Leeks!

One of my favorite flavors to cook with is leeks. They have a unique and interesting mild onion taste and are part of the allium family that also includes onions, garlic, shallots, scallions and chives. Last year, I found I had wild leeks (ramps) on our WI property and have really enjoyed finding, harvesting and cooking with them (see Spring Leeks (aka Ramps)).

But they are only around for a short period in the spring, and I have to be careful not to harvest too many or run the risk of wiping out the wild colonies. I’d rather err on the side of harvesting too few than too many and be sorry in a few years.

So what to do? How about grow some cultivars in my own garden? I’ve already started growing my own garlic, onions, shallots and chives. So how about adding leeks!

It seems like as with most alliums in a home garden, it’s best to start with some type of starter plant or bulb rather than seeds. In that regard, a numbers of sources sell lots of different varieties of leek seeds, but only a couple of varieties come as starter plants. I decided to make it easy on myself and ordered King Richard (Allium porrum) starter plants from Johnny’s Seeds.

It was a toss up between the King Richard and Lancelot (Allium ampeloprasum) leek plants. King Richard is an early season leek, maturing in just 75 days, is frost-hardy but will not overwinter, while Lancelot is a mid season leek, maturing in 105 days, and is winter hardy.

My packet of starter leek plants came in early spring, a few weeks before the last frost date. Leeks are cold season plants, so they should be planted before the last frost date. They’ll tolerate a light frost just fine and need the extra growing time. Like garlic, shallots, and potatoes, they have their own unique way to be cultivated. In order to keep the nice white part of the leeks white, the growing plants need to be blanched, which means that part of the plant needs to be grown out of sunlight. You can grow them in trenches that you fill in as the plant grows, or plant in holes using a dibbler. I used the dribbler method, although I had to improvise with a thick garden stake last year. I now have a dibbler and it’ll be much easier to do this year.

In early spring, in light, soil poke holes with a dibbler or thick stake, 6 inches deep, 6 inches apart, in rows 24 inches apart. 

Drop one plant in each hole leaving only 1–2 inches of the leaves above the soil surface.

Do not fill in the soil around plants, but let rain or irrigation or rain slowly fill in the holes. This allows for self-blanching of the edible white part. If need be, later in summer soil can be pushed up against the growing plant to increase the white blanched part.

I staggered my leek and garlic plants since they are opposite in growing seasons (which is why my garden above in the planting photos looks “messy”). The garlic is planted in the fall and harvested mid-summer, the leeks planted in spring, harvested in late summer/fall. Leeks can be grown in between many early vegetables, but keep away from legumes like beans since the leeks will inhibit their growth.

Leeks can be harvested anytime late summer (after they get about 1 inch in diameter) through early winter. Best way is to dig around the plant to loosen the soil, and then give a good pull.

Most leeks are winter hardy and can withstand light to hard freezes depending on variety. Harvest as you need them, they stay fresher in the ground than in your refrigerator.

Unfortunately for me, I got a little cavalier with the plants in my Wi garden and the ground froze solid before I got all of the leeks out.  I’m hoping they survive the winter and I’ll have fresh spring leeks 😔

In early winter, before the ground freezes solid, harvest whatever you have left, peel off the dead outer leaves and trim the roots and leaves. Store in the refrigerator crisper drawer until needed.

To use in cooking, trim off the roots and cut off the tops where the white is turning light green. Generally, only the white and lightest green parts are used for cooking. Then cut in half and rinse well. Because of how they are grown, dirt and sand often finds its way between the leaves and needs to be rinsed out.

They can now be blanched for freezing, or used fresh in your favorite leek recipe. A few of mine are my Thanksgiving Leek, Apricot and Chestnut Stuffing (recipe here)

Shrimp, Leek and Spinach Pasta from Real Simple is wonderful for a quick, tasty dinner.

Spinach, Goat Cheese and Leek Quiche. The original recipe calls for chives, but I like to substitute sautéed leeks for the chives, and to simplify things I often use a refrigerated Pillsbury pie crust. This is a staple in our house for holiday brunches.

I’m getting ready to order my plants for this year. I think I’m going to try the Lancelot variety from Dixondale Farms. Lots of good advice on growing onions, leeks and shallots on their website.  Johnny’s has tons of great advice too!

So many ways to use these versatile, mild onions. What’s your favorite?

 

Happy New Year 2018!

