More Live Plants

So, the longer I sit at home waiting for my knee to heal, the more plants I buy. It is what it is.

I’ve picked up more bulbs, some lavender, and even another dahlia (I know, I don’t need any more). Here’s what I’ve got on order so far:

Miscanthus “Encore” (Proven Winners)

Miscanthus “Encore” (Proven Winners)

The Miscanthus is the plant I’m most excited about currently. I never thought I’d be the type to buy ornamental grasses–it’s always seemed too mature and “posh”–but, lo and behold, I am now aware of their many practical benefits.

The fence around my backyard is pretty but impractical. It’s also only a few years old, so I don’t have a really legitimate reason for tearing it down and putting up a more practical one–nor do I have the funds at the moment to do so. The fence is about 3′ high and in the picket fence style, with about 3 or so inches between each vertical slat. It’s pretty, but offers no privacy, and if we ever get a dog that is medium-sized or larger, it’ll be useless. (My parents, the former owners, had a mini dachshund.) As our back fence borders the alleyway, which is well paved and often used by joggers and dog-walkers in the neighborhood, I constantly feel like random strangers are walking through my backyard. it’s highly irritating but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it without spending a bunch of $ on a new fence, which my fianc├ę would never agree to. Enter ornamental grasses.

I came across the idea of using large ornamental grasses as a hedge while watching “You Can’t Eat the Grass”‘s bulb unboxing the other day–they had bought a different variety for use at their farm. I did some searching on Google and found one I liked–the Encore by Proven Winners ­čÖé I have a strip of dirt between the fence and the alley which is currently populated by 30-year-old day lilies which need to get dug out anyway. So, I ordered six of the grasses to plant in that area, which should cover the fence. And it’s grass, so I imagine it’ll grow pretty quickly once they get established. And it is supposed to have really nice fall colors and “winter interest”, which means the breeder recommends not cutting them back until spring, so means that the hedge will last most of the year. Problem solved! Hopefully.

English Lavender–Hidcote

Another plant I picked up is some English Lavender (Hidcote). I haven’t grown much lavender, and the small plant of French lavender I picked up last year I attempted to overwinter on my back deck, thinking it was hardy to my zone. Apparently not. Looking back, I think I was basing this belief on the fact that lavenders definitely overwinter just fine in California, where I lived for 15 years. (Many places in CA have massive lavender and rosemary bushes edging the houses.) Alas, I am no longer in CA and need to deal with Zone 5b limits. So this time I did some research and picked up a few English lavender plants, which are hardy to my zone. I bought them from Michigan Bulbs, a company i’ve never purchased from before, but I had a coupon for free shipping ­čÖé and many other online stores are already sold out. The plants are bare root, apparently, but I imagine they should fill out pretty well over the course of the summer.

Also from Michigan Bulb company are some more bulbs:

First, a mixed bag on dwarf Gladiolus bulbs. Dwarf, as I’ve never grown gladiolus and didn’t want to have to mess around with staking yet another type of flower. Next, a mixed bag of Anemones (again, a type of flower that is new to me). Finally, a mixed bag of ranunculus, as I had also ordered most of my ranunculus from Easy to Grow bulbs, and I wasn’t sure of the quality. Looking on Amazon, Easy to Grow is the main seller of ranunculus, and the reviews on the bulbs are pretty bad. (I had bought the bulbs directly through their website, which does not have any reviews.) So I figured the worse thing that will happen is I end up with too many ranunculus bulbs.

Finally, I did pick up another (!) dahlia. And I picked up some more Cafe au Lait tubers, because I realized I spent way too much on it earlier (it was the first dahlia I bought, and I spent like $15 for 1 tuber (!)–which, once I realized what I had done, completely broke my discount-loving heart.) I was so offended by this that I decided the only logical solution to this would be to buy more Cafe au Lait bulbs cheaper somewhere else. Obviously. So I did, but I needed to add more to my order in order to get the free shipping, so… I also picked up a mixed bag of caladiums and the “Melody Pink Allegro” dahlia, because it’s really pretty and pink and I’m a sucker.

Next up on my list of living plants to arrive, I believe, will be the Asparagus crowns from Gurney. Still need to plant my leeks/onions, which I should finally be able to do this weekend, assuming the dr gives me the ok at my appointment tomorrow. I’m thinking that many of these seed/plant companies assume that I have limitless amounts of land or that I’m actually a farmer. I am not. I don’t know what I’m going to do with 10 asparagus crowns–I really only have space for 5 at most, honestly, unless I start planting them in the lawn against the side fence–and the 25 strawberry plants and 25 sweet potato slips on order will likely be too many than I can manage as well. But that’s the size of order that they sell. Already, my local friends are getting inundated with seeds; the same will go for bulbs and live plants, I guess. (I’ve already hit my mom up for some of my dahlias, but as she lives in a condo now, she has much less space and no desire to care for a bunch of plants. ­čśŽ ) But as I’d really rather not grow any of these from seed, my options are limited. There are worse things, I suppose.

