and, in the company of dear friends and family, it can be a highly anticipated event worth looking forward to. The following are a few suggestions that, hopefully, will help dig you out of that looming mountain of delicious produce begging to be used up in a dignified manner of culinary adventure. This time let’s take a quick look at fruit sauces.

What a delightful dilemma to be overrun with fruit! Fruit sauces and butters can be made with just one ingredient or a mixture of what’s on hand. (My favorite sauce is made from Purple Heart plums. If you know of another plum that even compares, please let me know!) Blackberries, elderberries, blueberries, grapes, and other berries that ripen the same time as apples, pears, peaches, and plums are oftentimes a winning combo.

Try using a sauce maker if there’s a lot of fruit, as it saves time and makes a smoother product. I like these contraptions because they make the job much easier, as there is no need to core, peel, or seed the fruit. To begin, wash away any dirt and cut out any bad spots. Then place the prepared fruit in a cooking pot and add some water if necessary. To preserve the character and nutrition of the sauce, I prefer not to overcook a pan of fruit- just enough to soften it for the sauce maker. Then pour the fruit into the sauce maker and crank the handle. The resulting sauce can be stored for short lengths of time in the fridge- or canned or frozen in jars for the long term. For a special treat, bake the sauce down into fruit butter or dry it into fruit leathers. The aroma in the kitchen will transport anyone within a nose’s distance to a land of scented bliss.

GARDEN WORKS: Seven suggestions to enjoy food without fear

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

With all the buzz about unsafe food, who isn’t sick of the risks? Let’s face it, we all have to eat! And no one wants to eat in a bubble. Life without good food is like a sky without birds. So what can we do to make sure what we eat is safe? How can we see to it that we make it from the dinner table to good health, yet enjoy the enchanting tastes and aromas of delicious food?

Here are 7 suggestions that I hope will inspire you to enjoy food without fear:

1. Grow your own! That way, you will know exactly where your food comes from and what went into it. This is the optimal way to enjoy food, since the freshness and nutrition of home-grown food is unsurpassed. It’s easier than you think- even city dwellers can grow veggies and all sorts of things in containers. Just make sure you grow things in good, rich, uncontaminated soil, and water with clean water free of harmful chemicals. Consult a trusted garden book or a knowledgeable person who can give you good growing tips. If you decide to raise your own meat, the same principles apply. Some city folks have even found ways of raising their own meat in urban areas! I’ve heard of them raising miniature chickens in cages on their patio.

I applaud this, but if you plan on attempting it, please make sure you understand the consequences of what you’re doing! (For example, roosters are out of the question if there will be a noise issue, but a few bantam hens might be quiet enough not to bother anyone. And think of what would happen if your landlord or the town found out!) Hunting game is another option if you’re willing to go through the killing-your-own ordeal. (Remember, it beats eating meat from a factory farm. Just make sure it wasn’t feeding from a toxic waste dump!) Again, there are many books and publications that will help you get started, some of which are on my blog. If these homegrown options won’t work for you right now, try the next suggestion.

2. Shop at a farmer’s market. Now that local foods are in demand, the farmer’s market is in style! It is amazing what one can find there. Not only can you buy fresh, delicious veggies, but there might be some unexpected delights to be found. Look for freshly baked breads, artisan cheeses, free-range meats and sausages, homemade goodies, crafts, and more. Most of the money you spend at a farmer’s market goes directly towards the growers and helps promote a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. This is food with real value, and it has a “face and a place”. And, most importantly, it is safer than supermarket food because it got personal attention every step of the way. Food raised and processed on a small farm with more human care has a drastically smaller chance of posing a health threat than that which is grown on a factory farm and processed exclusively by machines. In fact, many people believe that it’s the human touch that gives food it’s most value when it has been cared for and appreciated. Sort of like with ourselves…

3. Buy in bulk. In most cases, the more you buy the better deal you get. This might be harder to do if you’re short on space. But if you can purchase a significant supply of a safe, wholesome food item, why not? Dry goods are easier to stash than meat, due to the chill requirements. A good local butcher shop might be able to offer a whole beef cow or other meat and package it for you however you like. A deep-bed freezer in your home could be tremendously helpful, or it might be possible to rent a cold locker in a local store for your bulk meats and frozen foods.

