Irises: A Beginner’s Guide for Late Summer Planting

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“Irises” by Vincent van Gogh, which sold for $53 million at auction

Come late summer, a gardener’s thoughts immediately turn to spring. Most likely, planting tulips or daffodil bulbs come to mind, two of my favorite flowers. However, a good friend of mine, Traci, recently moved to the area. She bought a new house and had a blank slate as far as planning her garden is concerned. She planted the idea of new iris beds for us both. And an obsession was born!

As good friends do, we fed off each others’ enthusiasm for a new undertaking. Now that both of our gardens are in, and you still have time this year to plant one of your own, I thought I’d share some of our learnings with you.

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First, a bit of iris history. The iris, famously used by the French Kings, including Louis XIV, as a symbol of power and position, was adapted as the Fleur de Lys and is now a symbol of the great state of Louisiana. Before World War II, most new iris hybrids came from Europe. But since that time they have become an American passion, and can be enjoyed in all their regal splendor, standing tall in late spring, alongside the poppies and peonies.

Although people often refer to planting iris “bulbs”, the bulbs are actually called rhizomes. The rhizome is planted right at ground level, the tops just visible, and its adventitious roots make it possible for many plants to propagate from the stem. While the rhizome grows horizontally, it rises into a beautiful fan of sword-like leaves with showy, spectacular flowers in a rainbow of colors.

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The healthy roots of an iris rhizome

I’ve compiled a couple of “Iris Newby” tips that my friend and I have learned, that hopefully will be helpful to you, too.

Where to Find Your Rhizomes. Don’t let the cost of irises deter you from starting a bed of your own. One of the best features of these hardy perennials is how quickly and abundantly they reproduce. Iris typically have to be divided every four years. So you can most likely find some neighbors, friends, family or coworkers who would be delighted to share some of their bounty with you. Gardeners are by nature eager to share knowledge and the fruits of their labor.

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An elderly neighbor of Traci’s, who could no longer garden, generously offered her as many irises as she’d like. This is what Traci ended up with, and she shared with me.

Another fantastic and inexpensive method of procuring your precious rhizomes is to find the local chapter of the Iris Society, through an arboretum, or horticulture department at a local university. Traci and I attended the annual sale of the Iris Society of Minnesota and found award-winning irises at a fraction of the price, that we knew would do well in Minnesota’s unique climate. We were also able to benefit from the experience of Master Growers, such as this lovely gentleman, who was more than happy to help a couple of beginning iris enthusiasts out.

Finally, there are many sources for high quality, distinguished irises online. Perhaps the most venerated is Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. While a peek at the 2016 edition of their Iris Lover’s catalog features resplendent Irises for $50-$60 a bulb, I shopped their summer sale and purchased several for under $10 a piece. Plus, they will throw in a bonus Iris, if you meet certain thresholds.

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Once we had all of our iris selected in the colors we favored, (both of us love the purples and blues. I also like the pinks, and yellows. Traci hates yellows and goes for some of the deep reds), it was time to prepare the beds. Irises will ship in July, August and September. They should be planted in late summer, earlier than tulips or daffodils, because they need time for the roots to get established, prior to the temps falling below 40 degrees.

Choosing a site. You’ll want to select a site where you’re going to get full sun for at least 6 hours a day. Choose a spot that doesn’t get standing water. Remember irises don’t like wet feet. You’ll need to amend the soil if you have heavy clay soil. Most importantly, choose a spot where you will be able to see and enjoy them in bloom, and hopefully, passersby will be able to enjoy them, too.

Preparing the Bed. Again, Iris do not like wet feet. You’ll need well-drained soil. Like most perennials, Iris prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil. You’ll want to use fluffy compost or aged manure, and light black dirt.

2 Final

We cleared a site, where a previous home owner had planted iris over two decades ago. The soil was compacted under gravel, so we uncovered down to the clay, turned it over, and added aged, composted manure and light, fluffy black dirt.

2A Final

Next, I set out all my bulbs, according to color and size. All of mine are Tall Bearded Iris, so mine were arranged by color scheme. You’ll want to plant them 1-2 feet apart. The closer together they are planted, the sooner you will have to divide them.

3 Final

Finally they were planted, so that the rhizomes were just visible above the soil or had a very light covering, with the roots fanned out to the sides, pointing down.