Seedling Update 3/20/21

Well, another weekend, another round of planting. Plus it looks like I didn’t put last week’s big planting up. So, a lot to cover today.

Planting 3/13/21 (2 each variety of Bootstrap Farmer’s 2″ pots/trays; Pro Mix w/ Mycorrhizae instead of the Black Gold seedling mix):

Pepper, Alma Paprika (hot)Seed Savers Exchange
Pepper, Aurora (hot, decorative)Seed Savers Exchange
Tomatillo, Grande Rio Verde Botanical Interests
Tomatillo, PurpleBaker Creek
Tomato, Barry’s Crazy CherryBaker Creek
Tomato, CarbonBaker Creek
Tomato, Paul RobesonBaker Creek
Tomato, Sun Gold Pole Cherry Botanical Interests
Tomato, Sun Gold Pole Cherry Hirt’s Gardens
MoonflowerSeed Savers Exchange
Nasturitum, Tip Top AlaskanBaker Creek
Sunflower, ValentineSeed Savers Exchange
Eggplant, Listada de GandiaBotanical Interests
Snap Pea, Magnolia BlossomBaker Creek
Daisy, AfricanBaker Creek

So far, all of these have germinated at this point, though the peppers from Seed Savers have only one seedling each, and they only finally poked out their heads yesterday. Oddly, my both of my sets of Moonflower seedlings geminated on the same day, despite being sown two days apart. (I didn’t soak the first set of seeds, and nicked the second set.) And the tomatillo seedling are long and skinny, moreso than most of the rest of the seedlings. Maybe that’s just they way they look? (They look like really sickly tomato seedlings.) And–miracle of miracles!–all of my nasturtium varieties have now germinated, including the Peach Melba which got recycled into my snap pea potting soil. My Sweet Peas are all at least 6″ tall and my snap peas are not far behind. Currently, the peas are sitting on on the deck, getting acclimated.

Today’s sowing 3/20/21 included just one plant: the Madame Butterfly Bronze snapdragons I ordered from Johnny’s, as I just received them yesterday. Such tiny seeds for such a large plant! These are my absolute favorite of all of the snapdragons I’ve seen displayed on videos and seed catalogues: tall, frilly blooms of coppery-peach edged with white.

Finally, the leeks and onions are still not planted. My friend ended up rescheduling to this weekend, which is probably for the best, because we ended up having 3″ of snow! But they are happily sitting in my cool, dark back hall and should be fine.

Hopefully, by April I should be more mobile and able to perambulate my backyard and get a better idea of where I am going to plant all of the things I’ve ordered over the last two months. It’s getting pretty crowded, as I also picked up another dahlia and a 25-mixed bag of caladium bulbs to replace my mom’s tired old hostas around the deck. And a 25-pack of strawberries….

They’re here! (and way too early): Onions and Leeks

So my first live plants arrived a few days ago! Dixondale’s leeks and onion starts have arrived. I knew they’d ship in March but the posted ETA was 3/15 and I assumed they’d arrive a few days after that. They did not. They arrived 3/11/21. I was caught unprepared.

This was not necessary Dixondale’s fault. I had not read the website thoroughly to begin with and originally had them scheduled to arrive back at the end of January. Dixondale, however, being the professionals that they are, checked my zip code and decided that I really wanted the leeks to be shipped mid-March. Once I finally found the email that told me this (several weeks after the fact-my inbox has been getting really strict in deciding which emails are junk and which ones are not), I relaxed. At least, I did until my knee surgery got more complicated than expected and I found out I’ll be on crutches for at least 6 weeks, not 2 weeks as originally planned. On top of that, they did actually arrive at least a week before I expected. While the snow has all melted, I haven’t gone outside to even look at my garden. Nothing in my garden is prepped yet.

When the leeks and onions arrived, I wasn’t even really mobile enough to get the materials to unpack and store them properly in my back hall (which in the winter works well as cold storage). Luckily, a gardening friend was stopping by that day anyway and helped me unpack and store them. The “plan” is for her to come over again tomorrow to attempt to get out into the garden tomorrow and plant some of them, at least. Dixondale’s website states that, since leeks and onions are part of the lily family, they can store up to three weeks in a cool, dry area, and not to been worried if the tops and bottoms turn brown b/c they will revive once planted in the soil. To be fair, given our current weather and the temperature of our soil, this week really would have been an ideal time to plant the starts, had I not been injured.

Luckily, I did do a pretty good job tidying up last fall, so the garden is not a mess. And I have a large tub which was going to hold sweet potatoes but for now can hold most, if not all, of my leeks starts. I think I’ll try to plant the onions in the beds that already are half-filled with garlic; those beds are already prepped, and I might as well keep the alliums together. And I’ll likely have extras to give to my friend should she want them. No two-person household really needs that many leeks or garlic.

I ordered one bunch of Lancelot Leeks (the only variety they carry) and a mixed bunch of long-day onions, which ended up being comprised of Walla Walla sweet yellow onions; Ringmaster white onions; and Redwing red onions. (I’ve only ever tried the Walla Walla onions, but onions are onions, I guess.) Each bunch has 50-60 starts in it. I’m mostly excited to grow the leeks. Over the last few years I’ve picked up a couple of staple recipes that use leeks, and they are a pain to get from the store as they are not always in stock and are often expensive. Luckily they do store quite well in the fridge, even already chopped and cleaned.

