Growing Sunflowers In Your Veggie Garden Is A Bright Idea

Tall yellow sunflower

Let’s talk about sunflowers. Beautiful, vibrant sunflowers. While they are not a plant the average vegetable grower considers putting in their garden, standing tall between the tomatoes and the melons, I’m going to take a few moments here to suggest they should be.  Seriously, you need to be planting these lovelies.  Even in my tiny garden, I usually carve out a small space to grow a few sunflowers.

Sweet yellow sunflower

Why?  Besides the joy of seeing their bright happy faces in the morning, I have a handful of other good reasons:

  • They draw and feed needed pollinators – bees love sunflowers
  • They are super easy to grow from seed
  • Planting them close to your cucumbers can improve the cucs flavor
  • They add a bright splash of color
  • And after all is said and done…you can harvest and eat the seeds!

Since sunflowers grow straight up, they don’t require much of a foot print and you don’t have to plant an army of them to gain their benefits.  I usually only give them a two foot square of ground in which to grow.  But even with that small space, once planted, they will soon be towering over my garden, beckoning the bees and butterflies.

Towering Sunflower

They couldn’t be easier to plant.  Super forgiving of the soil and environment, you pretty much just plant the seeds, cover with dirt, and water.  And…boom!  Sunflowers!

Orange Sunflower and Buds

If you do decide to plant these beauties, you will need to make a few decisions.  Sunflower varieties come in different heights, colors, and seed size.  So be sure to read all the info about the seeds you are considering to make sure they will accomplish your goals.  I have come to prefer the tall varieties with big seeds like Mammoth and Pike’s Peak (the variety pictured at the top of this post), but a shorter variety with smaller seeds might suit your needs better.  That bit is totally up to you.  But don’t be afraid to stray from the standard yellow – feel free to throw in a few other color varieties as well, like the orange one pictured below.

Pretty Orange Sunflower

If you are just growing them for their pollination benefits and beauty, then you can pull the plants out when the flowers have all drooped and begun to dry.  But if, like me, you want to harvest their tasty and nutritious seeds, then you will need to leave them alone and let time do its work.

wide open tall sunflower

After the flowers have grown big and bright and happy in the sunshine, and had visits from many pollinators, they will begin to droop over at the top.  As this process continues, the petals will fall off and the flowers will look dead…but don’t be fooled.  It is during this time that the seeds begin to grow big and tasty.  Unfortunately, the birds think they are tasty, too.  So I usually take precautions to make sure I get to enjoy the seeds instead of the neighborhood birds.

Mesh Bag

I simply slip one of these over each flower head…and wait.  Pretty much any breathable covering that keeps the bird from getting to the seeds will do, but if you are looking for the same ones I use, I buy them in bulk from HarrisSeeds.com.

Lots of Flowers with Mesh Bags

I know they don’t look pretty like this, but just think of the yumminess to come.  Once the flower heads have grown their seeds, you can snip each one off its stalk.  At this point, you can pull the stalks up out of the garden and send them off to your compost pile if you’d like.  The flower heads should go inside to a cool dry spot to dry out for about a week or so.  Once the heads are all dried out, it’s time to harvest those seeds.

Pile of Dried Sunflowers

The seeds are underneath all the fuzzy stuff on the surface of the flower’s face, so step number one is to rub all that off.  You can wear gloves for this if you would like.

Ready to harvest

Once you brush all that debris off, you will see the seeds packed tightly in the center of the flower face.

Seeds Ready to Harvest

That’s a lot of seeds in just one sunflower!!  Gently loosen the seeds and remove them from the dried flower head – some varieties are packed tight and can take a little work.

Removing Big seeds

And that’s it!  What was once a bright flower bringing needed bees and butterflies to your garden…

Side view of Yellow Sunflower

Well now be a tasty snack for you to enjoy all winter.

