A place for gardeners, foodies and garden inspired artists.

Author: Cathy Matel

Salsa Gardening – Before the Thaw

Child with tomatoGetting the family involved in gardening is a popular quest. The challenge is how to get the kids interested. Have you ever thought about planting a SALSA GARDEN?! Although your children may not love tomatoes and peppers (and onions, garlic and herbs) individually – once they realize when you put them all together it makes salsa – their interest will peak! Growing the ingredients to make this delicious dip will be rewarding whether you have little hands helping or not. Imagine the delight of your friends at a picnic gathering when you tell them your salsa was not only made from scratch, but you even grew the vegetables! How “green” of you!

Seed packets 2This fun project lasts all year, from planting to eating! So let’s get started–in our northern Wisconsin climate, your tomato and pepper seedlings should be planted now, indoors! You could have actually started the peppers a while back because they don’t outgrow their pots as fast as tomatoes.

Let’s talk tomatoes today. The best tomatoes for Salsa are paste types. Everyone is familiar with the old standard–the Roma–but there are dozens of heirloom paste tomatoes available. Great varieties to Tomato (10)1Corno-De-Toro-Pepper-225x300look for are: Amish paste, Opalka, Long Tom, Principal Borghese, San Marzano, Oxheart or Bull’s Heart (a really large paste tomato). Gildo Pietroboni is a little hard to find but this Italian paste is twice as big as a Roma and well worth the search when it comes to flavor. Add some fun to your tomato quest by making your salsa different colors with: orange, yellow or black Oxheart; Black Prince; Yellow, Green or Cream Sausage; Speckled Roman; Orange Banana or White Wonder tomatoes.

Next, the peppers; some great pepper varieties for a milder salsa are any of the Marconi’s, Hungarian Wax peppers, Poblano’s, Bermuda’s, or Ortega’s. You can get the crunch and look of a Jalapeño without the heat if you use Fooled You Jalapeño’s.  If you like it hot(!), consider using Cayenne’s, Tabasco’s, Serrano’s or the hottest…Habanera’s. Many of the ornamental pepper varieties that have variegated leaves like Fish, Trifetti, Masquerade and Black Pearl are also quite hot.

Now, the growing! Growing your seedlings is easy, really! The key is to start with the right ingredients.

  • Clean your potsUse jiffy mix or another super lightweight soil especially designed for seed starting. This will help prevent your seedlings from rotting; otherwise known as “damping off”. You can also use one of the prepackaged seed starting kits.
  • Start small. It’s easy to end up with way too many plants. But if you do, just share the extras with your family, friends or neighbors!
  • Very important. Clean your pots if you are reusing them. Seedlings are very susceptible to damping off, which is a fungal disease that causes them to simply rot and fall over. This is how I do mine, but you can wash them by hand if you wish.
  • Sprout seeds with bottom heatMost important, the seeds; needless to say, I LOVE SEEDS, they have such potential. Don’t you just marvel in how a huge plant can spring from this small piece of life?
  • Use bottom heat to get the seeds to sprout. Any warm place like the top of the refrigerator or an old-fashioned radiator will do. I use the bathroom floor as I have heated tile. My hubby wanted to know why I need the heating cables under the sink.
  • Water from the bottom too. Place water in the bottom tray, not on top of the soil.
  • Spring Seedlings1Move the seedlings to a bright window or under artificial lights as soon as they sprout (shop lights work well but lower the lights so they are just a few inches from the plants).
  • Thin the seedlings so they’re not crowded as they grow and move them to a bigger pot when they start to get big. Be ruthless; I know it’s hard. No one wants to kill their babies. Give some to your friends if you can’t do it.
  • Every time you transplant tomatoes plant them deep so only the top of the plant is sticking out of the soil. They’ll develop roots all along the stem and become strong. 7. Don’t plant your plants outside until it’s good and warm–but gradually set them outside to get them used to the outdoor weather. Bring them in on cold nights. Pepper plants are more susceptible to cold weather.

If you don’t want to take care of seedlings all winter never fear! It’s okay to purchase your seedlings. Be sure to check back and see what other ingredients you will need for your salsa garden!


pansy-very-dark-redI had heard this term before moving “up north”. But when I got here one of the first friends that I made used this as her “computer name” so I became more accustomed to the name.

This diminutive little pansy known to all as Jonny-jump-up, love in idleness or herb trinity is call heartsease because it is said to mend a broken heart. Shakespeare makes reference to this in A Midsummer Night’s dream. Oberon dispatches Puck to gather the “little western flower that maidens call Love-in-idleness”. Cupid’s arrow falls upon the plant that is “before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound”. Oberon and Puck are able to control the fate of other characters in the play by using heartsease; “on sleeping eyelids laid, will make or man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.”