Here are my favorite recipes for which I hope to use my own home-grown leeks:

Potato Leek Soup — I substitute cauliflower for the potatoes–it has a better glycemic index, and I think it tastes better with cauliflower anyway.

Chicken and Leek Pie (William Sonoma) — This recipe tastes amazing. I make it exactly the way the recipe calls for (which is almost unheard of in my kitchen). It really is that good. The way I make it is essentially as chicken pot pie, with bottom crust but no top crust. It freezes well, too.

Triple Mushroom and Leek Soup –A great soup for a cold day. I omit the cream in this soup (as I do with most soups, as I’m lactose intolerant). I think it tastes amazing either way. For this soup, I recommend a health dose of shiitake mushrooms, with a few white mushrooms and the rest crimini mushrooms (or whatever version of portobello that looks good at the store that day). I’ve also made it using chantarelle mushrooms once; it was divine.

I’ve also been told that the leek greens are also good in veggie and chicken stock, though I usually just toss or compost them instead.

Leeks are amazing. They are one of the few plants I’m growing this year that I’m really counting on to succeed. The rest (tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, et al) are honestly just a bonus.

Seedling Update 3/13

I started planting my first seeds two weeks ago, and have been planting more batches every few days as the seed packs indicate. So far it’s going pretty well; about 90% of seeds have germinated and are up and going. I can say this with confidence as I have all of my seeds and this year’s sowings organized in Excel spreadsheets and know exactly how many seeds were planted and when. (I literally had nothing to while the earth was covered in 2′ of snow and waited for my knee to heal this past month.) So I’m possibly better organized with my garden than I’ve ever been with anything, but I know I’ll be grateful for it all when it comes time to plant next year.

Here’s what I’ve planted so far:

Medium: Black Gold seedling mix. All seedlings are planted in 6-pack deep trays or Bootstrap Farmer’s 2″ seed pots. All trays are in 10×20 trays on heating pads with large humidity domes.

2/28/21:

Autumn Colors RudbeckiaPinetree Seeds
Dwarf Cactus DahliaRH Shumway
Redskin Mix DahliaPinetree Seeds
Lobelia (Crystal Palace)Botanical Interests
Sugar Stars PhloxBaker Creek
Rainbow LovelinessBotanical Interests
Pink CarnationsMI Gardener
Arena Red Lisianthus Hirt’s Seeds
Listada de Gandia EggplantBotanical Interests
Lettuce Leaf BasilBaker Creek
Holy BasilTradewinds Fruit
PennyroyalHirt’s Seeds

Of this batch, the Sugar Stars Phlox and the the Lisianthus did not germinate at all. I recycled the phlox and will prob attempt to resow them at some point later this spring. I’m still waiting on the Lisanthus as I know they take forever to germinate.

(Note: when I say I “recycled” a given variety, I’m just recycling the soil, not the actual seed. Yes, I know sometimes the seeds will pop up later on in random places; it’s all good.)

3/1/21:

Peach Melba NasturtiumBotanical Interests
Single Blend Trailing NasturtiumBotanical Interests
Lollipop Mix GaillardiaBaker Creek
Bull’s Blood BeetPinetree Seeds

Of this batch, one lone Trailing Nasturtium germinated and absolutely no other nasturtiums did. I loved growing (and eating) my nasturtiums last year, but I used an Alaska Mix from Ferry Morse (of all companies) and I had to restock. I had no problems with that seed mix, though I noticed that nasturtiums take forever to grow,\ so I knew I needed to start them early. Really sad that these did not germinate. I have the lone trailing nasturtium sitting in my kitchen windowsill and recycled the soil of the rest. The Gaillardia germinated well but I am finding that, once germinated, they are growing really slowly. Or perhaps I’m just impatient. (I ended up eating the beet seedlings; technically they were from a microgreens mix anyway. I’ll plant more outside later.)

3/4/21:

Sugar Snap PeaJohnny’s Seeds
Salanova┬« Green Sweet CrispJohnny’s Seeds
Salanova┬« Home Garden MixJohnny’s Seeds
Wildfire Mix LettuceJohnny’s Seeds
Fenugreek (plant)Johnny’s Seeds

So, I broke down one night after watching way too many “You Can’t Eat The Grass” videos about how much they looooved Johnny’s Salanova lettuces and bought some to try out. (It was slow going as most of the time I tried to buy something from their website, they were closed to home gardeners as they were just trying to get caught up with actual farmer’s orders.) If you’ve never bought from Johnny’s, prepare to deal with some serious sticker shock. Each pack of the Salanova lettuces was around $6 for 25 seeds (which for lettuce seed is outrageous!) However, the Salanovas, at least, are highly researched and trademarked, and apparently last 3x as long in the fridge, taste better than most lettuces, are highly prized by market farmers, etc. I was very careful with my Salanova seeds and only planted two of each kind–they had better have 100% germination at that cost. And so far, they have. The Wildfire mix was on sale; it germinated well but tasted bitter, so they got recycled. The Fenugreek also germinated well and grew extremely quickly as a microgreen, but I also found their taste to be bitter; I saved one so I could grow it as an herb and recycled the rest.

