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Hay Fever

Try Winter Sowing for a Great Garden Next Year

Amy HillMost gardeners look forward to winter as a time to rest, plan, and daydream about next year’s garden using the tempting seed catalogs that begin to fill our mailboxes in the holiday season. We don’t typically think of winter as a time to get our gardens started. But if your daydreams involve filling those annoying holes in the border where plants haven’t filled out as expected, or perhaps extend to creating that cutting garden you’ve always wanted, winter is the time to get started. If you have a seed packet, some seed-starting mix,  and a place outside where you can store a container, you can use winter sowing to get a jump on next year’s growing season.

winter sowing seed packets

Winter sowing is a technique that uses the plants’ own evolved mechanisms for reproduction. In the wild, plants reproduce by dropping seed onto bare ground, where it experiences the rain, ice, snow and temperature fluctuations of the dormant season. When spring arrives and temperatures begin to regulate, the seeds break dormancy and send out a radicle, or root hair, followed by seed leaves, called cotyledons. The plants carry on their life cycles without the intervention of a gardener.

Many plants, both annual and perennial, vegetable and ornamental, can be propagated using this technique. It can be done gradually, as the gardener has time. The best time to start is anytime after the winter solstice.

How to Winter Sow:

1. Repurpose containers found around your house. Plastic gallon or half-gallon milk jugs cut in half horizontally, takeout containers (clamshell or two-part containers with clear lids), and plastic tubs from prewashed salad greens make excellent winter sowing containers. Using a knife or pair of scissors, make several slits or holes in both the bottom and the lid of the container. The bottom holes provide drainage; the top holes allow water to penetrate while protecting your seeds from hungry foragers.

2. Using duct tape and a waterproof, permanent marker, label the contents of your container and apply the duct tape to the underside of the container. Doing so helps prevent sunlight from fading the label. Alternatively, use pencil and a store-bought seed flat label and stick the label in the soil mix.

3. Fill the container with soilless seed starting mix, available at garden centers and home improvement stores. Do not use potting mixes with weed control additives; those chemicals will prevent your seeds from sprouting.

4. Water the container until it drains freely from the bottom.

5. Sprinkle the seeds onto the soil surface. Very fine seed, such as that of foxgloves, perennial poppies, or lettuce, does not need to be covered. Otherwise, cover with a layer of soilless mix, sand, or vermiculite to the depth indicated by the seed packet. If you can’t find instructions, plant the seeds twice as deep as they are thick. Tamp them gently into the soil surface with your hand or the base of a pot.

6. Water gently again. The spray attachment to your kitchen sink works perfectly. Take care not to flood the seed. Cover the container with its lid.

7. Set the container outside in a spot where it will be exposed to the weather, but out of the way of most animals. The top of a picnic table makes a great spot, but the ground is just fine. Make sure the container is not protected by the eaves of your house, or it will dry out.

winter sowing - winter containers

8. Leave them alone until about five weeks before the average last frost date in your area, when the lids may be removed to allow seedlings to harden off completely.

winter sowing - winter sown lupines

If you fiddle with the containers in the meanwhile, you’re missing the point. The beauty of the winter-sowing technique is that it requires no further intervention by the gardener until spring, when it’s time to transplant. The seedlings will be naturally hardened off by their exposure to the elements. They’ll survive just fine without additional nutrients; the seed has all the nutrients the plant needs until it can photosynthesize on its own. Just settle down by the fire and get back to those catalogs.

Here are lists of just a few plants that perform well using winter sowing:

Hardy annuals:

  • Ageratum (floss flower)
  • Alyssum (sweet alyssum)
  • Antirrhinum (snapdragons)
  • Calendula (pot marigold)
  • Celosia (cockscomb)
  • Centaurea (cornflower)
  • Cosmos
  • Cuphea
  • Dianthus chinensis (China pinks)
  • Gypsophila (baby's breath)
  • Helianthus (sunflowers)
  • Larkspur
  • Mallow
  • Malva (mallow)
  • Nasturtiums
  • Nicotiana (flowering tobacco)
  • Pansies
  • Sweet peas
  • Tithonia (Mexican sunflower)
  • Torenia (wishbone flower) 