Happy New Year! I hope this post finds you healthy and happy. I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus with my writing, but hopefully the new year will get me back on track. While I was still attentive to my garden all fall, I do most of my writing in the evenings and I got distracted the last few months watching all seven seasons of Game of Thrones with my husband. (In case you were thinking about watching, it was just as great as the kids said it is and the final season can’t come fast enough!)

But, that’s done and most shows don’t require that level of attention so I have my evenings back! We also did a fair amount of traveling to see visit the kids and out of town family and I’ll share some of the highlights of those trips in the next couple of months.

Lastly, I got a new laptop and the transition was pretty straightforward except for switching from Apple iPhoto to Photos. I procrastinated for a long time since I had everything organized so nicely in iPhoto for my blog, but it was time to convert. You’d think it would be as easy as say “Go”, but for a bunch of reasons, I couldn’t get it to transfer properly. Eventually I did it, but I’m still dealing with photos scattered about in a bit of a disorganized way. Does anyone use a photo manager to organize your photos? The edit features in Photos are fine, but I don’t love the organizational options.

What have I been up to in the garden? Well, like many of you it was a very strange fall with warm temperatures well into November keeping things green and growing well past normal times. Great for the vegetable garden, but probably not so great for the trees and shrubs that really need to get ready for winter. Here’s some of what I was harvesting the end of October.

I spent a lot of time this fall watering to be sure the plants were ready for winter (First Too Much Water, Now Not Nearly Enough). But, with temperatures hovering around 0°F for some time now, I’m not sure how the plants will tolerate this winter no matter what I did.

With all this cold weather, I’ve been going through a lot of bird seed trying to help the birds survive this extreme weather. Glad I bought lots of seed at the fall seed sale at my local Wild Bird Unlimited in Lisle, IL. By the way, they are currently having their January Feed sale, so if you live in the area it’s a great time to stock up. They even store it for you until you need it.

My new gardening adventure this year was planting leeks. Leeks are one of my favorite foods to cook with and growing them seemed intriguing. I’m already looking where to buy my starter plants this spring, so it definitely worked out well.  A post with more details will be coming soon.

Right now, all snuggled warm in my house I’m enjoying all the teaser emails from the seed companies and the catalogs that are starting to come in. What new vegetables to grow? What new gadgets to buy? Check out my Vendors and Resources page to see where I like to order from. I’ve recycled all the Christmas catalogs to make room for them. I have a couple of areas that need attention so I need to find some time to research what will work best in these areas. One is the swale area that seems perpetually wet, then of course dries out mid summer.

The other is under the new magnolia that replaced the Freeman maple tree that died a couple of years ago. The hostas are doing fine in the new found sun, but the ferns have gone crazy! Not sure the species, but in the shade they were kept in check, but they’ve proliferated out of control in the sun. And they are hard to pull out! Word to the wise, be careful where you plant ferns!

I look forward to sharing you more about what’s up in my garden and where I’ve been, but in the meantime I wish you all a Happy New Year and Go Bills!

While I live in Chicago, I grew up in Buffalo and will always be a Bills fan.  This has been an exciting year for us!!

So Much Planting to Do!

When I looked at the pile of fall bulbs and garlic waiting to be planted, I had to wonder what I was thinking when I ordered it all.

This year I decided to plant a little more garlic, mostly because I wanted to try a couple of new varieties.  I’ve been planting garlic the last few years and love the different varieties. No matter what you grow, it’s always better than the store bought kind.

Then there’s the bulbs I ordered. I hadn’t planted many new bulbs in a long while and it was starting to show in my gardens. I became inspired last year to add some alliums and daffodils, both at home at at the cabin in WI.

It was so pretty this spring, I decided to add more this fall and Groupon obliged by offering some great deals back in August. I’ve actually had pretty good luck with bulbs from Groupon, but I can’t vouch for all their garden offerings. If you have a special plant, bulbs or seeds in mind, I would still go to my tried and true plant and seed companies.

As it happens sometimes when I order on-line, I lose track of what I bought and then the boxes start to arrive. And then more come… Here’s just some of the hundreds of bulbs that came!

For some people that’s not an issue, but planting bulbs isn’t my favorite thing to do and I’m a terrible procrastinator.

After sitting in the house for a couple of weeks (or maybe a few) while it was weirdly hot for September, I finally got all the garlic in the ground last week. This year I planted two varieties that grew well for me before; Music, a hardneck porcelain type, and Susanville, softneck artichoke type. I also planted two new hardneck varieties, a rocambole Spanish Roja and a purple stripe Duganski, all from Territorial Seeds.