The Snap Peas are off and running and are already 6″ high. I had a ton of trouble with my peas last year–it was so disappointing, as I love snap peas and they are one of the few things I can grow that don’t trigger any of my food intolerances. But now I’m not sure what to do with snap peas that are actually growing the way they should. At the moment, I’ve pinched them off the way you would a Sweet Pea vine; maybe they’ll bush up the way a Sweet Pea does? Who knows? The tops were tasty, though. (If I’ve learned nothing at all from Charles Dowding, I’ve at least learned that you can grow snap peas just for their shoots.)

3/7/21:

Hyssop, Apache SunsetBotanical Interests
Pansy, Got the Blues Botanical Interests
Viola, Johnny-Jump-UpBotanical Interests
Viola, King Henry Botanical Interests
Pepper, Biquinho Yellow (hot)Baker Creek
Pepper, Fish (hot)Baker Creek
Pepper, Pasilla Bajio Chile Chilaca (hot)Botanical Interests
Leek, King RichardBotanical Interests

The pansies, violas, and hyssop have all germinated well and look good. Even my leek seeds have sprouted (I’m trying to get some succession sowing–I have leek starts, and now this batch from seeds.) Also, surprisingly, the Pasilla Bajio pepper popped up already. My (limited) experience with hot peppers is that they take forever to germinate. When I grew Sugar Rush Peach peppers last year, I had healthy seedlings pop up in recycled soil a good two months after I had originally sown them, though my first Sugar Rush peppers only took three weeks or so to germinate, I think. So I’m not worried about the other hot peppers, but I’m a tad worried about the Pasilla Bajio as it’s not going to be warm enough to plant them outside here until at least mid-May. But who knows? Gardening is always a guessing game, imho. I’ve never grown any of these from seed before.

3/8/21:

Sweet Pea, Little SweetheartBotanical Interests
Sweet Pea, My NavyBotanical Interests
Sweet Pea, Royal BlendBotanical Interests

Note: Sweet Peas (the flowering vine) are grown for their flowers only, as all parts of that plant are toxic if ingested. Just FYI.

So, inspired in part by “The Impatient Gardener” videos, and a bunch of other market flower grower videos, I’ve decided to try my hand at growing Sweet Peas. They look very curly and pretty, and apparently many of them smell heavenly. So why not? I gave the seeds an overnight soak, and so far the “Royal Blend” seeds have all sprouted, with the “My Navy” seeds not far behind. (While it’ll be cool to finally grow any pea successfully, it’s just one more crop that needs a trellis, unfortunately. Sigh.)

3/11/21:

WormwoodSeed Savers Exchange
African DaisyBaker Creek
White MarigoldBaker Creek
MoonflowerSeed Savers Exchange
Black Velvet NasturtiumR H Shumway’s
Dwarf Jewel Mix NasturtiumBaker Creek
Tip Top Salmon NasturtiumBaker Creek

These seeds obviously haven’t had a chance to come up yet. I’ve sown a new batch of nasturtiums from different companies in the hopes that these varieties have better germination rates. I have enough seeds to keep resowing them all year if need be. Though I did forget to soak this batch, so that may not help things. Also, moonflower seeds, as I learned after the fact, also need to be soaked or nicked somehow before they are planted, so this batch of moonflowers may not come up at all. But then again, moonflowers are a morning glory, and morning glories want to grow, so who knows?

The wormwood is part of my ongoing plan to create a perennial witchy Victorian-style herb garden, with a wide variety of both culinary and “magical” herbs. Apparently wormwood, like morning glories, want to grow, and will get huge and take over the garden the way a mint or basil would if given a chance. (This seems to be the case with many herbs I’ve seen, actually.) So my herb garden may have to end up being a container garden, like for a Victorian’s solarium, rather than an in-ground English cottage hedge-witch type of garden. Ah, well.

This weekend’s plan is to get the rest of my peppers and all the rest of my nightshades planted. The tomatoes will probably go out to the garden sooner than the peppers; I’ve no idea how the tomatillos will grow, as I’ve never grown tomatillos. I have enough seeds in my collection to keep growing for at least five years, so either way, I’ll get something to grow.

Ordering Live Plants, part 2–Flowers

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time watching gardening videos on YouTube this past year. Between quarantine and my knee surgery, I have’t been able to do much; and with this long winter, I’ve needed to be reminded that the green will come again.

I’ve found a lot of vloggers I like, but the downside (?) is that they’ve inspired me to expand my garden from just veggies to include flowers–most of which I’ve never even heard of, much less grown. And many of them are not grown from seed.