Finally, I created a map of what I’d planted and where. Anyone who has ever planted a perennial garden will attest to the fact that markers tend to mysteriously migrate, or disappear, and you end up not knowing what is where until it blooms.

Traci found some darling garden markers on Pinterest that she made for both of us, using beads from the craft store. I’m sure I have the nicest garden markers on my block. But plastic markers and a Sharpie will work as well.

While I love all four seasons in Minnesota, I can hardly wait until next spring to enjoy the fruits of my labor, as well as to share with my friend yet another mutual passion that sustains our friendship. For more information on growing irises, I encourage you to check out the American Iris Society.

 

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson enjoys getting dirt under her nails as much as a good manicure afterwards.

 

 

Banish Blossom Rot & Save the Salsa!

Ripe tomatoes in greenhouse

Are you celebrating opening day this week? Baseball? No. No. No. Farmer’s market opening day, silly!  Our local market officially opens for the season this Saturday.

It’s a day I look forward to all winter long. Time to start planning the garden, and deciding which veggies I’ll put in this year.

Tomatoes, however, are a no-brainer. I’ve planted about 18 vegetable gardens of my own over the years.  And tomatoes are always the stars of the show.

If there is a mistake to be made in planting tomatoes, I have made it.

I’ve started tomatoes from seed, and experienced long, leggy seedlings that grew too thin and sideways, because I didn’t have a light source directly above, and didn’t rotate the seed tray enough.

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My go-to tomatoes are Early Girl, Roma, San Marzano, Brandywine and Sweet 100s.

I’ve lost young tomato plants I started indoors, because I neglected to harden them off, by gradually introducing them to the outdoors for hours at a time, then bringing them back in.  These tender young plants need time to adjust to the elements – wind, direct sun, and temperature fluctuation. Truth be told, I just buy started plants at the farmer’s market now.

I’ve made the mistake of planting THREE cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s are a fave) and ended up with eight billion of the sweet little nuggets of tomatoey goodness – more tomatoes than any one family could eat in a lifetime.

Close up of cherry tomatoes growing in a vegetable garden

But most distressing for me are the common problems that tomato-growers everywhere have experienced at one time or another that occur once the tomatoes start to bear fruit. By that time, it’s almost too late to salvage the plant for the season, and all that nurturing was for naught.

So rather than wait to diagnose tomato troubles mid-season, this year I decided to do some research to head them off at the pass. Stop blight, blossom rot and cracking before they have a chance to take root. Here are some of my top tomato tips:

  1. I have a relatively big garden for a small suburban backyard. It’s approximately 40 feet long. There are a couple of reasons why this is important. First, plant spacing. Adequate spacing between plants prevents the leaves of one plant from touching those of another. Not only does this allow air to circulate, but it prevents disease and pests from easily transferring from one plant to another. Secondly, I rotate my crops. Diseases can stay in your soil from year to year, so I try not to plant my tomatoes at the same end of the garden, or in the same row for consecutive years. Note: Planting tomatoes in a large pot on a patio is a fantastic option for apartment dwellers. I’ve done this, too. You’ll be surprised at the number of tomatoes that one well-cared for plant will produce.
  2. Have you ever had your soil checked? This isn’t an absolute necessity. But it takes the guesswork out of whether your tomato plant is getting the nutrients it needs to thrive. I like to add well-composted, aged manure directly to the soil I’m planting in.
  3. Plant tomatoes deep. A good rule of thumb is 2/3 of the plant should be underground. Planting tomatoes deep will help establish a stronger root system which helps them to survive hot weather and support more fruit.
  4. Support your plants. My grandpa always used 2-inch wood stakes and tied the stems to the stakes with one-inch strips of his old t-shirts. They sell special spongy ties now, but the t-shirt trick is more economical. I use tomato cages myself. I found some round cages that are powder-coated in rainbow colors that make me happy and brighten up the garden. They’re thick and sturdy enough that I don’t have to replace them every year like the other thin or collapsible cages.
  5. Mulch! Mulching around the base of your tomato plants will prevent a variety of the most common tomato maladies. Not only does mulch help conserve moisture, but it also helps prevent the spread of disease. Straw works great as mulch, but there are a variety of other mulches available at your local garden center.
  6. Water! Almost every tomato problem you can name from cracking to blossom rot stems from uneven watering.
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Cracking from uneven watering

Cracking for instance develops as a result of uneven watering, or a period of drought followed by over-watering. The skin can’t stretch to accommodate the fluid build-up, and splits.  The tomato becomes like an over-filled water balloon.