Seeds

I mentioned earlier about different varieties having different seed size.  If you are hoping to eat your seeds, then choosing a variety with larger seeds will make that easier.  While you can still eat the smaller seeds, the process is not as labor intensive if you have a variety with snack sized seeds (what the seed catalogs call the bigger seeds).

Here you can see the difference I’m talking about.  This is a harvest of the smaller sized seeds.

handful of small seeds

And here is a comparison with a larger variety.

Handful of big seeds

Big difference.

So when you are planning your garden for next season, please consider carving out a little space to plant a few sunflowers.  You, and the bees, will be glad you did.

Forward facing yellow sunflower

Now get out there and garden!!

Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Small Garden

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

I LOVE sweet potatoes.  LOVE them.  Tasty.  Pretty.  Healthy.  Easy to grow (seriously, super easy).  Store well. You don’t need to devote a lot of space to them, either.  As a result, they are a staple in my little backyard garden.

A Sweet Potato in the hand

Growing these little orange jewels in Texas is pretty straight forward and relatively problem free. The biggest issue I have with them is controlling the wealth of vines the sweet potatoes try and spread out across the garden.  Left to their own devices, those vines would cover half my backyard like something out of a sci-fi film!  But as long as you don’t leave them to fend for themselves for long periods, you can tame those enthusiastic vines.

So…where do you start? Well, you are going to plant your sweet potatoes in the Spring, so you need to start preparing your slips in February.  “Slips” are the little sweet potato shoots you plant in the garden that grow into your sweet potatoes.  You can buy them from nurseries and from many sources online….or you can grow your own, like I do.  Much like my post about growing white potatoes, if you want to grow your own sweet potato slips, you need to head to the store and buy a few sweet potatoes.  If you buy from a nursery or online, you will know the exact variety of sweet potato you are growing, but if you buy from the grocery store, you will not.  I know that I prefer sweet potatoes that are dark orange, so I look for that type in the store.  I buy a few, bring them home, and cook one.  If it is the tasty thing I was hoping for, I sprout the remaining sweet potatoes.  If it wasn’t what I was looking for, I head back to the store.  You will have the most luck sprouting organic sweet potatoes, so opt for those if you can.

Okay, so now you have a handful of sweet potatoes you know you like.  Now what?  Here’s the super hard part.  Ready?  You set them out on your kitchen counter and leave them alone.  Difficult, right?  Just let those sweet potatoes sit there until they start to sprout out of one end.

Sprouted Sweet Potato

Now that you have some sprouting going on, you need to put the other end of the sweet potato in some water and set it in a sunny spot, like on a window sill.  I usually use a small jar for this.  To be clear, you put the end with NO sprouts coming out of it in the water, and the sprouted end is the one on top.

Sprouted Potato in a jar

As you can see from this picture above, the potato will continue to grow sprouts out the top, and little roots on the bottom.  Each of those little sprouts on the top are a “slip.”  You can get quite a few from one potato.  I usually just need to sprout two sweet potatoes to get all the slips I will need, and then some.

Once your slips are several inches long, and have a leaf or two forming, you can remove them from the sweet potato and plant them immediately in the garden.  It doesn’t matter if they get a little longer and more leafy before you plant them (like the one below), so don’t feel pressured to rush them into the garden if it’s not warm enough outside yet. You want to set them out when it is warm during the day and all danger of frost has past.

If you feel good about it being the right time to plant, then you are going to want to snip each slip off the potato with sharp, clean scissors – right at the point where it comes out of the potato.

Sweet potato slip

One note – you don’t have to cut them all off at once.  If several are big enough to cut off and plant, but a few aren’t, then remove the ones that are ready and set the potato with the remaining sprouts, still attached, back on the window sill.  Once they have grown a little more, you can snip them off and plant them with the others in the garden.

Now that you have your slips ready to go, you need a good spot for them in the garden. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, so they will a need nice, deeply tilled, sunny patch that is relatively free of rocks.  Rocks, and other obstacles, will cause the sweet potatoes to grow crooked.