Dahlias

Lavender Perfection

Dahlias seem to be the big flower this year. Floret Flowers, a small family flower farm in the Pacific Northwest, is very influential in the cut-flower industry (the flower version of market farmers). They just put out a new book on dahlias, Discovering Dahlias, which has really amped up the buzz. Dahlias are one of those weird plants that have a huge amount of variability in their DNA, so the only way to guarantee what type and color of flower you’ll get is to divide up a tuber (or take a cutting from a growing tuber). You can grow them from seed–I’ll be doing both this year–but with the seeds, it’s a total toss up what type of dahlia you’ll get. The seed mixes I’m planting are Unwins Mix (Baker Creek); Redskin Mix (Pinetree Seeds); and Dwarf Cactus Mix (RH Shumway’s). They will not be as big nor as luxuriant as the flowers from the tubers, however.

Dahlis are a bit finicky; the are not frost hardy, and so in my zone (5a/b) we have to dig them out each fall and store them overwinter. The bonus of this is that, like most tubers, they multiply when they are planted; you’ll usually end up with more than you started. (Which is awesome, because dahlia tubers are expensive.) Swan Island is the oldest dahlia farm in the US; and Floret Flowers usually grows dahlias ,but took this year off so they could build up their stock again. Both of these farms are pretty expensive, however. The best prices I’ve found on dahlias (non-wholesale) is from Longfield Gardens in New Jersey. However, no matter which company you try, most dahlia tuber varieties are already sold out. The ones I’ve ordered are scheduled to be delivered mid-April.

Here are some of the dahlias I’ll be growing from tubers:

“Dinner plate” dahlias (7″-10″ blooms) Left to right: Fleurel; Lavender Perfection; Noordwijks Glorie; Thomas Edison; Vancouver; and Cafe au Lait. Cafe au Lait is considered one of the most desirable dahlias, and is often used in bridal bouquets.

Other dahlias–“Pom Pon” Dahlias (4″ blooms) Left to right: Black Satin; Cheers; Great Silence.

Ranunculus

Those darn YouTube gardeners have also turned me on to another type of flower I’d never heard of: ranunculus. Ranunculus are grown from corms (kind of like really small tubers) and from what I understand, they are almost as pretty as dahlias but are not nearly as finicky. They like cold weather and can be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Of courser, my orders won’t be delivered until mid-April, as that’s when the flower companies have decided that they should be planted in my zone, but next year I should be able to get them in the ground much sooner. I’ve decided to go much less dramatic with the ranunculus colors as well. Left to right: Picotree Red/Yellow (Longfield Gardens); Tecolote┬« Pastel Mix; and Tecolote┬« Rose (Easy to Grow Bulbs).

Finally, I’ve also ordered my absolute favorite flower, Night-Blooming Jasmine. Night-blooming jasmine is actually not a real jasmine; it’s a jessamine, which is a member of the nightshade family. Technically night-blooming jasmine is not perennial in my area, as they can’t handle frost; but I’ve been told that if I keep them potted and bring them inside to overwinter, they should survive. So that’s my plan. ­čÖé I absolutely *love* the smell of their flowers; regular jasmine just does not compare, and I’ve desperately missed their smell since I moved back to IL.

Ordering Live Plants, part 1–Fruits and Veg

Or, some plants are better not grown from seed.

In planning for this year’s garden, I ended up taking a few shortcuts. While growing veggies and flowers from seed is easily the cheapest way, some veggies and flowers take a very long time to mature and produce food. And I’m not the most patient person.

Veggies:

Asparagus

I had high hopes for having fresh asparagus this year until I found that it takes a good 3-5 years before you can harvest any asparagus that you’ve grown from seed. In lieu of this, many seed companies sell 2-3 year old asparagus “crowns” which is the root of an asparagus plant. I’ve ordered a set of 10 crowns of Jersey Knight Giant asparagus from Gurney’s (many other seed companies were already sold out). Jersey Knight seems to be the favored variety.

Jersey Knight Giant asparagus

Leeks and Onions

Leeks are another crop I had high hopes for. It can be grown from seed–I actually have three packets of different varieties in my seed collection already. However, my experience with growing both leeks and onions seeds last year was really frustrating–all I got was a series of chives, or, at best, green onions. So when I heard that you could order leek and onion “starts”, I jumped on it. (Onion starts are different from onions sets, which are essentially bags of mini onion bulbs which more often than not will bolt early–onions are biennials and the process of being stalled at the small bulb stage makes them think they are on year two and should start putting out flowers instead of growing a bigger bulb.) Several companies, such as Johnny’s Seeds, sell onion and leek starts, but one company specializes specifically in onion and leek sets: Dixondale Farms. I ordered a bunch of leeks (30 or so in each bunch) and a bunch of mixed onions–yellow, red, and white from Dixondale. These will be the first of my live plants to arrive as they are supposed to be shipped out mid-March. I think I’ll put them in the beds next to the garlic, though at this point I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to get into the garden to prep the beds and plant them. Erik may end up doing more gardening that he had planned on this spring.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are another crop that could theoretically be grown from seed but no one does. Instead, companies sell “slips” (sweet potato starts), or you could make your own from old sweet potatoes. Last year I received three different types of sweet potato slips from Baker Creek–Pumpkin Yam, Jersey Yellow, and Molokai purple. Of the three, the Pumpkin Yam grew best and tasted amazing roasted. The Jersey yellow did not grow that big, and also didn’t cure well. The Molokai purple were also very skinny–they cured well, but as they are so thin I haven’t bothered to use them in cooking yet.