Blight is a fungus that shows up as those dark concentric circles on yellowed leaves, which can occur from wet leaves. Sometimes simply removing damaged leaves is enough, but if the weather won’t comply, you’ll need to remove the whole plant.

Blossom Rot

Blossom rot – Add more calcium

Blossom rot is another problem brought on by drought stress and inadequate watering resulting in a lack of calcium in the soil. The calcium doesn’t move up through the plant quickly enough and the tissue on the blossom-end, turns black and breaks down. You can spray tomatoes with a calcium solution as a stop-gap measure.

A good rule of thumb is to water regularly, but sparingly. Your tomato plants need approximately 1 – 1 ½ inches of water a week. A good soaker hose with a timer is your best bet.

Finally, tomatoes degrade and lose flavor if left too long on the vine or exposed to temperature of 40 degrees or less. You can tell a ripe tomato by a green gel around the seeds. Once the gel turns clear, the tomato is overripe and the flavor diminishes.  Store your ripe tomatoes on the counter to keep them ripe and flavorful as long as possible.

Did you know that adding Epsom salts to amend the soil results in larger, tastier yields? Have you tried adding coffee grounds, egg shells or fish scales when planting your tomatoes? If you have any tried and true tomato tips, I would love to hear them. Please share in the comments!

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie B, will be up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to get her parking spot at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market.

Gifts Inspired by Nature for Mom

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Artwork by Cindy Hendricks of Woodfield Press

“Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”  Hans Christian Andersen

On a chilly April morning, with such a deceptively brilliant blue in the sky, my desire to get outside and do something overwhelmed my common sense knowledge that we had at least a couple more sub-freezing degree nights ahead of us. But, I couldn’t stop myself. Our local farmer’s market doesn’t open until April 16th, however my determination to surround myself with the joys of springtime in the backyard was overwhelming.

Once inside the hothouse oasis of the local nursery, my senses ran amok. Being that my husband has expressly forbidden overcrowding our house and yard, I came up with the brilliant idea that Mother’s Day is just around the corner, and no one could deny me the right to buy gifts for mothers – mine, his and anyone else’s mother.

So, I put together a selection of some gifts that are a little different from the traditional chocolates and delivered arrangements. I think there’s something for all the moms who enjoy a little sunshine, bird chirping and digging in the dirt.

Mary Enblebreit

Beloved Artist Mary Englebreit has created a magical collection of garden fairies for her Merriment collection, featuring delightful little sprites from reading fairies to artist fairies, and all the darling accessories to brighten up a miniature garden this summer. All can be found at  http://www.maryengelbreit.com/collections/garden.

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Pops of color will enhance every flower garden and landscape, attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and bumble bees. Mom will enjoy hours watching an endless array of bathing beauties – blue jays, chickadees and woodpeckers, fluttering their wings at her bath.

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Two things Mom can use at the beginning of every gardening season, are a good pair of flower sheers for deadheading her flowers and a nice pair of garden gloves, like these cheerful pink polka dot models. They’re neoprene and thin, so they give you the necessary practicality you need for planting seedlings, and they wash up nicely when covered with mud.

DSC01608Placing bright flowers and hummingbird feeders near windows Mom frequents is a great way to enjoy a summer full of cheerful winged feeders. The simple syrup used to fill hummingbird feeders is very easy to make. No need to add red food coloring, as the birds are equally attracted to clear syrups.

DSC01605Another meaningful gift that mom doesn’t always think of herself is planting a memorial garden. I myself have found them to be very healing.

 

Not only do I feel a spirituality when I’m outdoors, reflecting on the tranquility of nature, but there is a gentle reminder of the cycles of life, that provide us with solace. One of the best memorials I was ever given – an apple tree – was when my grandfather died. Thirteen years later, I think of him every springtime when it blooms. The idea has become so popular that many garden centers carry memorial stones or lights, along with companion flowers.

After mom is done in the garden, she’ll want to pamper and soothe herself with relaxing gifts she can enjoy in a nice steamy, hot shower or a luxurious bath, filled with the luscious scent of garden botanicals.

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Or you can treat her to a little pot of sunshine she can enjoy indoors on a cold and rainy day.

And finally, Papersource has some amazing flower print wrapping paper that’s almost too pretty to use.

