Saturday, May 5, 2012

Plantas de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Today was all about plants! We started off our morning going to the plant sale at Highline Seatac Botanical garden, specifically to see what was available from the Iris Society and then it was off to the annual Tilth Edible Plant sale at Meridian Park to do some damage to our pocket book.
This is what Claire will resemble
The Iris Society had a small offering as this is not their main sale, which occurs next month in Bellevue. However, that sale only offers bearded iris and not the kinds I'm interested in. We adopted a lovely light lavender-blue dwarf "sapphire gem." Of my main interest, Pacific Coast natives, they only had two varieties so we bought one of both. The PCN varieties are unregistered so the names are just what they King County Iris Society  has decided to call them. One of the KCIS volunteers explained to us that iris have three colors of pigment cell layers. Both of these were predominately yellow with white highlights. "Claire" also has a lovely dark burgundy accent while "Obscure Sunset" has a pretty red-violet tone. (Or I have the descriptions mixed up with the names, we'll just have to see when they blossom, which might not be until next year.) I'm looking forward to the Iris Society's garden tour at the end of May. One volunteer I met says he sells a lot of PCN, and he's actually just one neighborhood away from us.

After a quick stop at the Tangletown Zoka (my favorite coffee company although I don't like the rebranding they recently did) for treats, it was off to "our" park for the Tilth sale. This is the 30th year they've been doing the sale and it's really become popular in just the past three or four years we've attended. This year, they were handing out color-coded wristbands to mitigate the flow (although we arrived past the morning rush) and they provided maps to the layout of tables and plants.

The variety of plants and long rows of tables can be overwhelming. Luckily, we do our homework beforehand so that we reduce the emotional overload to that of a kid in a candy shop. :)  The Tilth website has PDF lists of the herbs/flowers and vegetable starts that are planned.  We print them out ahead of time and each go through and mark what we find appealing. Sadly, not every plant on the list necessarily makes it to the sale as sometimes they seedlings fail or are not healthy enough. However, it does provide us with a game plan.