As I’m not sure if Baker Creek will even offer sweet potatoes slips this year, I went ahead and ordered a set of Murasaki Purple sweet potatoes from Gurney and a set of 25 slips of Mahon Yams from Johnny’s Seeds. I think I’ll plant them in a large container again this year. One set of slips is set to arrive in late April, and the other set is scheduled to arrive late May. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll do with the April set, yet as sweet potatoes are finicky and only like hot weather and April is not hot in Northern IL.

Mahon Yams

Apple Trees

My first purchase when we moved into the new house were some apple trees. Unfortunately, they were sold out last summer, and even when I went to pre-order trees this winter, many were already sold out! My preference is Fuji apple, but all the companies I could find were out of stock. Instead, I ended up with a HoneyCrisp and a Haralson, both of which cross-pollinate well with Fujis (and each other), from Gilby’s Orchard, a tree company based in MN. These apples are all dwarf varieties, as I live in the middle of the city and full-sized trees would be too large (plus, a pain to manage). I’m not entirely sure where I’ll put them yet, but there is plenty of room as all of the house’s previous trees have been removed due to illness and old age.

Seed Companies and Catalogues

So I’ve bought seeds and live plants this year from a variety of sources. Last year, all of my seeds were from Baker Creek and Botanical Interests (and still I recommend both companies), but this year I’ve found several more companies worth buying from. Let me tell you about them!

Note that, due to Covid, every seed company that I’ve ordered from this year is behind on processing their orders. Some, like Baker Creek and Johnny’s Seeds, actually continue to shut down their website occasionally so no orders can be taken. (Johnny’s stops taking home gardener orders temporarily, and Baker Creek literally takes their entire website offline for a few days at a time.) Others are just taking up to 6 weeks to send out your order. All youtube garden channels I watch are explicitly telling gardeners to buy their seeds now due to the shortages. (Honestly, I didn’t need much convincing.) Currently, I have all of my seeds except for an order I put in at Swallowtail seeds mid-Feb and one I just put in at Barker Creek. I also have reserved a number of flower bulbs, asparagus crowns, sweet potato slips, and apple trees which I purchased a while ago but won’t ship until later this spring.

Favorite Seed Companies

(Note: Most of these seed companies specialize in heirloom, organic seeds. And all of the seeds–indeed, any seed that the home gardener is going to have the opportunity to buy–are all non-GMO. Only commercial farmers have access to GMO seeds.)

I rank seed companies using several factors. Large variety is key, closely followed by the quality of the seed packet, seed prices, and the efficiency of the customer service. I’m still too new to gardening to have much experience with the germination rates of seeds from one company to another, but hopefully by the end of this season I’ll have some good data on that as well.

Baker Creek

Baker Creek is one of the larges heirloom, organic seed companies. They pride themselves on recovering forgotten flower and vegetable varieties from all parts of the world. They also focus on the stories behind the seeds. These stories tend to make up half of their Whole Seed Catalogue, which is, as far as I can tell, the largest seed catalogue in the business. The catalogue gives a lot of good information on each variety–though, in general, both their website, seed packets, and catalogue are missing some of the basic essentials of growing the specific seeds (date to maturation, height/length, some sowing info). Their seed packets are extremely colorful, though, most of them having full-color phots of the variety. Also, every seed order has free shipping, no matter the size, so the price you see is what you pay. They also include a free seed packet with each order. As I tend to buy my seeds in groups of 4-6 at a time, I have a ton of free seeds from them. Currently I have several free packets of Japanese Giant Mustard, Cosmos, and various lettuces which are unlikely to be used, honestly. Though Baker Creek is one of the companies that completely shut down several times this winter, I still recommend them due to sheer variety of plants and the lack of shipping costs. Also, tI’ve found their customer service to be responsive and helpful.

Botanical Interests

Botanical Interests is one of my favorite seed companies primarily due to their prices and their seed packets. Their prices usually range from $1.99-$2.49/pack (though shipping is not free). Their seed packets are absolutely beautiful and the back of the packets contain a ton of growing information for each variety:

I’d estimate that about Ôůô of my seed collection comes from Botanical Interests. Germination rates seem to be fine, as far as I can tell.The amount of seeds per packet does vary widely, so it’s always good to double check how many seeds you’re getting for the price. They have a pretty good selection of seeds, though not all of them are organic or heirloom. Their website is also very useful and has detailed information on sowing, growing, and harvesting each variety.

Two new favorites this year are Pinetree Seeds and Johnny’s Seeds. Pinetree Seeds has great prices on garden supplies–I bought my seed starting mix and some fleece covering for plants from them at very reasonable prices. They have a good variety of heirloom and hybrid seeds and good prices. Their seed packets have a decent amount of information, though not as much as BI’s do. They also sell spices, teas, and candle and lotion-making supplies. They are a small, family-owned business operating out of Maine.