The garlic cloves are in their holes ready to be covered up for the winter and that’s my leeks looking awesome in the background!

I was careful this year to mark every row. I have a bad habit of planting and forgetting. This way if the garlic doesn’t come up, I know something should have been in that row, plus I’ll know what I’ve harvested. I often have to guess.

While I was at it, I got the french shallots planted as well. They’re one of my favorites to cook with!  Here they are all ready to be covered with about an inch of soil. My Sloggers garden clogs are perfect for this kind of muddy work.

Once that was done, the bulbs started calling my name to get them in the ground. I do love my bulb digger for planting bulbs in our hard clay soil. Using it speeds things up, ensures that I’ve dug my holes deep enough and saves my back. Still need to get the smaller bulbs in and for those I’ll use a trowel or dibber (I just ordered this one, so I’ll let you know if I like it).

Did you add any bulbs for spring this year?

 

Lime in the Planter?

I went out to water the front planters the other day and there was dirt and plants all over the front stoop, and a big hole dug in the the tall planter.

Then I saw what looked like a lime in the center of the planter. Now maybe that wouldn’t be so weird, except this is Chicago and limes don’t grow here.

So what was going on?

Cutting it open showed me it wasn’t a lime, butt instead a black walnut. Hmm… So I changed my question to why was there a black walnut in the planter on my front stoop. My best guess is a very creative squirrel. All over my yard I have signs of squirrel activity as they get ready for winter.

Every fall they seem to get very active burying their winter food in my grass and gardens. I don’t really mind, it’s kind of like free aerating. As long as they stay away from my bird feeders!

But, I still don’t understand the black walnut. The closest black walnut tree is over as block away, and after carrying it so far why put its such a difficult spot? But then there’s a lot about squirrel behavior that seems puzzling. Add this to the list 🙂

 

First Too Much Water, Now Not Nearly Enough

First we had an unusually wet spring, and now we’re in a drought situation here in Chicago and many other locations. What does that mean going into the winter? Nothing good, that’s for sure. So what to do? Keep watering each week as long as possible until your plants go dormant.

Ideally, all trees, shrubs and perennials should be getting about an inch a week in order to go into the winter healthy and strong.  Any new transplants, like this Star Magnolia and Bottle-brush Buckeye, should be especially cared for during a time of drought.

Evergreens, like boxwoods, yews and arborvitae, despite their lack of noticeable stress under drought can be especially susceptible to winter kill. I have a row of yews along the north side of the house that don’t always get rain to fall on them.

I tend to periodically “dump” water down the center of each plant from a watering can to ensure their root balls get enough water. Seems faster and more consistent than standing with a hose.

 

Plants susceptible to disease are also another group of plants to be sure to tend to. Our Purple Ash, while seemingly healthy because we’ve been treating it for Emerald Ash Borer, is a good example of a tree to keep a careful watch on.

Others in my yard that are less than healthy and need more watching during drought periods are Red twig dogwoods that have twig blight, and a River Birch that is prone to chlorosis.

 

 

How best to water? Check the soil for moisture by seeing if a trowel or finger can get into the soil. Very dry soil will compact and resist penetration. This compacted soil reduces the ability of the water gathering tree roots near the surface to absorb moisture. Light, frequent watering should be avoided, instead water the trees and shrubs within the drip line (distance of the trunk to the ends of the branches) about once a week with 1-2 inches of water. It’s good to have a rain gauge or check out Weather Underground to find a weather station nearby to know really how much precipition actually falls in your yard.  Helps decide if you need to water our not. Many times I find rain is in the area, but maybe not at my house, or it’s less than I think it is.

I sometimes will set out a container to see just how much water I’ve sprinkled. I also set a timer so I don’t forget and flood the area! Today all I could find was a dog dish 🙂

 

 

What’s my favorite sprinkler? This Dramm ColorStorm Turret Sprinkler. I often sprinkle only in one direction, like against the house or fence, and these are easy to adjust to water only what I need and built to last. If I’m doing a bigger patch, I’ll get out my Dramm ColorStorm Oscillating Sprinkler.

 

So, time to go out and water!

(Are you in a drought? check this map from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to see where your area stands)

 

 

Cheerful and Bright Zinnia Bed

Last year, my friend Susan described to me how she grows a beautiful hedgerow of zinnias every year by collecting the seed heads in the fall (Fall Seed Gathering Means Beautiful Summer Zinnias).