I hope you found a couple of good ideas to welcome the season of getting outdoors, if not for mom, then for a friend or  even yourself. As Henry James once said, “Summer afternoon; summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Get out and enjoy one while you can!

Blogger Melanie Bisson, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys vegetable and flowering gardening, bird-watching, and SHOPPING!

From Garden to Table: Time to Get Your Zucchini On!

I love vegetables, especially if they’re fresh from the garden. This year, I can actually say we’ll be enjoying zucchini, cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, and sweet corn from our very own garden!

After 20 some years without one, it’s about time.

I have to give my husband all the credit as he did the tilling, planting and tending. In my defense, he’s semi-retired so he has the time to do it. I don’t.

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San Marzano tomatoes from blogger Mel B.’s garden last summer. She blanched, peeled, and froze these in Zip-Loc freezer bags to use in sauces throughout the fall and winter.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet (I can’t wait for BLTs! I also like them sliced with a bit of salt & pepper – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

The zucchini and cucumbers, on the other hand, are growing like crazy! In fact, my husband brought in a giant, blimp of a zucchini the other day. My first thought was, what the heck am I going to do with this?! Since I couldn’t exactly use it as a door stopper, I had to come up with other uses for this humongous summer squash. So, I searched online for recipes featuring zucchini as one of the main ingredients, and found the perfect recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread on allrecipes.com (see recipe below). I figured as long as there’s chocolate in it, my husband and son will eat it (make that devour it!).

Because I had a surplus of the green stuff, I made a double batch. I kept one cake-size pan of it at home and brought a loaf in to work to share. I must admit I’m not much of a baker (I don’t have the patience and usually make a huge mess in the kitchen), but I’m proud to say my zucchini bread was a big hit with both my family and co-workers.

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Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Ingredients
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
3 eggs
2 cups white sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9×5 inch loaf pans. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate until melted. Stir occasionally until chocolate is smooth.
2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, oil, grated zucchini, vanilla and chocolate; beat well. Stir in the flour baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Fold in the chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared loaf pans.
3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a loaf comes out clean.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2015 Allrecipes.com

This is my own recipe for a super-easy side dish you can whip up using fresh zucchini and tomatoes.

Zucchini & Tomato Parmesan

Ingredients:
3 medium-size zucchini, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 2 cans stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup diced onions
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
Italian seasoning (basil & oregano) to taste

Directions: In large skillet, sauté zucchini, tomatoes and onions in hot olive oil for 5 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and seasoning. Stir to coat well. Serve hot.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

This is a recipe that Smart Perks blogger Mel B. has been enjoying since she was a little girl. It was her grandmother’s recipe.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/lemon juice or vinegar 1/2 tbsp for 1/2 cup milk)
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
5 tbsp. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups grated zucchini

Topping: 1/3 cup chocolate chips, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Directions: Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients. Pour into 13 x 9 greased and floured cake pan. Sprinkle topping over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Even if you don’t have a garden of your own, you can find fresh zucchini and other healthy, delicious and home-grown produce at your local farmer’s market.

Whether your veggies are the fruits of your labor, or your local grower, enjoy the fresh taste of summer!

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Little dog, big zucchini. Home office dog, Beanie.

Smart Perks Blogger, Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee.

Seed Starting for Newbies – Greetings from Zone 4!

united beauty of vegetables

Greetings from Zone 4? No, that is not the title of a science fiction novel.

Zone 4 is the plant hardiness zone for Smart Perks headquarters in Minnesnowdah. But regardless of where you live in the U.S., with spring right around the corner, it’s a good time to start thinking about seed-starting for your vegetable garden.

I’ve started seeds indoors for over a decade now. It’s a great way to save money by avoiding nursery prices, and I typically have more than enough plants leftover after mine are in the ground, to share with friends and family.

Have you seen the price of a grocery store tomato lately? You shouldn’t have to make a choice between a child’s college education and a tomato! Besides the savings, starting seeds indoors will bring a little summertime to your home during a cool, damp March.

To get started, you need to decide which veggies you want to plant, depending on your personal tastes and growing space. If you live in apartment, a lot of plants can be grown in a couple big pots on a deck or outside your front door.