First, we tackled the herbs and edible flowers. For one, they're right at the entrance and for another, we are stricter on what we want. We may not be able to put in our herb spiral this year (rocks are ridiculously expensive to buy!) but most of the perennial herbs will be able to be transplanted to their final location when we are able to build it. This year, we stuck to our list well, with only two plants we left for spur of the moment decision making (the agastache we bought, we passed on the catmint). Here's what we brought home this year (with my comments in italics and the Tilth descriptions below):
  • Apricot Sunrise Agastache - this isn't something we've bought before but we both liked the description and were interested in its decorative aspects as well as attracting beneficial bugs and hummingbirds
    • This perennial offers unusually-colored flowers; a sunny orange apricot. The abundant flower spikes attract many beneficials including hummingbirds! The blooms are also edible and make great cut flowers and the foliage smells like a combination of mint and licorice. Plants get 18"-24" tall and wide.
  • Lemon  Basil x2 - this is one of my favorites, especially when paired with tomatoes
    • This is an exciting addition to the world of basil: a basil -- a basil with a lemon/citrus fragrance and flavor which makes it particularly good in vinegar, with fish, in salad dressings & sauces, and in oils. Great in pesto and other standard basil dishes, too. There is no herb more useful than Basil. In a warm, south window, you can grow basil indoors in winter.
  • Thai Basil
    • Strong licorice-anise flavor.  12-18" fine-leafed plant with purple stems, seed heads and flowers.  Good container plant as well. 60 days to harvest.
    • Side note: we've learned to just buy a Geneovese (the classic basil) at Trader Joe's each year. It's a little cheaper and the plants always start significantly larger than what ours can even grow to by the time TJ's has them.
  • Borage - another one new to us this year. I'll admit I wanted it in part thanks to always coming across it in older literature, but the blue flowers also sound pretty and its always nice to give the bees some love
    • The bright blue, star-shaped flowers (which bloom most of the summer) make borage one of the prettiest herb plants. The leaves are large and leathery and covered in soft spikes. The flavor of the leaves and flowers resembles that of cucumber. The plant will grow to a height of about 18 inches, and spread about 12 inches. Beloved by bumble bees.
  • Flashback Calendula - I wanted this for medicinal salves and this particular variety sounded stunning
    • A unique calendula for those tired of plain orange. The undersides of these petals are dark burgundy,the tops vary from orange to yellow to light pink. Two foot plants glow in the sun. Calendula attracts beneficial insects and is a great cut flower. Classic pollinator plants, Calendula also are great additions to skin care lotions
  • Lemon balm - I can attribute my fondness to this plant to my stepmom
    • Wonderful lemon-scented herb used in teas or fresh bouquets. Attracts beneficial insects and is a must for the organic garden. Spreads by underground runners and is best grown where it can be contained! Make sure to cut back the plant after flowering but before the seed matures to prevent reseeding
  • Sweet Marjoram - Somehow when we got to the other side of the table, we thought we hadn't picked one up. When I got home and was cataloguing what we bought, I found two! Oops. I like marjoram for use as a milder substitute for oregano.
    • Grows to 12", slowly spreading by creeping roots and stems.  Marjoram is sometimes overlooked as an important culinary herb.  With a flavor similar to oregano but much sweeter and subtler, it can be used in similar dishes.  Very good with fish and meats.  Its subtle flavor can be lost with cooking, so add to dishes towards the end of cooking time.
  • Candy Mint Peppermint - (mmm...I don't like spearmint, so this is what WE use for mughitos. Oh and we had planned to buy Moroccan mint as the website said it was a peppermint, but once there, it was labeled and smelled distinctly spearmint)
    • A spreading perennial with mint-flavored leaves. Dense clusters of white flowers in summer. Preferred variety for peppermint flavoring in cooking. Spreads by underground runners and should be planted where it can be contained.
  • Barbecue Rosemary - This variety has the nicest flavor, not strongly camphorous.
    • Very upright, can grow to 4-6 ft tall, but takes to pruning well. Great rosemary flavor, use the stalks as skewers for grilling. Prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Blooms blue in early spring.
  • Pineapple Sage - This is the J plant, he became enamored of it at the first sale we went to. It makes a tasty and unique variation on a mojito, although we have yet to ever see the flowers.
    • Sun, well-drained soil, mulch in winter.  This showy sage is laden with beautiful scarlet flowers in the fall that attract hummingbirds.  The velvety green leaves give off a distinct pineapple scent when rubbed.  Ht 2ft - 3ft.
  • Salad burnet - I've been wanting to try this classic.
    • An herbaceous perennial with cucumber-flavored leaves, salad burnet is a must for any salad!  This low-growing herb has unusual red ball-shaped flowers.  Salad burnet is drought tolerant once established and grows in full sun to part shade.
  • Coconut Geranium - J was interested in getting one of the fun-scented geraniums this year. Of the ones he was interested in, this was the first we encountered. I rubbed the leaf and instantly salivated, so we didn't even bother looking at the others!
    • The small, rounded leaves have crinkly edges and form a dense mound. The fragrance is coconut. Small, lavender flowers bloom in clusters. To 1 ft tall.  Tender plant
Sadly, the white spike lavender didn't show up on the tables. It was the only lavender I planned to add this year. Despite the planning, I just realized that somehow I didn't grab the Greek oregano! Our container one is barely limping along after two years of vigorous growth. Plants we skipped this year that I am interested in trying in the future: angelica, bay, comfrey, dill, echinacea, feverfew, savory, shiso (I didn't see it, it was on my grab list),  and sorrel. Our thyme is growing happily and is excited to move from its planter. We do need a regular sage plant but that wasn't a priority for me this time around.