The secret to using bulk foods is to promptly repackage them into smaller quantities. This should make them much less vulnerable to insects and pathogens, since you are not opening or thawing the whole amount each time you use it. Instead, you are using an individually packaged portion so that the rest remains fresh in it’s own sealed package. After the initial effort of packing, it is very convenient and saves time later on. And you get to personally supervise this step.

4. Cook from scratch. Not only do foods made from scratch taste better, they are less expensive and have more food value than pre-made and processed foods from the supermarket. In addition, you will know how the food was prepared and what went into it. If you are pressed for time, try using timesavers in the kitchen. My favorite example is the slow cooker. I can turn on the crock pot at night and while I’m sleeping the meal is cooked! In the morning when I wake up I am greeted by the delicious aroma. This is especially a great choice for meats, since it cooks them thoroughly and tenderizes them to a mouthwatering texture.

The meat broth from the slow-cooker is an added useful bonus and can be used along with other foods as a seasoning for veggies, noodles, etc. In a hurry for breakfast? No problem, just cook some oatmeal in the crock pot overnight on the low setting, and when you wake up, there’s your warm breakfast! Try this with whole grains or experiment using whatever you have on hand.

5. Maintain safe and hygienic culinary activities. Perhaps this tip is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. ALWAYS wash hands before handling food! Keep all surfaces that will come in contact with food scrupulously clean, and be sure to wash all dishes and implements afterward. Always wash and dry any surface that came in contact with raw meat before using that surface for anything else.

Keep pets, animals, bugs, and other critters away from the food preparation and dining areas. Encourage anyone with a contagious illness to forgo being chef and cook for them instead. Quickly chill leftovers, and heat them thoroughly before eating again. Throw out or compost suspect food. Make sure that you wash all fruits and veggies, and discard areas that are past their prime. Use common sense at all times. Consult reliable instructions for further information.

6. Learn to preserve. When done properly, home-canned and preserved foods are without peer for taste, economy, and safety. This is a subject worth researching, especially if one lives in a cooler climate. If you are new to the rewarding art of food preservation, then surf the net or stroll on down to your local library. Check out my blog for some great books to read. Or talk with someone who knows how to can the modern way, or an old-timer who is known for food preservation. A food dehydrator is a great investment and the results take up little space. If you’re the adventurous sort, learn how to lacto-ferment. Just make sure whatever you are doing is safe and contributes to a healthy, self-sufficient food supply!

7. Cut out junk food. It makes us unhealthy and lowers our resistance to germs and toxins. The worst offenders are processed foods and food with refined sugars, white flours, and artificial ingredients. Read the ingredients, and avoid ones you cannot pronounce. Just because it’s at the store doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat! The empty calories and additives can be as harmful to one’s health as eating spoiled food. In fact, many times processed food is rancid anyways, but the chemicals are added to mask that fact. And who needs to eat chemicals that Mother Nature never meant to exist?

Know your body and know what health foods are good for YOU. Yes, I realize that avoiding junk food takes effort, but it’s worth it! If we stick to fresh fruits in season and homemade goodies (in moderation!) from local ingredients, then we will be rewarded with healthier minds and bodies and a safer food supply. And lots of times we are surprised at how delicious homemade goodies taste.. Mmmm! Much better than from the supermarket! And what a great way to involve our children or friends, making goodies together! Let’s get together, experiment, and have fun!

GARDEN WORKS – The eleventh plague: Battle of the browntail moth and curse of the caterpillars

Browntail moth caterpillar showing the two red dots at the end of its tail that differentiates it from other hairy caterpillars (moth on right)

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Well! I had intended, amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy life and chaos in the garden, to write on the next rainy day… which doesn’t help so much with a lack of rain. Anyways, here we are for a look at one of the most annoying problems – besides ticks – that I’ve ever had to deal with outdoors. Now, what could that possibly be? You guessed it, those blasted browntail moths and their cursed caterpillars!

