Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Grace in the Garden (Plus My 6 Favorite Online Garden Catalogs)

Lacy Phacelia
Brand spankin’ new year, and I’m sitting here surrounded by notebooks, last year’s seed envelopes and journal, my garden layout and all my favorite seed sources open in a tab on my browser. It’s snowy and cold, and this is my antidote to winter – planning my garden with lists and penciled, detailed, obsessive plans.

Every year, as I work on my plans, I’m picturing a lush, green, productive garden. But reality is that every winter I see that elusive mirage of a garden, with its high-yield tomatoes, powdery-mildew-free cucumbers, catalog-inspired annuals, and it has yet to materialize in my small backyard.

But as I’ve become more experienced as a gardener, I find that every year is an experiment where I learn more about what works in this Colorado climate and what doesn’t work. I’ve finally reached the point where, if I see an interesting variety or plant that I’ve never tried before, I give it a try. It’s not like I’m putting in a swimming pool. It’s a $3 investment in garden know-how, and succeed or not, I've come to realize there's grace in my garden -- it's all good.

So, I’ve added artichokes to my list this year: Colorado Star variety for short growing seasons as an annual. I like artichokes, and hope I manage the careful cold-temp prep the seeds/seedlings need. But what I’m really hoping for is big, fat, purple blossoms for visual interest and for my bees. Because I tend to choose flowers according to bee affinity.

Which is why I put Phacelia tanacetifolia, aka Lacy Phacelia, aka Purple Tansy, aka Fiddleneck, on my list last year. I’d never heard of it, and the flowers are an interesting octopus-like unfurling finger of small blue lacy flowerets. It’s in the same family as borage, and given how my bees go crazy for that blue-flowered easy grower, it’s perhaps no surprise to see it high on lists of nectar producers. I ordered the seeds from Hudson Valley Seeds, started a handful indoors, then tossed some seeds alongside the newly transplanted seedlings. I remember thinking I’d get a few blooms.

In fact, it thrived. Each plant was covered in blooms. And the bees were practically frantic as they worked and foraged over it. As it bloomed, it would slowly unfurl, with new blooms surfacing and the old ones going to seed. It bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. In October, I collected the seeds and scattered them in areas where I want them to naturalize. We’ll see if that works. As a back up, I saved some for this spring's seed starting trays.

Reflecting on its success and reading more about it I found two reasons why it did well in my garden: It’s fairly drought tolerant and it likes a more alkaline soil. Check, and check. I didn’t realize that it’s also considered a cover crop. Positives all around – good results for an experimental planting.

That’s not to say that all those experiments turn out. More often than not, results can be pretty discouraging. Varieties that – even though I think they’ll work in my garden – simply don’t survive or take root. And so I add that experience to my garden knowledge. I've learned that traditional furrows for potatoes (and straw to cover) works far better in my garden than potatoes grown in bags or towers. That if I lay frost covers over my newly sown beets and lettuce, they’ll stay moist and germinate at a higher rate than if they are exposed. And that not all seedlings germinate better using a heat mat – some are a lot happier if I actually read the seed packet to find out what the optimum temp is for germination. I have still not gotten it right with cucumbers.

I don’t know how the artichoke will do this year, but I’m looking forward to giving it a go. Worst thing that can happen is it fails to germinate, and I have space in my garden for something else. But best case? I have a new plant that will make my bees happy. So I'm back to perusing seed sites for inspiration. And on that note, a few of my favorites: 

Johnny's Select Seeds
Hudson Valley Seed Company
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
Pinetree Garden Seeds 
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

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