I thought I’d give it a try this spring, so I collected all the zinnia heads from my garden last fall.

I left them in a bag over the winter on the porch and this spring crumbled up the dry seed heads to release all the seeds. No need to separate the seeds from the rest of the smaller plant material.

This spring, when the soil temperature was warm enough (usually not until after Mother’s Day here at my zone 5 home) I planted the overwintered seeds in a bare spot in the front garden that just needed some color. Just sprinkle out the seed mixture in thick rows or mat. Zinnias are definitely picky about temperature, so don’t start too early. (The dug-up plant on the left? A random daylily that was really out of place after a bunch of landscaping changes. It got replanted up at the WI cabin.)

Then I waited. I was surprised at how fast the seeds germinated, and by early July I had a beautiful, welcoming splash of color.

They’ve been blooming beautifully all summer, and the Durango Outback marigolds (Johnny’s Seeds) and Annabelle hydrangeas are perfect companions. I think the marigolds will be perfect candidates to try this seeding method with next spring.

Durango Outback Marigold

I did try this seeding method this year with snapdragons. They germinated and grew really nicely, but for some reason haven’t flowered very well.

Maybe because they’re in a planter, or maybe it needed more fertilizer, or the seeds didn’t overwinter properly? Funny thing though, they seem to have grown just great in our fire pit where I must have tossed some “waste”.

I will be definitely be collecting all the seeds heads again this fall!

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Playtime

While I haven’t been seeing many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this year at home, I did have a pair spend the summer at our cabin in Wisconsin. When we were there last time, it was clear that we now had a very noisy family of five hummingbirds. I had no idea they “chipped” so much. This juvenile male was particularly camera friendly.

The kids and parents spent their days zipping about and chasing each other from treetop to feeder to window feeder back to treetops. It was hard to pull myself away from the window they were so entertaining! These were their favorite resting spots.

I got a few cute movies of their antics. Watch the background for others having fun. Quality isn’t what I wanted, but that’s the danger of filming on my phone. Two things to remember for next time: Turn my phone horizontal and clean my windows!

Despite that, I hope you enjoy these movies:

How do I know the photo of the juvenile is a male? It’s difficult to tell a juvenile male from a female, but there are some tell-tale marks appearing later in summer. Like a female, the juvenile male may have a white throat, but later in summer it’s often streaked with black or green.  Think “5 o’clock shadow”. A few red feathers may actually start showing up right before migration time.

For a more detailed description of identifying male, female and juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds check out Operation Rubythroat.

Did you end up seeing hummingbirds in your yard this year?

 

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“Cardinal Vulture”

I’m sure most of us have seen a turkey vulture, that dark soaring bird with a featherless head. Well, I have a new vulture to add!

I was startled earlier this summer by a red bird right outside the family room window that I had not seen before. I saw a spectacular new red bird this year, a Summer Tanager, so I thought I had another to add to my life list. All I caught before it flew off was that it was an all red bird with a black head. Out came the bird book, only to find there is no such bird to be found. Hmm.

Then it came back again, and it was with the female cardinal.

I had to figure this out, so I filled up the squirrel-proof sunflower seed feeder, hung it right in front of the kitchen window and hoped it would entice this odd bird in so I could identify it.

Lo and behold, he arrived and it was a male cardinal with no feathers on his head.

After some research on the internet, it seems bald cardinals are not all that unusual and there seems to be a few reasons it may occur:

  • Something can go wrong in the post-breeding molting process. Although these molting birds usually replace feathers in waves so that bare spots rarely appear, some species like cardinals, blue jays and grackles seem to be particularly susceptible to losing all their head feathers at once during molting.
  • Feather mites. The birds aren’t able to pick them off their heads during preening and the mites destroy the feather shafts. The birds will eventually grow new feathers.

Some less likely reasons are:

  • Feather-pecking by other birds.  Some birds like crows, will attack other birds and peck off feathers. But they usually only attack their own species. Interestingly, my mom has this issue with her chickens.
  • Disease. But, the birds generally don’t show any other symptoms of being sick
  • Other factors might include nutritional deficiencies, unusually high temperature, or other environmental stress.
  • It’s also possible that total feather loss may be a normal occurrence for individual birds.

No matter what the reason is, it seems not be a cause for worry. The feathers will grow back, and in this bird’s case, it hasn’t interfered with attracting a mate. I hope he grows his feather’s back before the weather turns cold.

For more details on how this interesting phenomena, check out these other articles:

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Where Are the Hummingbirds?