Johnny’s Seeds, on the other hand, is a huge company that researches and produces many of their own seed hybrids. Some of the varieties are just upgraded version of old favorites, and some are completely new varieties. They also sell heirlooms. From what I can tell, this company is one of the main suppliers for Farmer’s Market growers in the US: they sell many of their seeds in bulk and their website focuses on providing the type of larger-scale growing information that farmers need. (They do sell to home gardeners, but their focus appears to be market gardeners.) I didn’t pay much attention to this company until recently, as I’m not a market gardener and their seeds are really pricey if you’re only buying them in small quantities. (For example, 25 seeds of any of their patented Salanova lettuces average $6/pack.) Still, people swear by the germination rate and quality of produce that their seeds deliver, so I decided to splurge and buy a couple of seed packs. I’ve struggled with growing peas last year, so I brought their Sugar Snap pea, which is supposed to be resistant to many pests/diseases. I also picked up a sampler pack of their Salanova Butter lettuces, as market growers on many of the youtube garden channels I follow swear by them, and they appear to be the highly valuable, really expensive types that are sold at Farmer’s markets and high-end produce markets. (I figure why buy it if I can grow it myself?) I’ve started both the peas and lettuces, so I should know in a month or so whether they are worth the money. Finally, their seed packs, though very utilitarian in style, include a good amount of growing information.

Other Seed Companies

The Farmer’s Almanac website has a good list of seed companies here. I’m glad to see that they’ve kept up with the times and are still providing useful gardening information in 2021. Other companies I’ve bought from this year:

R H Shumway An old-timey seed company that was originally started in my hometown. Small seed selection and the seed packs are just OK. (I only brought from them due to the hometown connection.)

Seed Savers Exchange A non-profit dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. They have a pretty good selection and their seed packets are also pretty good. I bought my garlic heads from them this year (Chesnok Red).

Hirt’s Garden Their website shows a huge variety of seeds at relatively good prices. When I received my order, however, I fund that the amount of seeds per pack was less than most other seed companies (for example, 20 seeds instead of 50 or 100 seeds). They also–and this is a big red flag for me–package their seeds in really tiny clear plastic bags which contain very little in the way of information. It was a big let down, especially given the way they present themselves on their website. (RH Shumway’s is clearly a much smaller company, but at least their seed packets are decent.) Currently, I would not recommend this company to new gardeners.

MI Gardener I followed this guy’s YouTube channel for at least 6 months before I realized he also owned a seed store. His prices used to be the best in the business–$.99/pack, regardless of variety–but as of this winter he has updated his prices to $1.99/pack. Still pretty inexpensive for many varieties, but I’m a bit sad I missed the $.99 prices. I’ve purchased a few packets of flowers and veggies from him, as well as some garlic cloves (Duganski). He’s based in Michigan, so we have similar growing conditions. I enjoy his videos for the most part, though he can come off a bit pompous and condescending in some of them (from what I can tell, completely unintentionally).

Tradewinds Fruit This company focuses on rare heirloom seeds, and is one of the few seed companies I’ve found where you can buy seeds for, for example, Jojoba nut and Baobab trees. I bought Japanese Maple and am stratifying the seeds right now, on the off change that I can actually grow one from seed.

Swallowtail Seeds I don’t know much about this company other than that they have many varieties of Echinacea. They seem to have a wide selection of other flower varieties as well.

Sustainable Seed Company This is another one I don’t know much about. However, their “Bugout Seed Bag”–aimed at preppers and survivalists–though is absolutely amazing. It contains 34 varieties of heirloom seeds for about $36/bag. and includes a good-sized, illustrated booklet showing how to grow each variety. I bought one after I watched a youtube’s review of “prepper” seed bags, and I was really impressed. Also, unlike many “prepper” seed bags, this kit includes full-sized seed packs for each variety in a resealable mylar bag.

High Mowing Organic Seeds This company purports to only sell organic seeds. This is another company that I’ve only bought a few seeds from. The cucumber variety I bought from them last year didn’t work out so well, but this is one of the only purveyors of the “Silver Slicer” cucumber than many youtube gardeners have raved about, so I bought a few more seed packs from them this year. We’ll see how they do.

I’ve also bought from larger seed companies like Ferry-Morse and Burpee, but my goal is to buy primarily heirloom organic seeds from smaller, independent seed companies.

My Seedling Set-up (upstairs)

This years seedlings are sprouting! Here’s my greenhouse set up in our living room. (I also have a greenhouse area in the basement, but, due to recent knee surgery, I can’t get down there enough to baby new plants.)

Currently, my Dahlia seeds are up and going, as are a several others:

Seed Starting 2021–First Batch

So I did my first real batch of seedling planting this past weekend! (Technically, I had started a batch of leeks and decorative peppers in the basement before we realized my knee surgery would keep me upstairs for six weeks; they did not far well.) But my first really big batch of seeds went into the dirt this weekend.