Bent Sweet Potato

Bent Sweet Potato

Looks a little like a boomerang!  (Still tasty, though!)

Root vegetables also need well drained soil – they will rot in the ground if they get water logged.  Squishy, rotted, potatoes….ew.

How big a patch you decide on, will depend on how many potatoes you want to grow.  I usually plant about 7 slips in a square that is roughly  2′ 6″ x  2′ 6″ – and from that small space I am harvest enough sweet potatoes to get me through the Winter.

So, pick your spot, make sure it gets plenty of sun, make sure it doesn’t get water logged, till it up nice a deep, remove all the rocks and other debris you can, and add in a little compost if you think your soil needs it.

Time to plant!  Sweet potatoes grow in a cone shape below the main plant (which will be the grown up version of that slip you are about to plant), so you want to leave a least a 8 inches or so between slips.  Planting the slips is almost as hard as that “setting them on the counter” thing you did earlier.  You take that cute little slip and…drum roll….stick it into the dirt.

Planting the slip

That’s really it…you just gently push the slip into the soil a few inches.

CU of slip being planted

Boom!  Sweet potato planted!  The little baby slips will need to be kept watered for a few days till they establish roots and can move on to a more regular watering like the rest of your garden.  You don’t want them soaked all the time, just don’t let the sprouts dry out completely for a few days.  After that, your sweet potatoes will be off to the races – meaning they will start sending out vines like you wouldn’t believe!  Seriously, they will grow all over the place if you let them.  So before that starts happening and your garden is overrun, you will need a plan.  I have found placing a trellis in the ground right behind the sweet potato patch when I plant a good solution.  Then as the vines grow, I toss them up on to the trellis (they won’t agree to this on their own, you will have to direct the vines yourself).

Sweet Potato Vines

Don’t be fooled by this picture – this was still early in the season when the vines were just getting going.

You can trim back particularly long or unruly vines if you need to, but since the vines are the potatoes’ source for gathering sunlight you will need to leave plenty to feed the sweet potatoes.

One note more on the vines.  Vines laying on the ground will, eventually, send down roots that will grow more sweet potatoes.  Those sweet potatoes won’t grow fast enough to really show up this year – they will be the ones that spring up in your garden next year.  So, if you allow your vines to sprawl happily through your garden, then next year you will have little sweet potato plants sprouting in unexpected places.  This may, or may not, be okay with you, so plan accordingly.  Since one or two vines are bound to get away from you somehow, even with your diligence, this is going to happen to you a few times.  Depending on where they pop up, it might be a pleasant surprise.  On the plus side, it’s not like they are invasive in some way.  Just a few errant sweet potatoes now and then.

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

When to harvest?  It will take all Summer long and into the Fall for your sweet potato crop to mature.  If you are in the mood for a sweet potato in late Summer, and your soil is loose enough, you can gently stick your hand down into the soil near one of the plants and see if you can find a potato of adequate size for your dinner.  They are attached to the main plant by a small root, so they are easy to snip off, leaving the rest of the plant undisturbed.  As for the remainder of the crop, you will know all the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the vines begin to die off.

Dying vines

Dying vines

When this happens, it’s time to dig.  Ever so gently, so you don’t damage the potatoes, dig up the entire patch.  I tend to go about it like an archaeologist – I dig slowly and carefully, unearthing one potato at a time.

Just uncovered

Be sure to over turn the entire area in your hunt – some sweet potatoes manage to wander a bit from the rest of the group.

Fresh out of the ground

Ah!  Orange deliciousness.

A pretty big reward, for relatively little work.

Big bowl of Sweet Potatoes

I’m sure you have your favorite way to prepare these nutritious powerhouses, but here are two of mine.

Baked Sweet potato

You can’t go wrong with the baked sweet potato – they also cook up nicely wrapped in foil on the grill.

But one you may not have ever tried, is oven baked sweet potato disks.

