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!!

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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!

Setting a Trap for Garden Pests – Namely Aphids and Whiteflies

Baby Tomatoes I love the tomatoes from my garden…but so do aphids and whiteflies.  Both of those tiny little buggers, plus things like leaf miners, attack plants all over your garden, leaving devastated veggies in their wake.  And to make matters worse, these teeny little pests can be close to impossible to get rid of once they are established. I am not a fan of using heavy chemicals – so what’s a gardener to do?  When at all possible, I prefer to defend my garden in the first place and prevent or repel unwanted insects, reducing the number of pests that gain a foothold and have to be fought.  And what defense are we going to talk about today?  Sticky yellow cup traps.

Yellow cup and marigoldsCheap and simple, these yellow plastic cups are covered in a sticky substance that feels like a cross between glue and Vaseline.  The idea here is that the pests that are drawn to all your produce with yellow flowers will see that big beautiful yellow cup, think it is a big delicious flower on their favorite plant to attack, land on it…and get stuck. Big insects like bees and butterflies can usually escape unharmed, but the nasty little guys you don’t want making a home in your garden get stuck and never have a chance to destroy your beautiful tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, etc.  The cool thing about this product is that it never hardens like glue and won’t wash off in the rain, so it keeps right on working until the cup is too covered in bugs to still be effective. This is a preventative, not a cure, so be sure to set these out in the garden when you plant in the Spring and Fall so they can get right to work on helping stop the problem before it starts.  Now, you can BUY yellow sticky traps that will accomplish much the same thing, but this suggestion is much cheaper…and I think easier to manage.

Here’s what you need:

Tools you will need

  • Bright yellow plastic cups – they have to be bright yellow
  •  Some sort of wooden stake
  •  Tanglefoot – I’ll get to this in a minute
  •  A drill with some small screws

I buy the yellow cups at my local Party City, but I’m sure there are lots of sources where you can find these.  They do need to be the bright yellow of tomato flowers for them to do their job.  Take one of these plastic cups and insert one end of a wooden stake into the cup:

AssembledThen, using your drill, affix the cup to the stake by putting a small screw through the bottom of the cup and into the stake:

Screw cup to the stakeYou can coat the cup with Tanglefoot at this point, but I find it is easier to place it where you want it in the garden first.  That Tanglefoot is sticky stuff, so the less you handle the trap after its applied the better. Select a location very close to the plants most likely to be attacked and just stick it in the ground:

Plant it in the gardenNow it’s time to coat the whole thing with the Tanglefoot – also called Tree Tanglewood and Tangle Trap.

TangletrapYou can purchase this at some nurseries and home improvement stores – or on the internet from lots of sources.  I like to buy a can with the brush attached to the lid for easy application of the gooey contents.

Brush attachedWhile trying not to get this sticky stuff all over yourself, coat the entire outside of the cup with the Tanglefoot – don’t forget to do all the way around and the top as well.  You want a nice thick layer, but it doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth or pretty.  You just want to make sure there is Tanglefoot on the entire exterior of the cup so that an aphid will be stuck no matter where it lands.

Brush it onThat’s it!  The trap is set.  It won’t take long at all for you to start seeing flying insects stuck fast to your cup.  Eventually, you will have enough insects stuck to the cup that it will be need to be replaced.  You can toss the whole thing and start from scratch, or you can carefully remove and toss the cup, and reuse the stake and screws.

Bugs stuck to cupsA word of caution.  As I keep saying, this stuff is sticky!  It never hardens like glue, so if you brush against it, you will get sticky stuff stuck to you…usually with a few bugs as well…yuck!  I can’t tell you how many times I leaned over near one of these and ended up with sticky goo and dead flies in my hair.  Luckily it washes out…but…ew!

There you have it!  A simple, cheap, non-pesticide way to help prevent an infestation of aphids, whiteflies, and the like.  Happy Gardening!

 

The Strawberry Tower – a lot of berries in a small footprint

strawberriesI love strawberries.  I know what you’re thinking, “Laura, you are a vegetarian with a garden…you love all produce, don’t you?”  Why, yes, I do…but berries rank among my most beloved.  Here in Texas it is hard to grow my very favorite, the blueberry, because it gets a little too hot for those little blue gems.  But strawberries love it here.  And strawberries are delicious!  The challenge for a gardener with limited space, like me, though, is that to get much of a harvest, you have to devote a good deal of space to your strawberries.  And since space is something I don’t have, but strawberries are something I MUST have…I went vertical and built strawberry towers.

The towersAbove is picture of those lovely towers last Spring, shortly after the berries were planted and were just getting started on growing.  As you can see, you can cram a whole lot of berry plants into a very very small garden footprint with these babies.  Below is a closer shot of how they looked a little later in the season when they were growing strong and producing berries.  Is your mouth watering yet?

Tower full of berriesMine is…hmmmm….berries….okay….focus, Laura.  If you are still reading, I’m guessing that means that you are interested in these tasty towers, so I will now do my best to tell you how I built mine.

The pipe itself is PVC drain pipe.  I used drain pipe instead of standard PVC because it is thinner – giving a dainty flower like myself a shot at cutting all the necessary holes in the pipe with minimal cussing on my part.  I cut my pipe to about 8 feet in length so that after I buried about 16 inches of it, I would still have over 6 feet of strawberry tower.  I see no reason you couldn’t leave the pipe whatever length you purchase, if you want to carry a ladder out to reach the top berries, or if you are really really tall.

Here is the pipe before I started work on it.

The pipeHard to believe that, soon, this plain, boring tube will be the home of sweet deliciousness.