  • Aster
  • Astilbe
  • Bellflower
  • Blanket Flower
  • Blazing Star
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Coral Bells
  • Coreopsis
  • Coneflower
  • Foxglove
  • Hardy hibiscus
  • Hellebores
  • Hollyhock
  • Iris
  • Lily (Oriental varieties)
  • Phlox
  • Pincushion Flower
  • Pinks
  • Poppy
  • Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia)
  • Rudbeckia
  • Rose Campion
  • Russian Sage
  • Salvia (varies by species)
  • Sedum (varies by species)
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Verbena
  • Veronica
  • Viola
  • Yarrow 


  • Alliums (onions, shallots, garlic, chives)
  • Artichokes
  • Asian vegetables
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, collards, etc.)
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Celeriac
  • Chards
  • Corn (early types)
  • Cucurbit family (cukes, squash, pumpkins, melons, gourds)
  • Herbs (edible and ornamental)
  • Lettuces
  • Nightshade family (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers)
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
(Portions of this post from Trudi Davidoff at

Grow Comfrey for a Perennial Source of Organic Fertilizer

Amy HillUsing commercial fertilizers, particularly sustainable or non-synthetic ones, can get really expensive. Compost and manures add important organic matter to the soil, which helps to build the subterranean ecosystems that support plant health, but they don't add much in the way of major nutrients.

Fortunately, nature has provided a means to make our own sustainable fertilizers. Comfrey (Symphytum officianale), a plant that grows well in most gardens, provides nutrient boosts when added to compost or used in liquid fertilizers. And once you've bought the plants, it's free.

Comfrey is a borage relative. Hardy to Zone 3, it has large, broad leaves like those of Pulmonarias, to which they are related, and small clusters of blue or white pendulous flowers. Comfrey's fuzzy, sometimes prickly leaves discourage insect pests. It grows in a range of soils in sun to part shade, and uses its impressive root system, which may grow anywhere from 6 to 10 feet deep, to mine minerals from the subsoil, aerate its surrounding soil, and break up the heaviest clays. It will regrow from tiny slivers of root, though, so be sure to plant it where you want it. If you are as indecisive as I am, grow it in a container. You won't get quite the same level of benefits as compared to comfrey grown in the ground, but at least you won't have it permanently installed.

comfrey and bee

Comfrey has been used in the past in herbal medicine, but research proves comfrey contains poisonous chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). The roots contain up to 10 times the amount of PAs as the leaves. Its toxic chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, though, so it is advisable to wear gloves when handling comfrey. Do not take any part of the plant internally, as it is extremely toxic to the liver and may also be carcinogenic.

For plants, though, it's a wonder food.

Comfrey contains high levels of the macronutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), as well as calcium and vitamin B12. Comfrey also contains allantoin, a chemical compound that stimulates cell growth and regeneration. It may be the allantoin that makes comfrey so effective as a fertilizer. Extracts from comfrey's leaves have antifungal properties, and have been shown to effectively combat powdery mildew.

It's good to know the specific epithet of the plant you're getting. Symphytum officianale, the species, will seed prolifically and may become problematic in the home garden. The Bocking 14 strain of comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) contains the high nutrient levels of the species, but it's also sterile, so it won't self-seed and become invasive. Bocking 14 is difficult to track down in the United States, but is available from a few Internet sources.

Comfrey leaves can be used as a mulch or buried in the garden bed at planting time. As they rot down, they'll enrich the soil. Take care when using them as a mulch, though: The decaying leaves can be attractive to slugs, so don't mulch with them around leafy greens or ornamentals like hostas.

A more versatile way to use comfrey is as a liquid fertilizer or tea. To make the tea:

  1. Chop up a handful of fresh leaves (use gloves), and place in a container with a well-fitting lid.

  2. Add water to cover, submerging the leaves with a rock if necessary.

  3. Let the mix rot down for 3 to 4 weeks. At this time, the comfrey will have been reduced to a (very) stinky black goo.

  4. Dilute the comfrey liquid concentrate at a rate of approximately 1 part comfrey to 15 parts water. The final product should be light brown in color, like weak tea. Water it in around plants that need a boost, particularly fruiting plants, or use the tea as a foliar spray on plants that are susceptible to mildew.

