Garden seed planning: autumn edition

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This is the level-headed time of year when I’m tired of garden work and the new seed catalogues haven’t yet arrived. This is the time of year when I am most capable of making sane, realistic plans for next year’s gardening.

Annual flowers: on this topic I have some experience and some advice. There are a few things that I will try to grow for sure because they’re so spectacular.

At the top of that list is ammi “Dara”, a cultivated Queen Anne’s Lace that blooms in shades of pink and purple. It is *sharp* looking, and I have gotten seeds from both Johnny’s and Plant World Seeds. Ammi is an annual in the sense that plants will flower for one season then die. The plants can, however, survive the winter if they haven’t flowered, and over the fall/winter/spring they build big strong root systems that make big strong plants. So I have started seedlings that I am planting out into the raised beds, where they will grow their taproots and stay, for cutting next summer. (fingers crossed)

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A bouquet of ammi “Dara” from last year

Another must-have cutting flower is Scabiosa “Black Knight.” Like ammi these plants will overwinter and get much bigger if they don’t flower their first year. Unfortunately my seed-starting efforts have come a cropper, so I’ll have to settle for small plants next year. I order my seed from Johnny’s, and after two years of only Black Knight (and one oddball white plant), I am branching out into their other shades next year.

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I always hear Hermione Granger saying “it’s sca-bi-O-sa, not sca-bi-o-SA”

Three more that were first-time from-seed flowers for me this year, but that performed beautifully, were dianthus Chabaud Benigna and china aster Tower Chamois, both from Johnny’s, and bachelor’s buttons Classic Magic mix from Swallowtail Garden Seeds. All three were easy and spectacular, and I’ll be trying a repeat performance next summer.

Now. Veg. The “serious” stuff. I am terrible about discipline in the vegetable garden. Up to this point I have mostly chosen seeds for novelty quality, and I end up growing tiny amounts of lots of different things. Next year, as usual, I am determined to mend my ways by growing only one variety apiece of only things I know we’ll actually eat. The list right now is:

Garlic: Early Italian Purple from Kitchen Garden Seeds. I’ve never grown garlic. I will plant it in a raised bed this autumn and harvest it, Og willing, roundabout July.

Shallots: French Red Shallots from Kitchen Garden Seeds. Also a first.

Radishes: either Easter Egg or Early Scarlet Globe, whichever I can buy off the shelf next spring. Both these varieties are fast and tasty, in the long cool PNW spring I can get many rounds of them in.

Beets: a color mixture for impressive salads to eat with salmon, salad, and dill blossoms. I have Jung’s Un-Beet-Able mixture seed left over and will use that.

Lettuce: something, please Og, I just want free salad. Last year I tried several varieties of seed and only had luck with Jung’s Multileaf Lettuce Blend, though I didn’t grow nearly enough. This lettuce was head-forming for me rather than cut-and-come again, the way something with a name like “French salad mix” would be. I’ll have to think about it. Cut-and-come again really is the best way to do lettuce.

Chard: this is another thing I have to make happen. We much prefer chard to spinach, kale, or collards. It is a brassica that can stand the mild winters around here, so I have seedlings planted out into the raised beds. I have both Bright Lights Mix and Ruby seed from Jung’s, and am having much better germination from the Ruby, so that’s what’s mostly out there. I will start more in the spring. This crop is cut-and-come-again.

Snow peas: I’ve grown Little Purple Snow Peas from Jung’s for two years. Experience tells me that they won’t take off unless they have something wonderful to climb. Old-fashioned pea sticks–a dead branch with lots of little branches stuck in the ground–worked better than bamboo canes.

Beans: last year I grew Rattlesnake climber beans and a three-color bush bean blend from Jung’s. The Rattlesnake beans were far superior. This year I grew Rattlesnake again alongside Blue Lake pole, which is a favorite variety. The Rattlesnake beans were far superior again. Next year I am only growing those, and I am growing a lot of them.

