More Winter Gardening

   Gardeners love to share their plants, knowledge and extra produce. If you were one of the 525 people at the Winter Gardening Fair, feel free to share something you learned in a comment below. With more than 50 sessions, no one could make it to all of them and there were numerous workshops I would have liked to have heard, if I could be in two places at once.

   I’ll share a couple of my favorite points that I learned in each session I attended and would love to hear from you.

   Of course, workshops with edibles are always a bonus and I was in two of those. Linn County Master Gardener Judy Bemer was as entertaining as she was informative in her session on using herbs.

Master Gardener Judy Bemer discusses edible flowers during herbs class.

Master Gardener Judy Bemer discusses edible flowers during herbs class.

   Judy’s herb biscuits were great. She noted that herbs have the most oil content before they bloom, so that is when you should pick them. Different varieties of mints – peppermint, chocolate mint, etc., should be planted at least 8-12 feet apart. Plant them too close together, and after a few years, the flavors will intermingle and, as Judy put it, will be “yuck.”

   Linn County Master Gardeners Sherri and Marty Baldonado spiced up their session with samples of salsa and chili. Sherri noted that peppers grow better in warmer weather. Even they had a miserable pepper crop last year, a nice consolation for me, since mine also did poorly last summer.

 

Sherri and Marty Baldonado demonstrate their salsa-making skills.

Sherri and Marty Baldonado demonstrate their salsa-making skills.

   Tomatoes love sunshine – the more the better. And once picked, they should not be refrigerated. Temperatures below 55 degrees tend to ruin their flavor – which is why homegrown and farmers market tomatoes taste decidedly different than the ones you buy at the grocery store. Marty prefers using canned tomatoes in his salsa, which was delicious. His five ingredients for salsa: peppers, tomatoes (don’t drain the can if using canned ones) garlic, onions and cilantro.

  Master Gardener Ellen Skripsky is also a master composter and an organic gardener. She emphasized growing your vegetables nearby – outside your kitchen door, if possible, in her session on kitchen gardens.

Ellen Skripsky shows foam peanuts and pinecones, two fillers that can be used at the bottom of pots for container gardening.

Ellen Skripsky shows foam peanuts and pinecones, two fillers that can be used at the bottom of pots for container gardening.

   Ellen said that garden soil shouldn’t be used is you’re making a new raised bed, which she called one of the hottest trends in gardening. Her “recipe” for the perfet soil for a 4x4x12 foot raised bed is: 6 cubic feet of peat moss; 4 cubic feet of coarse vermiculite; 3 cubic feet of sand and 3 cubic feet of compost. Mix well. Ellen is an expert on companion gardening. Onions and peas are not friends, so don’t plant the two near each other, she said. Tomatoes love carrots, so those are two that go well together. Peas like radishes and lettuce and green beans do well near onions, which, she noted, also repel rabbits. So plant onions at the end of your garden to keep the bunnies away.

   Master Gardener Bill Oliver amazed me in his session on extending the growing season, by saying that, with the right protection, vegetables can survive an Iowa winter.

Master Gardener Bill Oliver answers questions during his session on extending the growing season.

Master Gardener Bill Oliver answers questions during his session on extending the growing season.

   Spinach, for example, can survive temperatures of just 10 degrees. Root crops, such as beets, turnips and carrots, can be left in the ground and harvested during the winter, as long as 12 inches of loose mulch, such as straw, is kept on top. I’m not sure anything could have survived our record low temps this winter in Iowa, but Bill’s point was that the season can last longer than the last frost until the first frost. As for the spinach, Bill said that plants established in October can be covered with mulch. When the snow melts, pull the mulch back and you’ve got a jump on your growing season.

   The average first frost date for Linn County is October 10, plus or minus two weeks. And the average last frost for Linn County, he said, is April 29, again, plus or minus two weeks. So even though the Winter Gardening Fair inspired me to go out and buy seeds this weekend, we’ve got some time to plan before our actual outdoor planting begins.

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