Friday, April 29, 2011

The Chive Hedge

Chives (Alium schoenoprasum) are miniature onions. They are clump-forming perennials requiring very little care. In fact they are so easy-going that it only makes sense to have at least one clump of them. One clump isn't enough for us so we made a whole row of them along a stone walkway. Chives are a perfect border plant whether in a veggie or a flower garden. Growing only about a foot tall they are pretty along with violas or upland cress (both of which freely seed themselves alongside ours).

Chives in spring

They will supply you through an entire growing season. Chives start growing first thing in spring and keep going until a hard frost does them in. Toward the end of April they are the size you see in the photo. These are just a few inches tall- you can use the spiky leaves at any height. 
When they go to seed they put out pretty globe-shaped purple flowers. We pluck the flowers and put them on our salads. The stalks of the seedheads are a little tough (although they are edible), so we add them to the compost pile.
When the plants have come into full flower I take a scissors to them and give half the hedge a crewcut, cutting them close to the ground. Fear not, they will grow back very quickly, and without the seed heads. When the ones with the haircut are tall enough to use I take my scissors to the other half of the hedge. This way there are always some to pick.
If you want to increase your patch or grow them elsewhere, either divide the clump or leave the flowers on so they go to seed. The seeds start up easily and are easy to transplant. To divide a clump, push a shovel down into it, digging out the section you want to move. 
The chive hedge later in the season

A side dressing of compost or manure once a season will keep them happy. This also acts as a mulch and you won’t need to water them unless in case of a drought.   
We chop chives into short pieces about 1/4” long, and use them in many cold and cooked dishes. They are a great addition to green salads, and to potato, tuna, and other cold salads. We use them in soups, stews, and other cooked dishes. And they make a nice garnish on a sour cream-topped baked potato. I find that cookbooks are too sparing of them with recipes often calling for as little as two tablespoons. Nah! For us, no less than a fat handful will do. -jmm 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Be Careful What You Order

Like us, you may be on mailing lists if you buy seeds and other gardening stuff through the mail. And you may also be getting catalogs advertising $25 in free merchandise on the front cover. A quick read of the fine print reveals that one must buy $25 worth to get the free $25. This seems hardly unreasonable, at least at first glance.

I usually enjoy paging through these to look at the pictures before depositing them into the recycling bin. Recently I paged through one of these catalogs and was surprised by a "flower" called "Virginian Silk" with the subtitle: "Silky seedpods resemble parrots!" The photo showed four fat, green seedpods hanging from the edge of a glass of water as if they were drinking from it. Well, this piqued my curiosity so I leaned forward for a closer look. 
The seed pods seemed very familiar. Fortunately, the scientific name for this amazing garden delight was provided: "asclepias syriaca.” A quick internet search brought the name right up. And, sure enough, my suspicions were right on: good ol' milkweed.  It goes by other common names including Butterfly Flower, and (unfamiliar to me) Virginia Silkweed. Although the young leaves and unripened seed pods are said to be edible (they should be cooked first), and the plant is a well known Monarch butterfly food, it is toxic to grazing animals although the animals tend to avoid it due to its unpleasant flavor. 
As a kid I blew silky seeds out of many a ripened seed pod, watching them go wafting in the breeze. And have often collected seed pods for dried floral arrangements. I've known milkweed all the way from Wisconsin to Maine, having often seen patches of it growing in pastures and ditches.  
And the ditch and the pasture are good places for it. You may wish to leave it there! In such environments the surrounding root systems of sod and other weeds seem to help keep it in check.
Totally another story in looser, more open garden soil. The plant spreads via underground runners. When you pull one up pieces of the runners break off. Each of those pieces will send up a new plant. This makes it very difficult, if not near-impossible to eradicate should you decide you don’t want it. I've done battle with a similar weed, and it is never-ending. Milkweed seeds must be for the birds because the plant will spread itself without them! 
The catalog company is offering this garden wonder for the fabulous price of $7.99. I think they have it overpriced by $7.99! So... a word to the wise... check out the scientific name and know what you are ordering! -jmm 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Many Benefits of Using a Cold Frame

We’ve written about using a cold frame to harvest salad greens all winter. (To read these posts click on “Cold Frame” in the righthand column). The seeds for these were planted in late summer and early fall here in Maine, to get enough growth before winter sets in. Once the weather gets too cold, the plants stop growing and then are protected in their glassed-over space, bright green and ready for picking as needed. Having fresh greens for winter salads is the primary use of our cold frames. But, there's more to the cold frame story.

A side benefit helps us out now. Spinach was a winter crop that was completely harvested for salads (and we made a spinach lasagna too). Lettuce and claytonia seeds were then put into the empty spaces. A planting of lettuce was used up in January, and mache seeds took its place. The seeds sprouted into tiny plants. When the days got longer and the sun stronger, they started growing.

It’s now April and there's still snow on our vegetable beds. Our seed orders are getting here and we're thinking about summer gardening. Way before we can get our hands into the fresh spring dirt, our cold frames hold our spring salads. 
The lettuce seeds were thickly sown and the thinnings are going into salads. A few mache plants are nearly their full height of 2-1/2 inches, one of two patches of Claytonia is fully mature, and there are a few spinach plants left over from the fall planting. Some skinny scallions in the back of the cold frame are beginning to fill out. The little plants really get going this time of year, and having fresh greens for spring salads is greatly appreciated. 

And now, after winter harvest followed by spring harvest is yet another use for the cold frames. As the spring greens are harvested and spaces open up,  seeds are started for the summer garden. Instead of seed starter trays taking up space inside the house it’s so much simpler to start them outdoors in the cold frames. Last year we started cabbage this way, transplanting the plants to one of our raised beds. We're still eating sauerkraut from that planting and are getting ready to do it again this year. 

The cold frames are truly year-round free-energy growing spaces. -G.H.