Okay…next you need to cut all the holes for your berries.  You don’t want the holes so small that it is hard to get the berries in, and not so big that you have a hard time keeping all the dirt from running out.  I used a 1.5 inch hole saw and it worked just fine.  I’ve had the towers for two seasons now and feel that size is just perfect.  If you aren’t familiar with holes saws, here is a picture of the one I used.

Hole sawIt fits onto a drill just like a regular drill bit, and you use it just like a drill bit.

Now you drill holes.  As you can see, I offset my holes so I could fit more on the pipe and not weaken the whole thing by having them too close together.  I also put holes on only three “sides” of the pipe since I knew that the remaining “side” would not be facing the sun.

Tower with holesTada!  Pipe with holes.  Notice that I didn’t put any holes in the bottom end – we will be burying that part in the ground, so it doesn’t need holes.  I allowed for 16 inches to be buried, since I wanted my towers to be good and sturdy.

Plant the towersHere they are buried in the garden.  For each one, I dug a deep hole, stood the pipe in the hole, and then tightly packed the dirt in around it.

Now, before we fill those towers with dirt, let’s talk about watering. The nature of the towers makes them very difficult to hand water, and since adding a watering system to the inside of the pipe would be close to impossible to do AFTER the strawberries are in place, the time to put something in is after they are standing, but before you add dirt and plants.  I am sure there are many awesome and creative ways of handling this problem – here was my solution.  I use a drip watering system for my entire garden.  If you wander the aisles of your neighborhood home improvement store, you have probably seen all the parts and pieces for a drip system over near the plumbing and sprinkler parts.  If you saw my earlier post about how I put in my garden (if not, click here), you saw all the PVC we added to run water right to the plants.  Several of the valves that poke up out of the ground in my garden run on a sprinkler timer – and it is to these valves that I connect my drip system.  You have to connect a pressure regulator to the water source to reduce the water pressure so it can flow into the small tubing of the drip system without blowing the whole thing apart, and then you need the adapter that reduces the size from a hose fitting down to the small tubing size – you can see both attached to the valve in the picture below.

Water systemThe little black tubing you see in the picture then carries the water all around my garden to all the little fruits and veggies -with small emitters at each plant.  For the strawberry towers, I found they make a soaker hose that fits with this system and knew that it would be perfect to run down the inside of the towers.

A teeny tiny soaker hose. Isn’t it adorable?

mini soaker hoseI attached the solid black tubing to the watering system, ran it up the outside of the towers, connected it to a length of soaker hose that I ran down through the inside of the pipe, and then used one of the system’s little plugs to cap the end of the soaker.

Here you can see what the connection at the top look like – a little dirty, but you get the idea.

The hose connectionFor those considering trying this method, here are a few things I learned:

1.  You do want to run the water up to the top of the tower with the solid hose and let it run down the inside in the soaker hose.  If you try and run it from the bottom, it is very hard for the water to make it all the way UP in the soaker hose.

2. Because it takes a lot of pressure to push the water up even the solid hose, it will need a home run of it’s very own – meaning that there should not be any other emitters on that line from the time it leaves the water reducing adapter.  You CAN use Y adapters off the main valve to create more water pathways – each with their own pressure and size reducing adapters – but the towers should each get their own run after those pressure and size reducing adapters.

Okay…so the towers are drilled, standing, and have a watering system…time to add dirt.  I wish I had pictures of this next part, because they would be funny, but all hands were needed to handle the tricky business of getting dirt in the towers…and getting it to stay.  Since part of my main concern with the towers was them drying out too quickly, I used a moisture control potting soil mixed with compost as my filler.  Wearing protective eye-wear, I put my hands over the holes at the bottom of the tower, while Todd poured the soil mixture in the top.  It was messy and hilarious.  As we filled, I moved my hands up the tower to cover the holes as best I could – soil did spill out the various holes as we went, but in the end we got the job done.  The mixture was slightly damp as we put it in, which helped keep it from just pouring out the holes – you wouldn’t want the mixture really wet, but slightly damp did seem to be a benefit.

Now we have a strawberry tower with a watering system and soil…time for the strawberries.  To fit through the holes you drilled, you will need bare-root plants, not potted ones.  I prefer to order mine in bulk from places like Burpee.com and HenryFields.com.  When you do order them in bulk (one or more for each hole you drilled), they come in a bundle like this:

Strawberry bundleFirst order of business is to find the rubber band holding that bundle together and give it a little snip.

Cut the rubber bandNext, you need to break the bundle gently apart into it’s separate little strawberry plants.

separate out the plantsYou will need to identify which is the root end, and which is the crown of the plant.  With these healthy specimens I got from Henry Fields, that is pretty easy to do.

The plantNow for the actual planting process.  You take your cute little bare root strawberry, use your fingers to dig a spot for it inside one of the holes in the tower, then gently stuff it in the hole root first, using your fingers to snug the soil around it until all that is sticking out of the hole is the crown of the plant.

plant the strawberriesTo keep the dirt and the plant from just falling out of the hole before it’s had a chance to stretch out and root itself, I use strips of burlap.  Just cut a little strip of burlap, wrap it around the base of the plant and tuck it in the hole.  By the time the burlap deteriorates, the plant will be established, and the soil will stay in the hole.

Cut the burlapPut in the burlapAll done!  With a little time, sun and water…

Berries…you will have fresh berries coming out of a very small footprint in your garden.

Tasty tasty berries…

Berries and yogurt

To add fertilizer to the tower in coming years, you can just tuck a few alfalfa fertilizer pellets in each hole, or squirt a little compost tea in each hole.  Easy Peasy.

Good luck!  Now get out there and garden!