Sweet Potato disks

You just peel the sweet potato, slice really thin (like with a mandolin), toss with olive oil and pepper, spread on parchment paper, and bake at 350º till just starting to brown. You do have to keep an eye on them towards the end – they go from perfect to burned in seconds.

That’s it!  Even the garden with a small area to work with can grow sweet potatoes!  And devoting the space for them is so worth it!  Now get out there and garden!

Grow Cantaloupe Vertically And Get A Lot of Tasty Fruit From A Small Footprint

Two HalvesCantaloupe fresh off the vine is a thing of beauty.  It is so sweet and so juicy it will need to take center stage on your plate.

Holding cantaloupeBut some gardeners who love cantaloupe don’t grow it in their backyard garden because the vines take up so much space.  I, for one, love cantaloupe far too much to let a little thing like limited space stop me.  So what did I do?  I did what I always do…I went vertical.

The Trellis with growing vinesThis simple arched trellis of mine can easily support eight cantaloupe plants – far more than I would be willing to plant if they needed ground room to sprawl.

How did I build that amazing structure, you ask?  Well let me tell you all about it.  I knew there were a number of factors to consider when deciding what to use as a trellis for my melons.  First, most cantaloupe varieties grow very long vines, so I knew I would want something that was tall enough to allow the vines to grow up and over.  (This trellis is over six feet high, with the sides four feet apart.)  Second, since cantaloupe are a heavy, dense fruit, you need a very sturdy trellis that can handle the weight of a bountiful harvest without collapsing.  And finally, I wanted something that had tight enough gaps to make it easy for the vines to climb the structure with minimal help from me.  I opted for the same welded wire I used to build my potato towers.

Welded Wirewire rollLike I mentioned above, I wanted a trellis that was a little over six feet high at the top and four feet from side to side.  So I measured out my length of wire and snipped off the amount I needed.

cutting the wireI then hammered four U-Posts into the ground just inside the points that would be the four corners of my trellis – since the trellis is going to hold a heavy load, I opted for slightly bigger U-posts than the wire might usually call for and I hammered then as deep as I could for maximum stability.  I planted my posts so that the open U was facing the inside of the trellis and the hooks were facing out.  Once my U-Posts were in place, I attached the welded wire to the posts using the hooks on the posts and zip ties.

Trellis postMy choice of the welded wire made it easy enough to bend into the arch I wanted, but lacked some strength in that very arch that needed some extra support.  For that, I took a stick of 1/2″ PVC, grabbed it out towards the ends and gently bent it into a curve that matched my trellis arch.  At the point it was simple as pie to slip that PVC curve up inside the arch with the pipe fitting fairly well into the open U of the posts.  The final step was to add a few zip ties to hold the PVC in place.  At that point, the pressure of the PVC pushing out against the U-Posts in an attempt to straighten, coupled with the zip ties, will make a very sturdy arch trellis that is all ready for your cantaloupe vines.

The TrellisFor the watering of the cantaloupes, I ran a soaker hose on a timer along the sides of the trellis as you can see in the picture above.  I also like to take advantage of any empty space in the garden, like the one in the middle of the trellis, to squeeze in another crop of something – in this case onions.  I knew the onions would grow during the cooler season before I planted the cantaloupe, and be harvested before the cantaloupe vines took over the area.

Next step was to plant the cantaloupe.  I planted several varieties, some from seed and some from nursery transplants, all along the welded wire sides.

Just getting startedAs they grew, I encouraged them to weave up through the trellis rather than grow along the ground.

When they actively started climbing, they continued to weave through the trellis on their own, but I watched for vines trying to wander off the trellis from time to time and corralled them back onto the arch.

Trellis with growing CantaloupeOnce the vines had gotten long and happy on the arch, and the weather had heated up, I  started getting little baby cantaloupes hanging all over the trellis.

Baby CantaloupeSeriously adorable, aren’t they?