I usually like to start cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans indoors. Herbs, especially chives and basil, are easy and fun to grow, because they smell DELICIOUS as soon as they sprout. You can dry them and use them throughout the year. Fresh herbs are the best, and you really can taste the difference in your recipes!   mozzarella di bufala con pomodoro e basilico

Then head to your local hardware, discount store or nursery and pick out your seeds. Check the back of your seed packets for the zone hardiness of the plant, and how much time you’ll need to allow if you’re starting indoors, as well as time until harvest. The typical amount of time for indoor growing is 6-8 weeks. Here in Zone 4 we shouldn’t put our plants in the ground until after May 15th, when the danger of a killing frost is USUALLY passed.

I usually start my seeds around St. Patrick’s Day or during the NCAA Final Four. I remember in previous years, sitting on my kitchen floor, with seed starter soil everywhere, listening to a tournament game, while trying to get wet soil out of my grout. That was before I wised up and started using peat pellets.

While some hardier veggies like lettuce and radishes can be sown directly in the ground in early spring, others have to wait until the ground warms up. Tomatoes, for instance, thrive in heat. If the temps are too cold, or the weather too cloudy, their growth can be stunted. Tomatoes are an excellent plant to start indoors.

Then you’ll need a tray that will allow adequate drainage and a clear, vented cover. I recommend investing in a multi-square version like the Jiffy Starter Kit if you’re a newbie. jiffy-greenhouseIt has everything you’ll need, except the seeds, light and water, and will cost approximately $10 or less. Plus the tray can be used again next year.

You can buy the growing medium loose, or in a little mesh-covered peat pellet. Trust me…the peat pellet is the way to go to avoid a mess! You soak them in hot water for about 5 minutes and voilá…they expand to just the right size. It’s pretty cool to watch. Kids will love this, too.

There’s even a little hole in the top of the mesh to place your seeds in. So all you have to worry about is checking the back of your package for seed-planting depth, and how many seeds to plant in each pellet. It can take anywhere from 4 to 14 days for seedlings to emerge.seedling

The three most important words of wisdom I can give you, after years of making every mistake imaginable, are to separate, ventilate, and rotate!

  1. Separate. You’ll typically plant multiple seeds in a peat pod, because all the seeds may not sprout. However, sometimes they will and you’ll need to separate or thin out the young sprouts. If you don’t, once they start to leaf, they’ll crowd each other out, competing for space and nutrients. Your plants won’t thrive, and when it comes time to plant, you’ll have a bunch of tangled, thin, and gangly plants.
  2. Rotate. Placement of your seeds is key. You need a warm, sunny place that gets the most light over the course of the day. Seeds need warmth to germinate. So a window near a heat vent is optimal.  You can buy a small grow light and warming mat on which to place your seed tray for around $30-$40. Although I never have. Remember these investments sound like a lot, but once you have the right equipment, you’ll have it forever. When the seeds have sprouted, you’ll need to rotate the tray at least once a day or more, so that neither side has to lean toward the sun. Optimally you want light coming from directly above, so that your young seedlings will grow straight up and have strong healthy stems. Believe me, I’ve had many years, where I’ve ended up with spindly, sideways tomato plants, that have eventually borne fruit, but it certainly wasn’t easy to put a tomato cage on a horizontal plant.
  3. Ventilate. As I mentioned, seeds to stay covered and warm in the first several weeks, hot and moist like a greenhouse with minimal ventilation. But once they have sprouted, you’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drowning, and ventilate or you’ll have moldy soil. Once the plants are touching the lid, you can remove the lid completely.

You’ll want to watch the bottom of your mesh peat pods for exposed roots, transplanting them to larger pots filled with regular potting soil until it’s time to put them in the ground. Potting up tomato seedlings © Arena Photo UKAlways refer to the back of your seed packs for more specifics, like when to pinch the first leaves from the stems.

And when you’re ready to put your seeds in the ground, remember, the plants need to be gradually acclimated to the direct sun outdoors, and other elements. So you can take them out for a couple of hours each day. This is called hardening off your plants, and you can read more about the process online.

Starting seeds indoors has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a novice gardener, and I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, without reading stacks of books, or spending a fortune. The results have been great savings, and the greatest rewards…FRESH VEGGIES and the satisfaction of knowing I grew them myself. Have your own tips or experiences with seed starting? Please share in the comments!

Young plant in a pot ready for planting

-MB

When she’s not blogging for Smart Perks, Melanie is staring glassy-eyed at Pinterest, her Pin It finger splinted from overuse. Besides crafting, gardening, shopping and cupcakes, the loves of her life are her three naughty terrier pups, the smartest and best-looking dogs in the world, and her husband.