While we brought back our tray from last year, seeing the list above, it might not be surprising that we had to buy a second carrying tray this year before we were even able to enter the vegetable area! Veggies are the plants that overwhelm us a little and we're still very much new to trying to grow some of our own. We've had difficulties with tomatoes (not enough sun on our apartment balcony) and J's mom usually grew our cucumbers for us. In general when selecting the varieties, we try to go with shorter time periods since our warm/hot weather is too unredictable and we want to get produce, and I always aim for the heirlooms. This year, I was primarily interested in growing a lot of our own greens, especially the darker ones that we've fallen in love with through the braising mix we regularly buy from Full Circle Farms at the Ballard Farmer's market. This will be our first year that we've ever grown them, an adventure indeed to see if we will have the skill to harvest for salads without overharvesting (and still have enough for our plates).
  • Mizuna - I like the milder flavor of the Japanese compared to the "regular" mustard greens.
    • 45-50 days for large leaves or 20 days for baby greens.  Mizuna is a Japanese mustard green that has thin white stalks and frilly, fringed light green leaves.  Mild but flavorful, this green is good steamed or raw in salads.
  • Purple Mizuna - This was too pretty to leave behind.
    • 35 days. Almost too beautiful to eat! Lacy, purple-streaked dark green leaves with a slight peppery-mustard flavor and it is slow to go to seed. Adds color and bite to salad, soups and stir fries. Plant in a container to wow the neighbors.
  • Catskill Brussel Sprouts - J wanted to try growing brussel sprouts. *Edit 5/9 - J told me that he realized after we had spoken to the volunteer that "Rents Due" was the nursery it had come from and he noticed it also said "Catskill" on the stick. However, he didn't want to tell me within earshot of the volunteer because we had just corrected her twice and he didn't want her to feel bad!
    • 90 days. Open pollinated. Selection from a private stock of Long Island Improved, a treasured American heirloom. Produces very high yields of 2" diameter round green Brussels sprouts. This variety has strong, stout stalks and closely spaced small sprouts. Easy to pick. Excellent freezing variety. Bred by Arthur White and Joseph Harris Company in New York and released in 1941.
  • Fordhook Giant Chard - We elected to try this variety due to the description saying it's highly productive.
    • 60 days. Open pollinated.  An impressive chard with large, frilly, dark-green leaves. The white stems are strong and thick, yet tender and crispy; chopped, they make a wonderful addition to a gratin.  Plants can grow over 2 feet high but still fit well into a small urban garden.  This variety is so productive and delicious, you'll be sharing it with your neighbors!
  • Lemon Cucumber x2 - This is my single must have every year! I fell in love with these at the farmers markets. J's mom grew them the past two years for me since we didn't have enough sun. Now I can finally grow my own and she won't have to constantly pester me to come over to get the batch that's ready!
    • 70-75 days. Heirloom. Dating back to the 1890's, this old variety is a favorite among many cool season gardeners. 3-4 foot, semi-bush type plants bear loads of apple-shaped cucumbers with lemon-colored skins. Thin skins and mild, sweet flesh make them a joy to eat whole right from the garden! Best harvested when the size of limes. Hermaphrodite - Flowers contain both male and female reproductive parts, which means abundant yields in the garden!
  • Astro arugula - We decided to try this instead of the roquette due to the last sentence...
    • 38 days. Open pollinated. A mild flavored arugula with rounder, fuller leaves. Cold hardy, heat tolerant and fast growing, you can start cutting fresh greens within a few weeks of transplanting.  Especially good for picking in the baby leaf stage.
  • Purslane - Sounded fun to try
    • Open pollinated. 50 days.  Purslane is a delightful green that can handle the hot and fry conditions of summer.  The succulent leaves are filled with nutritious minerals and are a refreshing addition to fruit salads in the heat of summer. Try it with watermelon, feta cheese and olive oil for a taste sensation!
  • Red Russian Kale - Sadly, we also wanted the Lacinato, but they didn't have any of that variety.