Unless you live under a rock, or in a cave, or in your parents’ basement, you’re probably unwillingly familiar with these cantankerous characters. If you need an introduction, call 211 or look it up on here.

If you reside in or visit central Maine this time of year from April to late June, you, too, may have the miserable experience of disagreeable symptoms as a result of direct or airborne exposure to the tiny, poisonous hairs disturbed from a living or dead caterpillar, or molted caterpillar skins. Symptoms range from slight discomfort, to itchy red bumps in the area of exposure, or to an all-out inflammation extravaganza requiring medical assistance. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours (if you’re lucky), or weeks (if you’re like me and not so fortunate).

Yes, folks, I too have the measly rash. (It even looks like measles!) And I’ve had it continually for the past couple months. It’s almost like my senses have become dulled to the perpetual prickling on my skin. Never before has scraping my arms and neck with a butter knife and plastering myself with clay evoked such satisfaction.

I try to look at the bright side and count myself among the folks who do not have the breathing problems associated from being around these pests. Also, I’ve resolved never again to mow the lawn under my fruit trees wearing a tank top or short sleeves. Hat and gloves are a must!

Unfortunately, the best window of opportunity to eradicate the caterpillars by destroying their nests has slammed shut. December through April is the optimal time to check the tips of your oak and fruit trees for their silky webs, cut off any you find, and chuck those into a bucket of soapy water to soak overnight. Another flush of these happens in July, so another – albeit less optimal chance to get them – might present itself. Just be sure to wear long-sleeves, a hat, and possibly a face mask when working around trees since the hairs from the current crop of caterpillars are still a problem. Hairs remain toxic for up to three years!

During the night, the moths will be attracted to and drown in a soapy mixture of apple-scented dish soap in a bucket of water. Place the bucket as close as possible under a light.

So, what to do if exposed? There are tons of tips and tricks out there as this has become a serious community crisis affecting so many folks in our area. Unfortunately, there is no official specific treatment, but home remedies may help address the itching and swelling.

Everybody is different, so it’s important to find the safest individual solution if possible. Of course, it would be advisable to contact a trusted care provider immediately if symptoms are severe – especially when there is trouble breathing, swallowing, or swelling of the mouth, tongue, or throat.

That said, here are a few suggestions from my personal experience and others’. Please share your thoughts and suggestions with us!

As soon as possible after exposure, gently wash the area with plain soap and water. Unscented, natural soaps like Dr. Bronner’s and African black soap don’t contain fragrances or other added chemicals that can compound the problem in sensitive skin.

Resist the urge to scratch with fingernails, as this can make things worse. A clean body brush or similar utensil could be more effective.

Cosmetic-grade clay may help draw out the caterpillar hairs and their toxins.

Try a cool bath with baking soda.

Witch hazel – if it’s not sold out of the stores – can really help!

Now, wouldn’t it be great if someone could train cedar waxwings to eat these caterpillars rather than berries!

Do you have a remedy or want to share your experience dealing with the browntail moth caterpillar? Email Emily at emilycates@townline.org.

GARDEN WORKS: Wake up, sleepy head! Maple syrup time is here

Left, first you gather the sap from the tree using a spout and bucket. Most “backyard” syrup makers use a turkey fryer as an evaporator. It works very well.

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Wake up, wake up! No more excuses for hibernation or procrastination, Springtime is here. Yes, I know I know — it’s still cold and there’s plenty of snow, each flake erasing an equal amount of motivation to be outside in the garden.

But let’s look at the possibilities anyways, since eventually the window of early-springtime activities will close whether we complete them or not. Why not enjoy a taste of spring by making maple syrup? Let’s whet our appetites by taking a look at this delicious task.

Ah, maple syrup — the amber nectar of our beloved maple tree, made from the sparkling, crystal-clear sap that is a delightful Spring tonic on its own. At 40-45 degrees in the daytime and freezing at night, this luminous sap flows from tree wounds and can be collected.

Maple sugaring supplies are super easy to find at hardware stores or online, and YouTube has an amazing amount of helpful how-to videos.

