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Gardening As I Go

Waiting for Spring Weather

It’s been a cold start to April here in New Jersey. We had another snowstorm the morning after Easter, and my peas, spinach, lettuce and beets have yet to be planted! In the meantime, I ordered some milkweed seeds with the intent of planting them outside for the Monarchs. On the advice of my dad who’s been planting milkweed for the past few years, I decided to try out cold-stratifying them first. Cold-stratification attempts to mimic the condition of the seeds being outside during the chilly winter months and can help with germination and breaking them out of dormancy. I ordered two types of milkweed seeds, A. Tuberosa (commonly known as Butterfly Weed) and Ascepias Incarnata (otherwise known as Swamp Milkweed). Both species have colorful blossoms, and most importantly are a food source for Monarch Caterpillars. They’re also native to the Northeastern United States, as well as many other areas of the country according to the USDA Plants Database.

Perfect!

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I used coffee filters to wrap the seeds in. While many people use plastic sandwich bags to store the wrapped seeds, I decided to see how some clean little 4 oz jam jars leftover from canning would work instead. I ran the coffee filters under cool water…

Coffee Filters

…..then squeezed out the excess until they were just damp. 

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I laid the dampened coffee filters out in front of the labeled jars and spread a packet of seeds out in each one. 

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Then I folded them up, careful to make sure that all the seeds were covered and tucked inside. 

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After that, into the fridge they went! They’ll literally chill out in there until the average last-frost date has passed. That’s May 2nd for our location in New Jersey according to the The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Afterwards the plan is to direct-sow them right into the ground. The Butterfly Weed will go next to the wildflower patch, and the Swamp Milkweed will go into an area of our yard that tends to be wetter. We’ll see how they grow!

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Even though winter seems to have had trouble letting go around here, there still are some signs that we are beyond the Spring Equinox. The days are longer, and the Bluebirds have been flitting around the yard, assumedly a little confused by the late snow and as ready as we are for winter to loosen its grip.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that the Bluebirds have stuck around here, occasionally making an appearance flying together in a flock of six or so. When Spring arrives, they become more visible and active in the yard as they begin to build their nests and pair off. Somewhere over the years I read that these little songbirds like to nest overlooking fields facing the East. That’s exactly where we placed our nesting boxes, and consistently have Bluebirds families each year, along with tree swallows. 

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 Looking forward to planting season and hoping that the mild weather forecasted for the end of this week comes to fruition! The next post or two will hopefully include the start of some garden greens and maybe the beginnings of a Bluebird family! Happy Spring!

Welcome to My (Frozen) Garden!

Cathy PouriaIt’s January and here in the Northeast, we recently had a “bomb cyclone” blow through, bringing with it frigid wind and snow that first blanketed, then froze on the ground. Winter is the time when I love to hibernate and envision what my garden will look like come Spring. Flipping through gardening magazines and seed catalogs by the fire, thinking about what worked last year (and what didn’t) and planning which vegetables, flowers and herbs will be planted into which bed are all part of my mid-winter gardening vision! As gardeners, we can look at a piece of snow covered ground, appreciating the beauty of the moment, but at the same time picturing it’s future blossoming.

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It may look like this for now (above)….but I’m picturing this (below)!

This coming Spring will be the start of my sixth year of backyard gardening. We started the garden the summer after we moved into our first house on ½ acre of land in a rural country town in New Jersey. Did you know that New Jersey has “country”? It’s beautiful, scenic and full of rolling hills and small farms! With the help of my husband and children, the garden has grown from a small bed of vegetables to 4 in-ground beds of a kitchen garden filled with vegetables as well as annual and perennial flowers. Among the perennials are irises gifted from my aunt, and a rose-of-sharon which came from land that was once my great-grandmother’s farm in Kentucky. We dotted our yard with peach, cherry and apple trees, and planted an herb garden which grows next to the patio off of my kitchen. At the garden entrance sit a pair of decades-old concord grapevines, which came from my father. You can read more about them in "Family Heirlooms."

It’s a joy to treasure and care for these family heirlooms! However, it’s January, and the garden currently looks like this:

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The only “flower” in our garden right now is Sunflower, our golden retriever!

In the grey of winter is when we start to contemplate. Should I add calendula to the herb garden? Expand the wildflower patch? Enlarge the fence so the dog won’t trample the flowers like she did last year? Start milkweed seeds? Build a greenhouse? As hobby gardeners, we have the privilege of being able to experiment with our gardens, and to change it year to year based on what has proven to work and our personal preferences. Each year, I try to improve on the garden in some way. For example, a cover crop of oats was planted for the first-time last fall in an attempt to enhance the soil and cut down on weeds (a never-ending battle!).

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The oats are in there somewhere!

These past couple of years, my goal has been to discontinue the use of sprays, even organic ones in order to avoid harming the beneficial insects, birds and pollinators that visit the garden. Companion plants have been slowly added season by season, like marigolds, nasturtium, lavender, roses, carnations, lilies and coneflower. Butterfly and mason bee habitats were hung. Bluebird houses were put up. I started noticing monarch butterflies fluttering on the deep magenta blooms of coneflower, and decided that native milkweed should be planted this year for their caterpillars to feed on.

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These little guys need all the help they can get!

As time moves farther from the winter solstice, that last sliver of pink as the sun reaches below the horizon comes a little later each evening. The days get longer and we wait patiently for the ground to unthaw to get those first Spring greens planted. A new season of gardening along with it’s trials and errors will begin. I’m not an expert and my garden is far from perfect, but I am gardening and learning as I go! I hope you’ll enjoy learning along with me!

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