Tomatoes: ONE VARIETY ONLY. I am buying one packet and starting all the seed in it and that’s that. Because we have somewhat cool summers here, big beefsteaks and long-ripening varieties are no good. Whatever I grow needs to be under 80 days for sure, preferably under 70. For this reason, my single packet of tomato seed will probably be Sweet Tangerine, which comes from Burpee. It’s a yellow tomato so my sauce will be yellow (hmm), but it’s rated at 68 days and its flavor is really good. We used to grow this one in the Midwest, too.

Potatoes: I’ve grown them the last two years and they have been a triumph both times. So easy. So satisfying to dig up a bunch of potatoes. And the flavor really is superb–much superior to store bought. This year I bought a bag of yellow, red, and blue seed potatoes, and we loved the blue ones so much that I’m going to try for only blue next year.

Zucchini: we love this and eat lots of it. I’ll get a long green variety instead of a novelty one. I grew Pool Ball from Jung’s one year and they were fun, but fiddlier to prepare.

Squash: I’ll grow Sugar Dumpling just because I love its colors so much

Cabbage and broccoli: I am through trying to grow either of these. This year in the garden my Red Fire broccoli didn’t start to flower until…well, now, and the Dead On cabbage was gorgeous, but they’re both being consumed by aphids. I give up. No more cabbage or broccoli.


My cabbage is full of insect eggs, dammit.

Pumpkins: here we come to my weakness. Every year since we moved here I’ve planted a few pumpkin seeds in the least desirable corner of the garden and watched them suffer. Next year, I declare it now, I will give them good space and I will grow myself some beautiful punkins, because I’m susceptible like that. White ones. Blue ones. Pink ones. I don’t care if they’re good to eat. I just want pretty punkins.

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Dill Pickles, my way

It’s come down to the time of year when the tomatoes in my garden need to be put up or shut up. In the Midwest, which had screaming-hot summers, our tomatoes would often fully ripen and be finished by sometime in September. Now that we’re in the mild PNW, we don’t get any ripe tomatoes until September and always, always have lots still on the vine when the October rains begin and everything grows mold and dies.

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So: I have a lot of green tomatoes to do what I will with, and that’s good, because green tomatoes are my very favorite vegetable for brine pickling. I like to eat them with fatty fish dishes: with roasted salmon or trout and sour cream, or with spicy fried catfish, hush puppies, and cole slaw. You can pickle other vegetables besides tomatoes too, of course. Cucumbers are the classic, but okra and green beans also make good dill pickle.

My recipe is simple: for each pint jar (and note that the pictures in this post are of half-pints, so I halved this part), put 2t dill seed, 2 peeled cloves garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes into the bottom of the jar before you pack in the tomatoes. (If you grow your own dill, you can use whole dried heads of dill flowers, and pack them artistically in the jar).

The proportions for the brine are 1c water: 1c vinegar: 1.5T pickling salt or 2T coarse kosher salt (its bigger grains don’t pack as tightly in the measuring spoon, so you use more).

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Once you’ve packed your jars and topped them off with brine, you can just stick them in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, then eat them at will. Or, if you hate having forgotten jars of pickles in the back of your fridge the way I do, you can can them with a water-bath process.

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Water-bath canning is easy but does need to be done correctly. Read through the USDA home canning guide before you start. On top of its instructions, my top tips are:

1. Slice the tomatoes before packing them so the brine gets into them really well. Big tomatoes get cut into wedges while little tomatoes like mine get halved.

2. Pack them in really tight. The water bath process cooks the tomatoes, which makes them shrink. If they weren’t in there tight to begin with, you’ll end up with a lot of empty space in your jar, which will make you sad.

3. Boil your brine before you put it in the jars. This helps them get up to temperature for processing more quickly (and also ensures the salt is dissolved).

4. The post-processing step of washing your jars and rings THOROUGHLY is extra-important for pickles because any stray acid will corrode the lids and rings. So keep it clean, people.

5. Remember to label your pickles!

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Autumn Garden

What? Am I still here? The way my blogging habits have been going I can’t promise I’ll stay, but I’m here right now so be it.