Cantaloupe vines are pretty strong and keep a tight hold on the fruit as it grows, but with the melons hanging out there in space, it is a good idea to offer them a bit of support.  My choice was to buy these mesh produce bags with drawstrings in bulk online.

Mesh BagThe place I purchased these no longer carries them, so I have been on the hunt for a new supply.  The ones I found at HarrisSeeds.com are not the same, but close enough.  You want something big enough to hold the full grown fruit, but not so big that there is WAY too much bag.  And that drawstring is pretty important, as you are about to see.

Once the fruit starts getting big, it’s time to GENTLY slip it inside a bag and then tie the drawstring to the trellis so that the bag takes some of the weight.

Hanging CantaloupeThe bag will help protect the growing melon from birds and other pests, and take some of the stress off the vine.  When it is time to harvest, you simple untie the bag and pop the cantaloupe off the vine.

Small Cantaloupe in BagOne of the other benefits of the mesh bags is that when a cantaloupe is perfectly ripe, it will separate from it’s vine.  Should the cantaloupe reach complete ripeness before you harvest it, that beautiful melon will separate from the vine due to the fact that it is hanging from it and fall.  Without the bag, tragedy might result.  But with the bag, the fruit falls safely into the bag and waits patiently for you to come back out to the garden and find it.

Hanging in a bagIf, however, a melon forms on the OUTSIDE of the trellis wire where it is supported by the trellis itself, you can decide whether you feel a bag would be beneficial or not.

This one that grew on the top of my arch, for instance, is safe and sound up there with no need for support.

Cantaloupe on top of trellisBut this one, that grew on the side, is more of a question – it might be fine, but it still might fall to the ground when it ripens.  In the end, I put a bag around this one for safety.  Just couldn’t risk that awesomeness smashing to the ground.

Cantaloupe on the trellisNow a quick word about trying a shorter trellis.  I did a shorter trellis last year with garden gate sections that was super sturdy, but only about three feet high.  The vines enveloped it in no time and it took a lot of effort to keep them from wandering off into the garden.

Smaller structureSo I do highly recommend going with a tall structure for these vining fruits.

All that is left at this point, it admiring and enjoying your fabulous cantaloupes.

Ripe MelonFresh melon from the garden is a treat worth the work, so don’t let having a small area to garden keep you from planting them.

BreakfastSo good!  Oh my goodness!

Now get out there and garden!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Built My Backyard In-Ground Garden

With it still being Winter in Texas, this is no time to be thinking about a Spring garden, right?  Wrong…oh so wrong.  If you already have a garden space, it is time to be planning what you will be planting this year, prepping your garden, and planting things like onions.  If you don’t already HAVE a backyard garden, but are thinking of starting one this year, and I hope you are, it is time to start planning AND building.  The success of your garden depends greatly on the quality of your soil and proper planning of what to plant where, so you don’t want to wait until it’s time to plant and rush though the prep process.  So what kind of garden should you go with?  When it comes to backyard gardens there are many directions you can go: container gardening, raised beds, in-ground, or a combination.

Containers are good for small spaces, but need a lot of water in the heat of the Summer.  Raised beds are good if you have bad soil and don’t want to have to amend what you already have, but you will have to fill those beds with soil and compost, and the cost of that can add up.  In-ground let you use a lot of what you already have and don’t require as much water as containers or raised beds, but do require a lot of labor to break up the existing soil and get it ready for planting.  Each one has it’s benefits – it’s really up to you to decide which will work best for you based on space, money, and time.

When I was taking my first baby steps into gardening, I started with containers.  Mostly standard pots at first, then I added a large tubs and a couple of sheep troughs.

My little patio garden.

My little patio garden.

I learned a lot from this small garden and got some tasty produce, but my ambition grew and soon that patio space was just not enough for all the things I dreamed of planting.  No question about it, I needed to expand.  The main problem I faced was that I have a tiny backyard, and most of it is graded for drainage…so not suitable for a garden.  Hmmm….what to do?  The only part of the yard that wasn’t part of the drainage slope was the 5 foot space directly around the patio.  Perfect!  Now what?