I based my seed starting chart on a variety of other calendars. I tried to use to Moon Dates from the Farmer’s Almanac chart for my zone (5b) along with the sow dates on the various seed packages. It was a huge headache to put the calendar together, especially as this is the first time I’m starting the vast majority of these plants from seed. I’m hoping next year it will be easier; at that point I’ll hopefully have some experience to draw from.

The planting medium I’m using for this first set of seeds is Black Gold’s seed starting mix. You can get a great price on an 8qt bag at Pinetree Seeds. Don’t buy it from Amazon–I haven’t seen any seller selling these exact same bags for less than twice as much on Amazon.

My first round of planting included mostly flowers, with a few herbs that I intend to keep indoors.

Flowers: Autumn Colors Rudbeckia; Dwarf Cactus Dahlia and Redskin Mix Dahlia; Lobelia (Crystal Palace); Sugar Stars Phlox; Rainbow Loveliness (dianthus); Pink Carnations (also a dianthus); Arena Red Lisianthus; Peach Melba Nasturtium and Single Blend Trailing Nasturtium.

Autumn Colors Rudbeckia

Herbs/Veggies: Listada de Gandia Eggplant; Lettuce Leaf Basil; Holy Basil; Pennyroyal; Mild Microgreens Mix; and Bull’s Blood Microgreens.

Listada de Gandia Eggplant

The Rudbeckia (black-eyed susans) I know for a fact grows very well in my climate–the garden I inherited already has several bunches of the Indian Summer rudbeckias that have survived many a cold, frozen IL winter. I’m not a fan of that color, however, so I’m trying to grow the “Autumn Colors” instead. They should turn out to be a lovely mix of oranges and russet colors. And I have grown Nasturtiums from seed, and in my experience they take forever to get big. But once they are full-sized, they put out and endless supply of tasty, peppery flowers. I’ve never grown these varieties of Nasturtium, though; last year, I grew the Alaska Dwarf Mix–they have lovely variegated leaves, but true to its name, the plant stays very small).

Every other type of flower I’ll be growing this year is new to me. I’ve seen carnations, obviously, but I’ve never grown one from seed. And I’d never heard of any of the other varieties until I started browsing seed catalogues and Gardening channels on YouTube. I’ve seen enough videos to know that growing Lisianthus is a massive pain in the ass–they take forever to germinate/grow, and they are very sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations—but people also say that despite this, they are worth it, so I figured I’d give at least one a try this year.

This is my first year using any kind of heat mat/humidity dome/LED light set up. I had to jerry rig a temporary greenhouse in my living room as I can’t get into the basement, but it appears to be working well! My dahlia seeds popped up in two days (!) and my beet/mixed microgreens mix was not far behind. Currently my rubeckia (black-eyed susans) are also showing their little green heads, as is my lettuce leaf basil (which will be kept indoors). Even one of my carnation seeds has popped up! Apparently this heating pad/humidity dome thing really works.

I’m actually a tad worried about the dahlias as they were not supposed to pop up for at least a week or two. They may need to be potted up before I’m able to put them out, as they’re huge and also frost-tender, iirc (the bulbs are, at least, so the flowers from seed are likely frost-tender as well.) So it may get a bit crowded in the house by mid-April. But still! Seeds are growing! There may still be a foot of snow on the ground in some places, but my garden is finally started.

Seeds and Varieties I Recommend

So, this past year’s garden was full of successes and failures. As my first year gardening in this space, I pretty much threw everything I had at the wall and watched to see what stuck. I was surprised at which varieties I liked and which ones I didn’t. Without further ado, here are my favorites and failures of the Garden 2020:

Successes:

Trionfo Violetta (pole bean) This one was the only bean I grew (the only one I’ve ever grow, I believe). I was trying for something unique to add to my garden, and a purple bean fit the bill. First off, the foliage on these beans is amazing–dark purple heart-shaped leaves that turn to sage green as they age. Second, they are very tasty! I picked most of my crop while the beans were young and crisp, and it was pretty much like eating a snap pea. The plants germinated well, were very prolific, and were very easy to grow–I barely had to do anything to them. Highly recommended, especially for new gardeners.

Trionfo Violetta

Musquee de Provence Pumpkin This lovely curcurbita has gorgeous, lush foliage and looks like the perfect fairytale pumpkin. The pumpkin flesh is thick, with notes of cantaloupe. Better for sweet preparations than savory ones, imho. It can even be sliced thin and eaten raw. And they were really easy to grow! Highly recommended, if you have the room. The vines from the two plants I grew grow 20′, growing through and wrapping around my back fence. Also, I found that, even if the roots aren’t watered (we had a very hot, dry summer this past year, and some days I forgot to water), the vine puts out enough roots on its own that it gets all the water it needs anyway. Really low-maintenance.

My final favorite of 2020 were my lettuces. I grew a variety of types: Marvel of Four Seasons; mesclun mix; New Red Fire; and Winter Density. I liked all but the mesclun mix; I found I really detest bitter greens. The other three grew well, even in the heat of summer, and as long as I ate them in a reasonable time, they were fresh and sweet. (Note: the older lettuce gets, the more bitter it gets.)