Autumn is coming into the garden. It was a huge year: my second with Gardener’s World (we’re watching it via BritBox these days) and all the grand ambitions it brings on. I now I have two perennial borders (40′ by 7′ apiece), four raised beds, a veg patch, a large terraced area by the driveway, and a shade garden…which I had to tear apart this summer because we’re due (some day…when we’re old and gray) to have a septic pipe trenched through it so hus-tree can have water in the workshop.

I planted the first perennial border last summer, so I got to see it come up this spring. It was glorious but also needed a lot of working and moving-around, which I did in the heat of the summer, which was a stupid thing to do. My plants are mostly crispy but somehow also mostly alive.

The veg patch has been a little more successful.

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It doesn’t look tidy. Veg patches in real life just don’t.

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This is Dead On, a red savoy cabbage that I grew purely for beauty. This is the largest of six heads I have growing, and I’ll pick it soon–and take pictures. Savoys are always so gorgeous on the inside, and I can’t wait to see a red one.

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The tomatoes were a mishmash of experiments and desperation: three cherry tomato plants grown from seed I saved from a punnet of Trader Joe’s heirloom cherry tomatoes. I’m happy to report that they all grew true, so TJ isn’t pulling your leg about the heirloom part.

I also bought three mismatched tomato plants in a moment of desperation when I thought my seedlings weren’t going to pull through. Note for future years: the tomato seedlings always pull through. They’re just waiting for it to get warm.

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I’m growing tiny pumpkins this year for decorations, some orange…

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…and some white. The nice part about miniature pumpkins is that they’re prolific. And oh, these white pumpkins, they look so good with everything.

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Good with the broccoli (variety Red Fire, which didn’t flower in the spring–only just starting now after taking up half the garden all summer)

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Good with dahlia “Edinburgh.”

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Mabon is pretty much over now, but my hall table is still into it.

Garden report, 10 March

Hello hello. The snow and frost are gone and we’re back to our normal springtime weather, which is to say, it rains a lot less and sometimes the sun comes out, but it still isn’t very warm, though this weekend might creep into the 60s. OooOOOooh.

I have the greenhouse going and all’s well there, though. Lots of bareroot hostas, peonies, bleeding heart, and tricyrtis are potted up and sprouting in big pots, and I have several seed flats doing their things. I have tomato seeds sprouting on a heat mat indoors, and wow, are they ever gratifying. So vigorous compared to the perennial seeds out in the greenhouse.

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I saved seeds from a punnet of Trader Joe’s “heirloom” cherry tomatoes. They came in four colors, red, orange, yellow, and chocolate, and I wanted to see if they’d 1. grow and 2. come true to their parents. So far they’ve done item 1 in abundance, with a germination rate of over 75%. If they really are heirlooms then the fruit will be like their parents and I’ll be in clover as far as tomato seed is concerned.

As far as actual blooming plants, those are still pretty thin on the ground. Hellebores and snowdrops are the main show.

The last two years, I bought half-price clearance hellebores from an online retailer I’d been used to ordering from. Their plants are quite small though, and don’t hold up well to the fungi and viruses that are so rampant around here. I haven’t lost any, but some are puny even after having a year to get their roots down. So this year I sprang for two full-price, big, healthy new hellebores from a nearby nursery. This is a better way to do it. They’ll bloom–a lot–next year, and resist disease.

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The camellias are also blooming, which is the latest we’ve ever seen them do it. I think this is because I pruned them too late last summer and took off many of the developing buds, but they’re probably due for a solid dose of compost and some special feeding this year, too.

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I planted a lot of fritillary bulbs last fall, but this spring I couldn’t resist buying some pots of them already in the green. Those are beginning to bloom for me now, and they make me want to grow nothing but fritillaries, everywhere, all the time.

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Besides seed starting and bud-watching, gardening at this time of year is about cleaning up. The new shade garden–I call it the Secret Garden–is under a line of black pines that drop needles and sticks in the winter windstorms, so before everything begins to grow I’m raking out the big chunks, leaving the rest to rot into ericaceous compost, which is what the plants in that area like. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s necessary. Also on the docket: use sharp sand and a push broom to scrub moss off the hard surfaces; spread nutritious compost in beds that want it; and for pity’s sake, keep a record of where the spring bulbs are planted, so I know where to plant MORE in the fall.

