Let's Get Dirty

A gardening blog for adults who still love to play in the dirt.

Send stories and pictures of your horticultural adventures to letsgetdirty@gjsentinel.com.

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Challenge for next year: Find more sunshine

By Penny Stine
Thursday, November 18, 2010

While our gardens are fresh in our memory, I’ve been asking fellow bloggers to write about what worked and what they’ll do differently next year. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest reasons to garden – knowing that you can try again next year, armed with the knowledge gained from something that was less-than-successful this year.
That being said, the biggest challenge in my garden and my yard is the lack of sunshine. I love the big trees in my 35-year old neighborhood, but the shade wreaks havoc on tomato plants, watermelon and most other sun-loving veggies.
We rototilled a new garden area last spring in hopes of finding a decent amount of sunshine.



We were partially successful, but it’s so hard to know exactly where the sun will hit as it moves not just east to west, but north to south as it gets closer to June and then back again when the days begin to grow shorter.
I thought I picked a good spot, but by September, when I really wanted the late afternoon sun, the neighbor's trees to the northwest and my own house to the east gave me a garden full of shade.

I could burn down my house or be a bad neighbor and chop down the trees in the neighbor's yard in the middle of the night, but I don't think that's a reasonable solution. 

So, what’s a girl gonna do?
Look, there's morning September sunshine in front of my shady new garden:

I've got a great idea. Let’s kill some grass so we can rototill up more front yard next spring!




My husband was grumpy ‘til he realized that the less grass we had, the less time he would have to devote to mowing. Of course, it means more weeding for me, but I’m hoping that using an herbicide on the grass in early October will help it to truly die over the winter so I won’t have to deal with grass growing all over my garden like I did this year. By the end of October, the grass didn't look so good, which was the whole point. 

Half of the new area is way too shady for most veggies, so once again, I’m on the prowl for something that will do well in the shade. I welcome suggestions. Especially since I’ve got an entire new garden area to plan over the winter. At least I'll have something pleasant to dream about when I can't feel my fingers and toes this winter.

Oh, one more lesson learned: make the planting beds in the newest garden a little bigger. I had way too many jungle-like growths in the sunny portions of the garden. 


Going to seed

By Carol Clark
Monday, November 15, 2010

Autumn brings a wealth of free seeds just waiting to be saved by you, which can save you money and insure that you will be able to plant more of your favorites next spring.

Take the kids and go on a hunt to gather seeds, bring along some envelopes and a marker so you can remember which seed is which. If you think you will remember you may be in for a surprise.

Seeds are everywhere right now. Snip off whole pods and put them in envelopes or rub your hand over the pod with the envelope beneath. Check out your own yard and don't be shy - ask your neighbors if you can collect some of their seeds.

For a fun activity with children: Take old tube socks and put them over your shoes. Go for a walk in a field of wildflowers gone to seed. Take the socks off and bury them where you want your own wildflowers. This is how animals help move seeds with their fur.

You can easily collect a wide variety in a short amount of time. Be aware - Some seeds may not grow the same exact plant - especially with hybrids.


"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."

Robert Brautt


Miracle food and human sacrifice: There’s no end to the gardening drama

By Penny Stine
Friday, November 12, 2010

When I was planning my garden and ordering seeds last winter, I admit that I was easily swayed by the price of some of the seeds, particularly for the flowers, since I garden because I love to eat. I’ll shell out the dough for a more expensive tomato seed if it promises flavor that’s out of this world, but I tended to stick with cheap flower seeds.
So when I saw an online sale of 75 cents for a packet of Amaranthus Candelabra seeds, I bought them simply because they were cheap. I had no idea if they’d grow well here or even what the plant looked like.
It turns out that they grow very well here. And they look cool. The amaranth is the giant droopy burgundy plant in front of the corn:

Before pulling the plant out this fall, I decided to gather some seeds for planting next year and Googled to find out the best time and method for gathering seeds. What I learned was shocking. Well, in a historical, horticultural kind of way.
Amaranth is native to South America and has been grown there for thousands of years. The seeds are supposed to be one of the most nutritious super foods out there, which is interesting. The Spaniards tried to wipe out the plant after conquering the Aztec empire, which adds intrigue.  

See, the Aztecs had that pesky little problem of human sacrifice and they mixed the blood of their sacrifices with amaranth seeds, which is rather nasty and horrible. Hence, the shocking part of its history.

Although cultivation was outlawed and stopped in many places due to its association with human sacrifice, the plant survived in a few remote areas. Nutritionists began doing more research about the plant in the 1970s and discovered its superhero qualities, which include an amazing amount of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids.