I started wondering this earlier this summer around the same time a friend asked me how long it takes to get Ruby-throated hummingbirds to come to a new feeder.

While it does usually take a while to get them to find a new feeder, her question made me realize that it seemed like I was having far fewer hummingbirds to my own feeder this year.

Normally here in Chicago, I have a pretty steady stream of hummingbirds to my garden and feeders by mid-spring, but this year it has been a trickle. I started asking around and some of my friends in the area reported the same thing.

I asked my mom in Michigan, the same thing. Almost none in her yard this year. Although it was interesting that a friend of hers nearby seemed to be having normal numbers to his yard.

I tried looking online to see if others were noticing the same thing and did find a few anecdotal comments that hummingbirds seemed to be missing in the Midwest this year.

Out of curiosity, I called my local Wild Birds Unlimited store to see if they’d heard anything. They are not only a great source for birding accessories, but also for information on all things bird related. They had also heard reports that there seemed to be fewer hummingbirds locally, and that it was possibly due to a shift in migration more to the East Coast this year or maybe they’re just arriving later than normal because of our spring weather.

Of course, that meant I had to ask around some more and got reports back that on the East Coast their numbers seemed down as well.

Interestingly, I seem to have had normal activity at my WI cabin feeder and just recently I’ve been seeing an increase in activity at my feeder at home.

I did a little more research on eBird using their mountains of citizen science bird checklist data. Looking at the frequency of checklists containing Ruby-throated hummingbird sightings in my county in IL, the actual numbers seem to be pretty low early on but have rebounded a bit above normal in late June and July (2017 is purple). So it looks like instead of not being here, they have just come later than normal.  You can check out your local area by starting on this eBird page.

Hummingbirds sightings should increase even more the rest of the summer as each of the 2 or 3 broods hatch and the yearlings start looking for food in our yards alongside the adults.

So how has it been in your neck of the woods this year? Have the Ruby-throated hummingbirds been seen in your yard like normal? If you checked out eBird, be sure to add to their data by reporting your bird sightings.  Every little bit helps!

BTW, if you don’t have a lot of hummingbirds draining the feeder regularly, be sure to change the food frequently so when they do arrive they have fresh food. You can get an easy nectar recipe here.

 

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July Vegetables

My spring vegetables really took a beating from the rabbits and the weather. Even though I had shored up the rabbit fence around the yard, all it took was a couple of holes and I had a nice happy family of rabbits devouring almost everything I planted. Radishes, swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, beets and carrots were all gone. The last straw was when my bean plants were each bitten cleanly off at the base.

Since this spring was a loss, I put up a rabbit fence around these two beds to protect what was left.

By now the weather has turned too warm to replant any cool weather seeds, so I’ll have to put my focus into what’s remaining and plan for some fall planting.

The Gourmet Gold Hybrid Summer Squash (Burpee) is truly a beautiful bright yellow summer squash and seems to be an early and heavy producer. A great addition when trying to eat a “rainbow of colors”. The Emerald Delight Zucchini has just started producing and so far I’m liking what I’m harvesting. Both are wonderful on a fresh veggie platter!

The garlic was ready to harvest last week and it’s now curing on the porch! I’m so spoiled by the amazing taste of homegrown garlic, that come late spring I dread having to buy garlic.

I planted the hardneck varieties Music and Purple Glazer, and the softneck Early California from Botanical Interests this year. My WI garlic is a little bit behind and probably won’t be ready for a couple more weeks. Want to know more about growing and harvesting garlic? Check out my previous garlic posts or search for the tag “growing garlic” on the right sidebar.

The Early Girl tomatoes have lived up to their name and already been producing tasty tomatoes perfect for salads and sandwiches, and the Better Boys aren’t too far behind. The Super Sweet 100’s cherry tomatoes are just starting to ripen as well. Tomato season is here!

Last but not least are my potatoes. I planted a lot of Yukon Gold and Dark Red Norland potatoes. Even had to buy more potato bags to plant them all. They look really healthy this year since they’ve had plenty of rain. Want to grow your own next year? It’s really easy to do and fun to find all those potatoes in the fall. Check out my how-to’s on planting, growing and harvesting potatoes.

How are your vegetables doing? Have weather or creatures been a problem for you?

Maybe since it’s been cooler in WI, and the garden fenced in better, I’ll have better luck with the mid-summer harvests of my spring planted seeds that I planted there. I’ll be checking on that soon.

 

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