That’s it for the garden round-up. I am writing more books, baking bread, KonMari-ing the house, and cooking up more knitting patterns, too. Look for a new sock pattern release as soon as I can finish knitting the model. I really love this one!

The garden begins

Okay, here we go. We’ve just had a horribly cold, snowy week but the weather was nice before and after it, and we’re eight weeks out from the average last frost of the year, so I’ve put a new cover on my little greenhouse and sown the first round of seeds.

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My kid was…holy cats…SO happy. She danced and sang and wrote out the markers for me, carried pots here and there, even poked her fingers in the dirt, which was unimaginable last year. She wanted to “garden all day,” and ate her lunch in the greenhouse. Life felt very, very good.

I’ve started the flower seeds marked as to-be-sown 6-8 weeks ahead of the last frost, including three varieties of foxglove, lavender, cerastium, rockcress, bergenia, dianthus, sweet peas, and I don’t know what all else. I also tried the marigold seeds I saved from last year and, because I’ve never grown them and don’t know what I’m doing, sowed all the annual artichoke seeds. It will be a learning experience.

Then we potted up all the cheap bagged hosta roots I’ve bought. Fourteen so far. Is that enough to be going on with…? Today is looking like another nice day. We will pot up the peonies.

I’m older and wiser this year, in my gardening and in my writing. I feel like I’ve completely given up on clinging to first efforts, or the idea that anything lost is a failure. I have sown seeds here that I hope will grow into plants I won’t use, because a good garden is as much about what you don’t put in as what you do. Ditto books. I am ready to rip out a whole sub-plot. A little nonplussed that no one who read the MS told me to. We’re still in the early stages with it, but it’s moving ahead faster than I thought.

Which I hope the garden will, too. Everyone said that last spring was the coldest and wettest on record. Gardeners were livid. Stuff that needed warm soil couldn’t be put out until June. Here’s to a better, happier year.

Leyline Socks

Hello everyone! I’ve uploaded a new sock pattern to Ravelry (they really make it so easy).

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First coined by archaeologist Alfred Watkins in 1921, the term “leyline” refers to alignments of landforms and ancient manmade structures in the landscape. They likely came about as a line-of-sight navigation system in the prehistoric world, but some think they might have had spiritual significance, too.

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Leyline Socks are knit toe-up with a Turkish cast-on and short row heels. The easily memorizable chart ensures that you won’t need a line of sight to the instructions after you get going, leaving plenty of brainpower to ponder your own spiritual significance.

Parritch Socks

Parritch Socks designed by me

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I’m completely sold on knitting socks with solid-colored yarns, these days. I had fifteen years’ worth of fun with stripes and hand-dyes, and now I’m enjoying the serenity and control of working with single colors.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like to mix them up. Contrast-color toes, heels, and cuffs are so cute, especially when done in white or cream.

For these socks I used Hawthorne Bare from Knitpicks for the contrast tips and Regia 4-ply #2143 for the main body of the sock. This gray is a special gray–a little creamy, a little warm, just the color of oatmeal. The first row you knit after doing the cream-white toes is almost indistinguishable. Only when you get an inch or two into it does the contrast become apparent.

I have published this pattern on Ravelry, which is a first for me. It’s available here. If you try it and have any problems please let me know…and also send me photos of your finished projects.

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Winter projects

January is usually one of my favorite months. I love Christmas, but it’s a relief to have it over and the decorations packed away–to eat simple food again and look forward to the year ahead with all that holiday pressure off.

I knitted these nubbly-chevron socks out of KnitPicks Hawthorne Bare, which I may or may not have blogged about. I bought a bale of twenty skeins of it in late 2016. It’s a nice yarn to knit with, texturally similar to Koigu KPM.