    • Heirloom. 40 days for baby greens.  Red Russian Kale has lovely cut leaves and purplish-red stems that make this plant gorgeous in the garden or on the plate.  The plant grows over a long season and can be harvested through fall and sometimes over winter and into the following spring!  Kale is an easy plant to grow and is really good for you.
  • Australian Yellow Leaf Lettuce - We decided to go with all lettuces that were loose-leaf.
    • Heirloom. 50 days.  Almost neon in brightness, this chartreuse yellow lettuce will add an impressive color scheme to your lettuce patch.  It is very slow to bolt, staying tender and mild into the summer.  Considered a "loose-leaf" type lettuce, you can harvest outer leaves and let the inner leaves keep growing for a continual harvest all season long.
  • Deer Tongue - We were both intrigued to try this.
    • Heirloom. 45-50 days. Hardy and stout, this lettuce is known for it's prolific growth.  To harvest, you can cut the leaves off one at a time and fillyour salad bowl as you need to.  Triangular, tongue-shaped sturdy green leaves earn its name.
  • Lemon Drop Cherry Tomato - This was a J pick.
    • 80-90 days. Open pollinated. Indeterminate.  We are excited to offer the winner of the 2010 Seed Savers Exchange Tomato Testing award.  Delicate and unusual, yellow-green fruit deliver a refreshingly sweet-tart flavor while the plant continues to produce in the garden even in cooler weather conditions.  Grow it this year and discover why ‘Lemon Drop’ is truly a winner!
  • Green Zebra Tomato - One of my favorite heirloom varieties that I usually buy in store.
    • 75 days. Heirloom. Small indeterminate plant. Small round 2-3" golden green fruits with forest green stripes. Green Zebra 
    • is a Northwest favorite because of its combined earliness, cold tolerance, unusual color, and unique flavor characteristic 
    • of green tomatoes.
  • Crimson Sprinter Tomato - This was supposed to be Mountain Princess, and apparently I managed to grab the interloper amongst the pots of the ones I wanted. 
    • 65 days. Semi-determinate. Brilliant candy-apple red color and strong performance in cool conditions for early season harvests. Medium-sized 5-7 oz fruits are abundant and ripen nicely on the vine. Developed by Professor T. Graham of OAC, Ontario. Crimson Sprinter is the earliest maturing cultivar to carry the famous 'crimson gene' with notably high lycopene content.
      • This was supposed to be Mountain Princess - 68 days. Heirloom. Determinate.  A cool, short-season variety that hails from the mountains of West Virginia, 'Mountain Princess' is very early and very productive.  The round, 4 to 6 inch fruits make great slices for sandwiches or drizzled with olive oil and a little salt and pepper--delicious!
  • Stupice Tomato
    • 60 days. Heirloom.  Indeterminate. Cold-tolerant, red, slightly oval, 2 inch fruit grow on vigorous 6' vines. Great flavor for such an early tomato. Bred in the former Czechoslovakia. Stupice is a long-time favorite with Seattle gardeners, you can't go wrong with this one!
I really wanted to get the Forellenschluss, a rare Austrian heirloom that was just a GORGEOUS dappled maroon on green, but J said we had too many lettuce greens. Next year I won't give in. We skipped peppers this year since we had rotten luck last year and weren't able to harvest a single fruit. We also decided to skip any squash or pumpkins as our tray was once again full, they like to have a lot of space, and we only are building one bed this year. Other plants we wanted from the list but didn't find: Persian Cress (similar flavor to watercress but doesn't have to be grown in a bog), Red bor kale (dark purple), Isis Candy cherry tomato or the Oregon Cherry, and Tigerella tomato (oddly, now isn't on their website list but was last Wednesday when I printed it) which is an English heirloom of low acidity, high and early productivity and a pretty red/yellow stripe.

Whew, what a list, eh? We also bought a great book produced by Tilth, The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, that looks to be a great resource specially attuned to our area. We both liked that it's organized by month to tell us what we should be doing when. I was particularly pleased to see that they even divided Western Washington & Oregon into further micro-climates and give advice on amending the general planting information based on your specific location.

Wow, if you made it to the end of this huge post, you must either REALLY find gardening interesting or REALLY like us. Chances are it's the former. (And I'm sorry that I didn't take photos at the even, especially of that lovely forellenschluss! I was too involved to think to pick up the camera phone and snap pics.)

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