Pansy Jolly JokerThe scientific name Viola tricolor tells us it is from the family violaceae (the violets) and tricolor because it is usually purple yellow and white. Violas are a close relative, but all of our wonderful longer lived pansies were developed from this plant. Pansy comes from the French – Pensee meaning thought or remembrance. Here is why in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Ophelia says “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”.

Some say all pansies can be called heartsease, but viola tricolor is the original one.  Pansies are among our edible flowers and are sometimes candied on fancy deserts, frozen into ice-cubes or thrown into salads.  Purple-and-white-pansy

They have been used forever as a mild treatment for pertussis and bronchitis due to their expectorant properties; cystitis, polyuria and dysuria due to their diuretic properties, and they are also a mild laxative, so don’t eat too many of these little cuties on your salad. They also contain salicylic acid, salicylates and rutin, so they have anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to treat gout and rheumatoid arthritis.

Used as a compress or ointment they treat eczema, psoriasis and acne. Although they are usually used in combination with other plants by herbalists, this is truly an amazing little plant.

So, what is the secret of growing Heartsease? There is none! Just ignore it and it will “jump up”. The fancier pansies will self-sow too, and will sometimes, but not always come true to seed. Of course you can find them at any garden center in early spring, but if you want a certain variety you may want to consider growing your own. If you do, keep these tips in mind; first start with fresh seed. Start early, I usually try to get mine going as soon after the holidays as I can.  They take 6-8 weeks to be large enough and can be set out quite early, as they are frost tolerant.  As with any seed starting use a soilless mix and keep them moist with bottom watering. But this difference with pansies; they should be kept cool (like about 65 degrees). No bottom heat for these darlings.  Another difference from many flower seeds is that they need darkness to germinate, so cover them with a little soil and throw the daily news on top of them until they sprout, then bring them into the light. Lastly, my favorite tip, grow them through spring as most people do, but then when summer comes and they start getting leggy and not so beautiful, don’t pull them out. Instead cut them waaaaaay back. They will all but disappear under your other flowers, but then in fall they will jump-up again for 3 more months of cuteness.

Walter Savage Landor says it all in this little poem.


There is a flower I wish to wear,

But not until first worn by you,

Heartsease of all earth’s flowers most rare;

Bring it; and bring enough for two.


Some may call this plant a “lawn weed”. But how can you not love a cute little plant that requires no care and heals a broken heart?


Click here to read about Pasque Flower for Easter

Try this link to read about Early Spring flowers

If you would like a few more pics of Early Spring Bulbs click here

Promise of Spring – Start Now!

Layering Bulbs – Small garden or no garden – No Problem!

Tulips and daffodils are what most people think of when they talk about spring bulbs, but there are so many more to choose from.  Most bulbs require very little root space so they can be planted quite densely and thus are perfect for those that have small gardens. They also don’t take up a lot of space in the garden once they are growing because most die back after blooming and have tall straight stems. Because flowers are generally pretty large and showy compared to the amount of foliage, you get a lot of bang for your garden space buck. In a one to two square foot hole you can get a patch that will flower from early spring well into summer.

First step; pick your bulbs. Usually but not always bigger bulbs will have bigger flowers and little bulbs; you guessed it smaller flowers. The bigger ones generally, but not always bloom later. So, even if you don’t know the exact bloom time for your bulbs you can be pretty safe planting the bigger ones on the bottom and decreasing the size as you move up in your layers. Do your research on bloom time if you want to be sure that you will always have something in bloom.  There are many different bulbs that could be included but the main categories are:

• Lilies and Alliums (for summer bloom)
• Narcissi and Tulips (for spring bloom)
• Muscari, Scilla, Iris reticulata, Crocus and other early spring bulbs
These are the “classic” bulbs that are used but please; check out your catalogs for some more unusual offerings!

You don’t have to use all of these layers; just two layers would also be fine. Layering also works great over a larger area. You can mix and match your bulbs however you like…be creative. If you use 2 different types of tulips (for example) in a layer, you may lengthen your bloom time a little bit. Do use your “design sense” however. If you use too many different things in one area things can look a little bit chaotic.  Oriental-lily-Loreto

