Greener Homes and Gardens: Spring Advice

Springtime is here and for many of us that means garden time. Like the honeybee flitting from flower to flower my mind flitters from task to task. I offer you a sampling of ideas to consider incorporating into your garden practice.

Flowers In The Garden And On Your Plate

Consider planting an edible flower garden. Even if your gardening forays only extend to flowers you can produce a portion of your food. There are many flowers that can be easily incorporated into your gardening and dining plans. Be sure that the blossoms you eat are from plants grown organically.

The lovely nasturtium and Johnny-jump-up are staples in many gardens and two of my favorites. These beauties add wonderful color to your garden bed and palate. Whether a novice or an old pro, nasturtiums are an easy plant to start from seed. Nasturtiums range from dwarf varieties that grow about one foot tall to a large climbing nasturtium that can grow up to ten feet tall. Around the time that you expect your last frost, plant seeds one half inch deep in average soil. Provide good drainage. In hot climates provide afternoon shade. Keep the seedbed moist. Nasturtiums actually produce more flowers in poorer quality soil than they do in rich. The flower, leaf and seedpod of the nasturtium can be added to your salads. The leaves offer a slightly peppery flavor and the blossoms can be shredded or served whole. Johnny-jump-ups added to a salad are guaranteed to bring a smile to your dining companion’s face. They have a slightly sweet flavor.

Daylilies offer a variety of flavors ranging from sweet to slightly metallic. I recommend you sample before using. Remove the stamen and pistils and you can stuff the flower with any variety of soft cheeses and even sauté slightly. Consider allowing some of your broccoli to go to flower. In my garden it often happens because I don’t pick it in time! You can use the flower heads as you would the florets in cooked dishes, sprinkle them whole over salads or combine with other flowers to offer a medley of color to an otherwise plain salad.

I particularly love the scent of lilac in the spring and appreciate the flowers’ many uses. Be sure to sample as not all are created equal. Prune or pick spent flowers to keep the shrub flowering as long as possible. Separate the individual florets and add them to soft cheeses and yogurt. Use as a garnish on sweet dishes such as cakes, cookies, and muffins.

The flowers of many plants and herbs can be made into variety of hot and cold teas. The red varieties of bee balm have a spicy, minty flavor. Chamomile makes a sweet, gently flavored tea that offers a variety of health benefits as an aid to digestion, an anti-inflammatory and a calming agent. More information can be found in Rosalind Creasy’s books The Edible Flower Garden and Edible Landscaping. The Internet also offers a wide range of information and recipes.

Go Native

As you plan your garden take into account native alternatives to plants that are considered invasive. Most plants, native or non-native, limit their growth to where they are planted. An invasive plant, as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is “a species non-native to the eco-system under consideration, and whose introduction, whether accidental or intentional, causes or is likely to cause harm to the environment, economy or human health.” Some of the characteristics of these plants are that they grow rapidly, spread quickly, flower and set seed over a long period of time, have no known diseases or insects to provide control, and they thrive in many habitats. This makes them desirable for landscape planting. Many of our beautiful ornamentals and the majority of our fruits and vegetables are not native to the U.S., yet they are not invasive.

However there are plants species that become invasive, crowding out the natural flora and fauna. A drive down the highways of the Northeast includes a show of the beautiful purple loosestrife. The purple flowers are attractive but this is a plant that has escaped from the garden. Alternatives to consider include bee balm, with blooms in scarlet red, pink lavender and white. Bee balm will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Joe-pye weed offers purple flowers from August through September. It will tolerate full sun to partial shade and attracts butterflies. The purple coneflower is another purple beauty for zones 3-8. The purple coneflower is drought tolerant and enjoys full sun to partial shade.

Burning bush is locally an invasive plant. It has bright red fall foliage and its red branches provide color in the winter months. The high bush blueberry is a suitable replacement in the northeast. Delicate white flowers in May to early June and of course blueberries over the summer provide food for you and the wildlife. The leaves go yellow, bronze orange or red in the fall. The winter branches are also red providing interest in the winter months. Red chokeberry has white flowers in May and red-purple fall color. Chokeberry is suitable for mass plantings and berries provide winter interest. The American cranberry bush, summersweet and bayberry are all recommended as suitable replacements for burning bush.