It is extremely important to use clean, food-grade materials for anything that comes in contact with the sap and syrup. Avoiding trees in polluted areas might is a good idea as well. Also, never overload a tree with too many taps. The best advice I can think of is to use recycled materials if possible, be safe, and to have fun!

To collect the sap, I gather containers such as traditional metal sap pails, water jugs, or buckets. Then, with a 5/16th drill bit, I drill a hole slightly upwards about 2-2 ½ inches, preferably on the south-facing side of the tree. Depending on the setup, I’ll either hang the pails on the tree by the hooks provided on spiles that are gently hammered in the hole, or I run food-grade tubing to a container set on the ground.

Once there’s enough collected, it’s time to strain it and boil it down. Since I only have a small amount of taps and my wood stove is already running this time of year, I usually evaporate the sap in big pots on the stovetop.

40:1 is a common ratio for sap to syrup, which is quite a lot of work for a small amount of product. Oftentimes, depending on how full my hands are this time of year (and how much of it gets raided by my family or myself!), I’ll make the decision to cook with the sap instead of making syrup. I always try to reserve some to slow-cook a chicken…Delicious!

Large quantities of sap are traditionally steamed off in a sugar house with an evaporator suited for many gallons. (I know folks who make a fire in a barrel on its side with foodservice basins fitted on the top.) The sap boils in the basins and is carefully watched, especially as it thickens. Ladle off any foam and impurities from time to time, adding a drop of cream if it threatens to foam over.

Now it’s down to the nitty-gritty! Tell the kids and pets to wait at a safe distance, and put on a pair of steady hands, because this is hot stuff. When the syrup reaches 7 degrees above boiling, or 219 degrees F, it’s ready to carefully strain and pour off into containers. I prefer mason jars, which are handy for canning the syrup. If desired, process in a hot water canner for 10 minutes.

Enjoy maple syrup in as many ways as your imagination allows. How sweet it is to start spring on such a delicious note!

GARDEN WORKS: Nine tips for starting seedlings successfully indoors

Anyone can do this!

Reprint from February 2015

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Really? Now? YES! I’ll admit it’s hard to imagine a lush, productive garden when we’re up to our eyeballs in snow. But if we put our green thumbs to work, it just might be what we need to get us through.

Are you wondering which methods and materials you should use? Well, it really depends on the imagination and creativity of the individual. Systems can be as unique and diverse as time, space, and expense allow- even involving minimum inputs made from salvaged or recycled materials. With just a few things in mind, starting seeds is easy and practically anyone can do it. Why not give it a try? Here’s how:

The first important component to a successful operation, whether large or small, is a clean, well-drained container that holds the substrate. Possible candidates could include free and abundant used yogurt cups from home or the recycling center. Wash them well and poke holes in the bottoms, label them, fill with planting medium, and they’re good to go! Plastic or cardboard milk cartons with the tops cut off are another possibility. Also, there is this handy dandy little tool called the “pot maker” which you can use to make pots out of plain newsprint. If expense is not an issue and the desire is aesthetic, go for the plastic flats and 6-packs and such found in seed catalogs and gardening centers. Seeds can be individually or collectively sown in smaller containers, but the resulting seedlings are easier to transplant if they are in flats or containers with a larger surface area.

The second ingredient to successful seedlings is the substrate. Always remember to use fresh, pest and disease-free planting medium, whether purchased or homemade. FEDCO and Johnny’s carry satisfactory seed starting mixes along with nifty items such as soil block makers, pots made from composted cow manure, and “seed discs” (for the horticulturally-challenged!).

The third part of the system that deserves consideration is light. This could be as simple as a sunny, south-facing windowsill, a shop light with full spectrum bulbs (found at Home Depot), or the luxury of a sun room or heated greenhouse. To prevent seedlings from becoming leggy once they’ve sprouted keep the containers as close to the lights as possible without burning the plants.

The fourth piece we want to scrutinize is an acceptable source of water. Watering with plain tap water is fine as long as it’s not chlorinated or from a softener system. Keep the seeds and seedlings moist, but not waterlogged. If necessary, additional draining holes in the container can be poked through or drilled.