How many bulbs should you buy?  You have to think about if you care about next year’s show, or what you will see in 3 or 4 years. How often do you want to dig it up and redo it? Plant more to get a great show the first year, and less if you want to take the lazy way out and not have to dig them up so soon do to overcrowding. Here are some approximate numbers.  In a 2 square foot hole you could fit, about 5 lilies, 7-12 daffodils, tulips or alliums (or any combination of them) and 20-30 small bulbs. The size of the bulbs is also important. You can fit fewer big top size bulbs than small offsets…duh.
What colors should you use? Well, what colors do you like? Work with the colors of other things in your garden. Too many colors can cause the eye to jump around. Usually you don’t have to worry about this however because your bulbs will be blooming at different times.
All of your plants don’t have to be bulbs.  It is fine to use a ground cover such as a quick-growing annual or low growing perennial in the top layer.  Some ideas of things to use here are parsley, alyssum, creeping sedums, creeping veronicas.  These ground covers serve 3 purposes; they add beauty to your planting in-between the flowering of the bulbs, they “mulch” the soil, conserving moisture and preventing weeds, and they can help to hide the foliage of the bulbs when they are done.
Layering bulbs is similar to making lasagna.  Layers of drainage material, bulbs, soil and ground covers or mulch are used instead of sauce and noodles.

The first step is to find a bare spot in the garden.  Check out your perennials in the summer and mark the spot as it can be difficult to remember in fall when the perennials are finished.  Since you will be planting densely the spot really does have to be empty of other plants to begin with.
Another benefit of planting all of your bulbs in one spot is that it will be easy to find them in fall when you want to divide them.  Scilla-mischtschenkoana
Here is your step by step “How To”:
• Dig a deep hole at least 12″ but 14″ is better and at least 16-18″ wide (remember you can use a larger area). The hole does not have to be perfectly round.  An irregular sized hole will give you a more natural appearance.
• Remove the soil and mix it with lots of good compost and add any organic or other fertilizer that you choose to use. Move the soil mixture into a bucket.
• Place some drainage material like coarse sand in the bottom of the hole, 1-3 inches is good depending on how sandy or clay-like your soil is.
• Next fill in about 2-3″ of the soil mixture.
• Now you can start to plant. Large bulbs go first. Cover with about 2″ of your soil mix.White-Tulip
• Next plant mid-sized bulbs. You try to fit them in between the bulbs below but don’t worry, emerging shoots of the lower layer bulbs just bend around anything they hit sitting over their heads and keep on growing.  Again cover with 2″ of your soil mix.
• Then plant the smallest bulbs that are also the earliest blooming. Finally cover with the last of your soil mix. It should be about 2 more inches and the ground should be level.
• After the blooms have faded, be sure to let the foliage die back naturally because this is how bulbs build up their strength for next year. It is okay to remove the flower stalks when they are finished to keep the garden looking tidy. You can also remove old foliage when it starts to yellow. It is green foliage that is nourishing the bulb for next year. It’s okay to bend it down a little if you don’t like the way that it looks.
• Water a little more often in the first weeks after you plant your bulbs to help them form their roots.
Please be careful when removing foliage from bulbs or picking cut flowers.  Many bulbs especially daffodils, tulips and hyacinths can cause severe contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals. Wear gloves and be very careful not to drip the sap from the stems on your skin.  Many workers in the bulb industry will tell you that “lily itch” is no fun.

Don’t worry; certain bulbs may be planted a little deeper than they would if you just planted them by themselves. The stuff in the hole will provide better protection winter heaving and at worst they will bloom a little later than your neighbor’s.

Daffodil-tazetta-Canary-BirdMany people also use bulbs for layering in containers.  This makes a beautiful display for your porch or patio.  Here are some things to remember about planting bulbs in containers.
• The bulbs can touch each other but should not touch the sides of the container.
• In Wisconsin even hardy bulbs will probably not survive the winter in containers.  You will have to either say good-bye to them or plant them in the ground.
• Bulbs like tulips and daffodils need a period of cold to bloom so either put them in the refrigerator or you can try putting the whole pot in a very cold but not freezing garage or basement.
• This is a perfect way to use bulbs that are not hardy in our area like elephant ears, cannas, callas, caladiums, and tubers like dahlias.  Once the display is finished you can put the entire pot in a cool dark place in your basement and bring it out in spring.  This works best if you have a sunny place indoors where you can bring them out and get them going before the season starts.
• Bulbs in containers will need extra fertilizer.
• Your contained bulbs will eventually outgrow your pot; some quicker than others, and you will have to replant.
• Planting in a pot is a great idea for certain bulbs that are sometimes eaten by rodents like crocus, and tulips.
• Make sure your pots have drainage holes (very important) and add additional drainage material in the bottom of the pot.
• It’s not a good idea to leave valuable clay or ceramic pots outside.  Freeze thaw cycles can crack them or cause them to flake.  Cement or plastic pots are fine outside over the winter.

Happy planting!



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