Other native shrubs worthy of consideration include arrowwood, buttonbush, mountain laurel, rhododendron, shadbush (also called Juneberry), spicebush and witch hazel. Consider native plants as they will provide the habitat needed by our native wildlife.

Let’s Talk Dirt

All these wonderful plants are going to need nutrients. A home composting pile can serve your needs. All homeowners generate excess organic matter: kitchen scraps, leaf piles and debris from pruning and trimming. I save my vegetable peels in the freezer until I get a good amount on hand. Then I throw them into the crockpot overnight to make a stock that can be used as a base for soups, cooking rice or added flavor to breads and muffins. Then they go to either the compost bin or my indoor vermicomposting (worm bin) container.

The convenience of in-house vermicomposting in the winter months cannot be overstated. No dirt is needed and you can purchase a commercial worm bin or make your own. To make your own bin, you need a large plastic container — between 20 and 35 gallon will suffice. Drill holes all around the periphery starting about six inches from the bottom. I drill holes in the lid also. Tear newspaper into strips and fill the container. Add water to give the paper the consistency of a damp sponge.

Next you will need to find red wiggler worms. They can be purchased commercially or obtained from a friend with a compost pile. Add your vegetable food scraps; keep moist and covered with a layer of dry whole newspaper to act as a carbon filter. The worms will multiply quickly but you want to keep a higher portion of newspaper to food scraps. If any unpleasant odors develop add more dry newspaper or cardboard and refrain from adding food scraps for a time. Those little worms work hard to transform your waste material into nutrient rich soil that you can use to nurture your house plants.

Outdoors you can use a commercial compost bin, or make one yourself from chicken wire or even wood pallets. Even without a bin, you can compost by simply making a pile on the ground. It is recommended that you do not include meat scraps, oil or dairy products in your compost heap because meat goes through unpleasant stages s it breaks down and will attract animals to the bin. When I started composting I didn’t know about the prohibition on dairy products and have always included them without any problems. A 30 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen is ideal. Carbon includes leaves and “brown” items such as hay, straw and wood shavings. Nitrogen is your food scraps, plant trimmings and could include grass clippings. (Grass clippings can also be left to mulch in place on your lawn, however. Please refer to my column in the May/June 2005 issue of Spirit of Change, “Organic Lawn Care Basics.”)

A rough rule of thumb is to mix roughly half green and half brown. However, even with out optimal conditions, given time the material will eventually compost. I fill my compost bin with leaves and then tuck food scraps under them. It is much easier to “harvest” the finished product for use in the garden if there is a floor to your compost bin. It is best if the pile isn’t in direct sunlight, as it will dry out quickly. The red wigglers love moisture so whenever it rains I run out and take the cover off the bin.

To turn or not to turn? That is the compost question. Composting material generates great heat as it breaks down. Each time you turn the pile, it will heat up again, speeding up the process. Spring is a busy time of year and if you don’t have time to turn the compost pile don’t fret. Nature will take its course. The finished material from your compost bin can be used in a variety of ways to support the health of your plants. It provides a nutrient rich material for starting seeds. I place finished compost in the hole when I am planting seeds or transplanting seedlings. I also use it throughout the growing season on both my perennials and annuals as a replacement for chemical fertilizers.

Permaculture, a term derived from “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture”, is a system of environmental management that mimics how nature works, creating sustainable environments. Permaculture advocates the use of sheet mulching or composting in place to create garden beds. By employing sheet mulching techniques you are duplicating the way nature builds soil from the top down. Sheet mulching eliminates weeds, builds soil and avoids tilling. With sheet mulching the first step is to apply a layer of weed-suppressing newspaper, cardboard or even cloth (no synthetic fabrics) or wool carpet, then top it off with a foot of organic mulch. Soil amendments can be added prior to laying the newspaper or cardboard. If you planned ahead you did this process in the fall and your garden bed is now ready for planting. If not you can still create and use a sheet mulch bed this season. Just plant your seeds or transplants in the mulch. An accessible guide to permaculture is Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. The information is scaled to the backyard gardener and provides a wonderful framework to setting up an ecologically sound environment.

Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist, student of herbalism and teaches self-empowerment tools. Mary can be reached at farrpmar@hotmail.com.