The fifth factor of importance is the temperature. 80 degrees F and above are necessary for proper germination, so a heat mat or other source of warmth could be used in a cold room.

The sixth essential element is ensuring the seeds are viable. Using seeds that are fresh and stored in a cool, dry area will have a higher germination rate. If in doubt, pack a few into a damp paper towel, place into a zip lock bag, and store for several days in a warm place. Check daily for sprouts, keep moist, and observe. Sometimes it might be necessary to wait a week or two more, but after that I’d give up and buy new seed for sure.

The seventh module we’ll look at is what to plant. Long-season seedlings that seem to take forever and ever to get to a plant-able size from seed may be happiest and most productive when started early. The cast of characters starring in your grow system could include leeks, onions, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, long-season herbs, and perennial flowers.

The eighth constituent is when to plant. This involves finding out the recommended planting time frame. Check a seed packet or gardening book for planting instructions and you might find that the time to start the seeds for your favorite plant is now! (But not too early, unless you plan on transplanting into bigger and bigger pots later on as they grow- and using up more and more planting medium!) Personally, I prefer to start smaller, later-planted seedlings and let them catch up, as opposed to jumping the gun and ending up with oversized, pot-bound, sulking plants. I’ve even waited until a few weeks or so after the recommended planting time-frames and observed that the later plantings will oftentimes catch up with the earlier ones. I’ve noticed this to be especially so as the moon is increasing (when I try to start seeds), since it appears that a full moon has an affinity towards fertility and growth. The point? Starting seeds is a flexible endeavor and will accommodate a variety of schedules.

The ninth and final feature of a successful grow system involves nutrition. My favorite is fish-seaweed formulas, used as directed. Don’t worry about it until the first set of true leaves has formed and weekly thereafter.

Here’s hoping your seedlings are happy and healthy when the above needs are considered. Enjoy gardening now in the comfort and convenience of a warm room while the cold winter wind is whipping outside!

GARDEN WORKS: Toxic squash, evil zucchini and other dangers in the garden

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

Watch out for that squash! No, I’m not talking about the oversized zucchini endangering anyone who walks under it — or the health hazards of eating undercooked portions of Aunt Maybelle’s Squash Surprise Soup. I mean a real hazard that could lurk in any member of the Curcubit family — toxins known as curcubitacins. Let’s take a look at this widely unknown danger and arm ourselves with the knowledge of how to protect ourselves from it.

As the harvest season is well underway, many of us are now harvesting copious quantities of curcubits like cucumbers, squash, melons, and other delights. Along with the harvest comes tasty recipes guaranteed to please and nourish the body and soul. But let me ask, have you ever taken a bite of a cucumber, or cooked up squash or zucchini—and found it incredibly bitter?

Well, you should know that this bitterness is bad news! Not only is it an indicator that the fruit or veggie has dangerous amounts of curcubitacins, but just a mouthful eaten can make you very sick. Like wind up in the hospital sick, and maybe even lose all of your hair if you survive. At the very least, you’ll get terrible digestive problems on both ends. Who wants that? Not I!

Definitely enough to make one think twice before eating, Toxic Squash Syndrome (not to be confused with Toxic Shock Syndrome) is not something anyone wants to have. Though rare, this illness is potentially fatal, and is a serious risk for the unwary.

How can this be, since these vegetables are a regular, delicious part of a healthy diet? Well, let’s take a look at why it can happen.

First of all, these toxins are naturally occurring repellents. Bitter and poisonous Curcubits are often found growing wild in tropical areas. The toxins, however, have been bred out of cultivated varieties, especially those that are available in seed catalogs. If the professional grower did their job, the resulting seeds offered should be pure, not crossed with other varieties.

I find that mostly to be the case when I grow seeds from seed companies. The seeds grow as advertised and expected, though I do observe fruits from crossed seeds from time to time. If these fruits from crossed seeds were not crossed with ornamental gourds and taste good— not bitter at all— then they probably are not poisonous. But please don’t take my word for it! If in doubt, throw it out. Or use it ornamentally. And don’t save the seeds.