I cut the flowers from my plants and put them on top of the lid on the back of our Avalanche while trying to figure out the best way to shake out the seeds, which are the tiny little black specks that look like fleas on the truck lid:

Some websites say that the leaves are edible, too, but it’s really the seeds, which, as you can see, are practically on the microscopic scale, that are the miracle food. I read somewhere that it could be one of the more important crops for subsistence farmers in Africa.

Hmmm…. Really?

They couldn’t find anything bigger for subsistence farmers to grow and depend on than itty-bitty seeds that wouldn’t fill a hummingbird?

I managed to almost fill a small plate with the seeds from all those flowers.

I grew an ornamental variety and not the crop variety, but I’ve seen the pictures. The “crop” seeds aren’t much bigger. Growing microscopic food makes no sense to me, but I’m just a gardening blogger and not a plant research person with the potential to save the world from starvation.

I am saving seeds to plant more next year and may even try to grow another type of amaranth because it looked cool growing in the garden. And I may put a tablespoon of seeds in the next batch of bread I bake just to see if it makes me want to leap tall buildings in a single bound or save little children from burning buildings, but I'm not holding my breath that the seeds would keep me from starvation this winter if the grocery stores went out of business.  


Where my love of dirt began

By Carol Clark
Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cool fall air always takes me back to the farm for sugar beet season. Back in the day, the local farmers grew sugar beets for Holly Sugar. Of course, sugar has always been my favorite food group, and it was also my favorite crop Dad grew.

Nothing could top beet harvest . It was always the most fun. We kids, even when very young, were finally allowed to help. It was important work, as important as anything, and we were part of it. We were grown-up enough to help dad provide for the family.

The freshly tilled earth was dark and moist and smelled so good. We walked behind the dump truck with hooks and found every beet that the harvester left behind and threw

 them into the truck. We are not talking about the beets we grow in our garden. 'These beets were huge tan beats with white flesh. 

Everyone in the family helped, and mom and grandma would always bring lunch right out into the field so we didn't have to stop for long.

All the farmers were always in good spirits. The year's hard work was finally paying off. It was a good crop that brought good money so they could finally payoff those farm debts.

The highlight of harvest for us kids was riding in the cab of the dump truck with our load to drop at the beet dump. That's what it was called, "the beet dump." Long lines of trucks waited in straight lines at the entry of the dump which provided for a great social gathering of lonely farmers, so talkative after long summer days alone in the fields.

Finally, it was our turn to drive onto the big scale to weigh the full truck. I thought this was why dad brought me along, (the extra 50 lbs.) I figured I brought a lot of money. I didn't realize until I was older why they weighed the empty trucks on the way out.

Watching the dump truck tilt up and unload the beets onto the conveyor belt was the highlight. The belt took the beets all the way up to the sky scraper-sized hill of beets.

Then it was back home to join the other trucks loading more beets.

It was a sad day when I heard we were no longer growing those huge beets. Apparently, Holly Sugar found another area where the beets had a higher concentration of sugar in the white flesh.

From time to time I hear a local farmer talk of bringing sugar beets back to the valley. I figure they must have had as much fun as I did helping their dads make a living.


Enough already!

By Penny Stine
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I discovered this year that tomatillos love the Grand Valley. We must have the perfect combination of soil, sunshine and growing season to make them deliriously happy.

My tomatillos were so happy they grew far bigger than I ever imagined, spreading far beyond their planting beds, overshadowing unsuspecting herbs and pepper plants and producing so many tomatillos that I ended up picking a huge bowl of them every weekend to make green salsa.
I probably made at least 35 pints of green salsa. I also canned at least 8 quarts of a stewed tomatillo mixture that included tomatillos, corn, roasted green chiles, squash, onions and garlic. I canned tomatoes and tomatillos together. I used tomatillos for green sauce in chilaquiles, enchiladas and pasta. I used tomatillo salsa as currency to trade for juicy red tomatoes. 
Although I really wanted to use every last one, I just couldn’t. When we went on vacation, I took my brother an overflowing grocery sack full of tomatillos. When we came home from vacation, I picked another sack of tomatillos and took them to work to give away, since they didn’t freeze completely while we were gone. And then did it twice more before I finally pulled the plants out. I had to take a picture of the last basketful of tomatillos from my garden:

Of course, tiny little tomatillos fell to the ground all over my gardens and I threw the pulled plants (with more tiny little tomatillos attached) in my compost bin, which means I could have tomatillos sprouting everywhere next year. But I will be ruthless and not allow them to live where I do not deliberately plant them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I’ll dig up a buried treasure in my new garden space and get a visit from the queen of England, too, who will be coming to borrow two cups of chopped tomatillos to try a new recipe. It’s always nice to dream…

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