I decided I wanted an in-ground garden – building raised beds around the patio would have hemmed me in a little too much, and while raised beds allow for a longer growing season since they warm sooner than in-ground gardens, they also require more water during the hot months to keep them from drying out.  Unfortunately, my yard soil was atrocious (almost entirely clay) and would need some serious amending to make it usable for the garden.  Time for the fun, and the hard work to begin.

After a bunch of online research and talks with area nurseries, I decided I would amend my gross clay soil with compost (lots of compost), lava sand, Texas Greensand, and regular sand.  A note about compost – I am not a fan of manure based compost.  I know a lot of people swear by it, but since it is made from livestock animal manure, if it is not cured properly for any reason, it can carry things like E. coli.  Most of it is probably completely safe, but since I want to eat the food from my garden, it is a risk I am unwilling to take.  As for the other amendments; the lava and Texas Greensand add nutrients and minerals that my plants will love, and the regular sand helps to further break up the dense clay of my original soil.  If your soil is not as clay based to begin with, the regular sand it probably not needed.

 

We needed to rent a small trailer to gather up the bags and bags and bags of amendments.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

Little trailer piled full of garden goodness.

And then pile it all in the backyard.

We marked off the perimeter of the garden, and Todd brought out the rented tiller.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

Todd getting ready to start the tilling process.

It took a long time and a lot of blisters to till up the hard clay soil.  Luckily, Todd is a determined man and doesn’t give up easily.

Bye bye grass.

Once the clay had been thoroughly broken up, it was time to start mixing in the amendments.  We decided to do it in stages to be sure the whole garden received enough of each amendment.  First up was the compost…lots and lots of compost.  We dumped the bags in the center, then I spread it over the surface with my hoe, then Todd came through with the tiller.

compost, compost, compost.

compost, compost, compost.

Next up: lava sand and Texas Greensand.  I mixed them both together before tilling them in to the garden.

The lava sand and Texas Greensand made such a pretty color.

Tilling in the lava sand and Texas Greensand.

Last amendment: regular sand.

Finally, with all the amendments tilled in, my new garden soil is something my plants will find delicious.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

Good dirt for growing happy plants.

But we weren’t done yet.

With my busy schedule, we knew that if we didn’t put in a good watering system, my poor garden would perish in the Texas heat when I became too busy to water it every day. Todd, the man who can do just about anything, came up with a plan to supply my garden with water.  Unfortunately, I can’t go into detail about the particulars of this part of the garden because it was Todd’s brainchild and involves a lot of plumbing…I try to avoid all things plumbing.  Basically, we put a sprinkler type system in the garden itself – the green valves run on a sprinkler timer and the red valves always have water available – there are three of each in the garden.  From the green valves I run small hoses to each plant with small emitters – since they run on a timer, I can decide how much water the garden needs and what time of day is best and can easily change it as the weather heats up in the dead of Summer.  As for the red valves, I can hook regular hoses to those for any other water needs I have in the yard.

IMG_0247

Putting in the watering system.

IMG_0248

Valves at the corner and at each end.

Once the watering system was in, the garden was ready for some edging…and PLANTS!! In this picture you can see the little black hoses that run from the green valves to the individual plants.  (I will have more on this in a future post.)

IMG_0265

Happy little garden

With good dirt and plenty of water, my garden quickly thrived.

How to build an in-ground garden.

My garden growing like crazy!

I know it seems like a lot of work – and, boy howdy, it was – but if you are interested in having a garden, all that labor is totally worth it.  Eating your own strawberries, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, etc…there is nothing like it.  So even though it is still chilly outside, start making your plan and gathering your supplies.   Before you know it, the weather will warm it will be time to get some tasty things growing!