And these broken seed stitch socks were knitted from Knitpicks Hawthorne Speckle in a colorway I don’t remember–one with primary colors–and Cascade Heritage Sock in red. That’s another lovely sock yarn.

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Here’s the new sock. Hawthorne Bare toe, then on to Regia 4-ply in embossed stitch for the foot. Historically I haven’t liked to knit with Regia sock yarns; they have a crackly, kinky feel that put me off. I recently discovered that they come in a rainbow of neutral heathers, though, and this one (romantically named 2143) is my favorite. Warm, creamy gray.

I’ve also been turning leftover Christmas clementines into pomanders. Don’t ask me why; I’m not entirely sure myself. As my collection of them has grown, so has their orangey, spicey scent, and I’ve begun to hope the whole thing hasn’t been a total waste. I got the curing mixture recipe from The Scented Room by Barbara Milo Ohrbach. It’s also inspired me to grow some sweet herbs for potpourri making, this summer.

Doesn’t that throw you right back? Potpourri? Dried-flower wreaths? Making sachets with your mom in 1984, out of leftover dark-green calico from your mother-daughter Christmas dresses?

No? Just me, I guess.

Since the pomanders gave me a taste for long-haul kitchen projects, I started the Deep-Sea Purple Kraut from Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen by Brittany Wood Nickerson. This book held me in thrall all through the holidays, when I was too busy cooking family recipes to make anything from it, but no more. I procured some dulse, and the kraut is now quietly fermenting (and running over…) in a corner of the pantry.

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Garden time is sneaking up on us. Here in the Puget Sound area there’s no hard freeze, so perennial beds need weeding all winter. I’m working on cutting back perennials and shoveling out the previous owners’ muck-mound into the rest of my veg patch. I’ve also sowed some columbine seeds–Barlow mix–to eventually plant out in the Secret Garden. If they grow. I’m doing it now because they need stratification. They’re resting in cell packs beside the barn, soaking up the chilly rain.

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One more winter project, though it’s more of a yearning. I have this collection of tiny glass bottles. All shapes, some amber and some clear. What the hell do I do with them? A teeny apothecary seems called for; one for my Sylvanian Families mice to maintain. There are a lot of sensible things to occupy me, though, so for now I only get the bottles out to admire them.

Hope you’re having a quiet winter, too, and yearning for spring.

The snow and the dark

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My spirituality is a slowly evolving thing. I grew up in a culturally-Christian but not-a-church-member No Man’s Land, and after spending a little energy as a teenager investigating whether I really wanted religion (I didn’t), gave up spirituality altogether. Life in one’s twenties is hard enough without these questions.

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In the early days with my husband, maybe on our first date but certainly within the first month, he told me about a Green Man in the woods near his house. He showed me it, and it was a good one: visible from exactly one spot, at exactly one angle, created by the juxtaposition of about three trees. It was undeniably a face. There were a lot of oaks in that wood; he called us Druids.

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Now that we’re farther north (above the 47th parallel), the Solstices seem important. Summer days become so impossibly long, winter days so impossibly short. Loving the Wheel of the Year seems, to me, as natural and universal as it comes. I’ve put one on the wall in our kitchen–a nice one with eight hooks so you can turn it around as the seasons pass, with the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days at the top as they come and go. We go to the Julefest in a nearby Scandinavian-heritage town, where men in Viking helmets and fake furs row a longboat to shore, recite the litany of time, and light a bonfire to celebrate the returning light. This year, too, we went on a Solstice walk in a nearby woodland: two hundred people carrying lanterns, walking single-file through the forest at night. It was. . .very dark. I’m glad I did it. I don’t know if I’ll do it again.

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And Christmas. I love it with all the standard American trimmings: a lighted tree, decorated with glittery ornaments and little forest animals. Cards to people far away. Extra-special baked goods. Special music. The Christian aspect is lost on me, but I do see that after the Winter Solstice we hold our breaths for three or four days, to observe that the light really is coming back, that that at least we can depend upon–and then we celebrate.

So that’s what it is to me. Happy post-Solstice, everyone. Here comes the sun.

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