If you are a seed-saver, please ensure your Curcubit plants do not cross with other plants, such as certain squashes cross pollinating with ornamental gourds. The book Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth, is a good place to start if you have questions about what crosses with what— especially with squash.

Another reason why a plant could produce curcubitacins is because it is stressed. Ensuring favorable growing conditions is a good idea for these plants. Lack of water and/or nutrients, and pest pressure are all stressors that could promote the production of curcubitacins. In this case, your sense of taste is your best defense. If it’s bitter, it’s a spitter!

So, now that we have been forewarned about the dangers lurking in the pumpkin patch, we can rest assured knowing that other than some things to keep in mind, the garden surely is a place of complete delight.

GARDEN WORKS: Exciting times in the garden

photo by Emily Cates

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

This time of year is buzzing with possibilities! The last spring frost of the year most likely has passed us by, clearing the way for warm-weather plantings. And although it’s a bit on the late side for trees, shrubs, and peas, we can be sure to plant greens, cole crops, cover crops, carrots, radishes, potatoes, onions, perennials, flowers, and herbs with abandon. To be on the safe side, it’s always a good idea to wait until after May 31, for tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, eggplant, pumpkins, and the like. Unless we have another freak late frost, I would say, “Plant away after Memorial Day!”

If the weather continues to be so dry, however, make sure anything planted receives adequate moisture. Drip irrigation systems are preferable to a soaker hose, since a large proportion of moisture sprayed from a hose or sprinkler is lost through evaporation. Watering at night will conserve moisture by preventing water from evaporating in the sun. I noticed this spring that the trees and shrubs I planted needed an extra five gallons or so of water per tree every other day in May. Usually there is adequate of rain this time of year- but this year, like most years as of late, is a typical Maine spring; the one thing you can count on is the weather being unpredictable! Being prepared for this challenge is one way we can stay ahead of the game.

Naturally, there is little most of us can do to prevent a late heavy frost. That pattern would fool many flowering shrubs and fruit trees into blooming only to be nipped by the frost. Though that would mean little or no fruit this year for the affected specimens, we can take to heart that hopefully that wouldn’t happen again the following year. And if it does, it may help to consider planting cultivars that are late blooming, frost tolerant, or extra hardy. Most of our area is zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F.) with occasional zone 5’s (-10 to -20 degrees F.). Choosing a perennial plant, shrub, or tree that is rated to grow in the next zone down- zone 3 (-30 to -40 degrees F.), for instance – will ensure a plant’s hardiness. Remember, too, that a heavy snow pack should act as a blanket and keep a plant warmer than if there is low accumulation; so might a heavy mulch.

One thing that certainly doesn’t mind the weather was the weeds. These guys are public enemy Number One in many gardens. Any efforts to minimize them early in the season before they go to seed will help keep them at bay throughout this growing season and others. Cultivating, hand-pulling, mulching, and growing in raised beds and containers are all earth-friendly ways to make the job easier without resorting to chemical herbicides. Undiluted plain distilled vinegar works wonders on the ones in the cracks in the walkway and driveway. Plus, it’s cheap, eco-friendly, and safe to use around children and pets. Give it a try. And if you’re really adventurous, maybe you’ll consider the possibility of raising weeder geese in the garden. Many folks pen them in the strawberry patch until the fruit forms. They eat the weeds, but not the strawberry plants – though it should be noted that they love the fruits as much as we do. (Hence timing is important with this particular venture.)

While you’re planting seeds in the garden, remember to grow some plants that attract beneficial insects. Most of these have umbrella-like flowers such as those found on dill, fennel, carrot, caraway, valerian, angelica, and Queen Anne’s lace. And don’t forget to plant some edible flowers like nasturtiums and delicious herbs like basil. And for a change of pace, try growing heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties and save the seeds for next year. Or try making a completely new variety altogether by cross-pollinating two different varieties of the same plant that will cross, such as cucumbers. Ah, the possibilities of the late-spring garden!

Emily Cates can be contacted by email at EmilyCates@townline.org.