  5. Seal up the rest of the concentrate for use at a later time, or bury it in the compost pile to supercharge your compost.

Comfrey tea is relatively higher in phosphorus and potassium, so you may wish to blend it with nettle tea to get a better nitrogen boost. This tea will feed the soil as well as your plants, ultimately making your plants more resilient. For a gentle, natural fertilizer, comfrey is hard to beat.

Photo of comfrey and bee courtesy of InAweofGod'sCreation/CC-BY 2.0. 

Growing Shallots

Amy HillHave you ever grown shallots? I haven't, but I've just ordered my first sets to plant this fall. I love the way they taste, so I'm excited to try them.

Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are botanically related to onions and garlic. They are native to Central Asia and have a very mild, delicate onion flavor that is wonderful in salads and egg dishes. They grow like garlic, forming clusters of offsets (small bulbs that form off the main bulb). Inside the bulb, shallots are layered like onions.

I'm growing French gray shallots (Allium oschaninii), which some consider to be the "true" shallot, and French red shallots, the ones most often found in grocery stores and markets. The red shallots are supposed to be easier to grow, but the gray ones allegedly have better flavor. The red shallots grow larger; the gray produce prolifically.

shallots | 


Like other root crops, they like well draining soil amended with lots of organic matter. My raised beds should suit them very well, as they contain equal parts composted manure, decomposed bark, and washed sand. I'll perform a soil test before planting to make sure the pH is appropriate. I cannot plant them until mid-October, but if I wait until then to order them, they won't be available. I made that mistake last year.

What crops are you trying out in your fall garden this year?

growing shallots | 


A Taste of the Tropics

Amy HillRelated to tomatoes, and more closely to tomatilloes, the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) goes by many names, including ground tomatoes, husk cherries, and cape gooseberries. 

The fruits grow under the plant's large leaves, encased in a thin calyx that dries to a crispy, papery husk. The husk and fruit fall to the ground when they are ripe (hence the name).

bowl of cherries

Large fruits measure about the size of an adult woman's thumbnail, with a texture resembling a firm grape, and taste strongly of pineapple. Bright and sweet, with a hint of tartness, they seem like a snack that would be served alongside a drink garnished with a paper umbrella.  I look forward to experimenting with them in cooking, if I can stop eating them by the handful like popcorn.

peeled ground cherries

In my Zone 7b garden, I transplanted seedlings about one month after the average last frost, or mid-May, and got my first fruits about six weeks later. This plant does like it hot – it seemed to double in size every day the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

For those who practice permaculture, this plant seeds itself easily and seems to require no inputs except for hot sunshine and whatever rain may fall. Do allow space for them – halfway through the growing season, mine are 5 feet tall and wide. The stems are strong but staking may be helpful, particularly if you wish to grow anything else around them. My lettuce grows nicely in their shade.

This is a fruit that has made it into my garden's permanent rotation. I'll share recipes later in the summer – assuming I can stop snacking.

Add Flair to Father's Day Grilling With Lemon Balm Pesto

Amy HillFather's Day is a big day for grilling. If you're looking for something fresh, summery, and different that's also extremely easy to make, give lemon balm pesto a try.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is an herb in the mint family. Its small white flowers attract bees and other pollinators, but you'll be drawn by the lemony scent of the foliage as you brush it with your fingers. Even more, you'll like the bright lemon flavoring the leaves lend to salads, drinks and marinades. Lemon balm grows easily in sun or shade and spreads like a mint, so it's a good idea to keep it in a container. It will also spread by seeds, though, so you'll need to keep an eye out for it around the garden. The best way to keep it in control is to use big handfuls of it to brighten up summertime dishes. 

Lemon balm Melissa officinalis 

Lemon Balm Pesto

3 cups lemon balm leaves, washed
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
Coarse salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil
Lemon juice or lemon zest

Place the first three ingredients and a pinch of salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Start the processor, and drizzle olive oil into the mix until the mixture is the texture you like. If you want your pesto extra-lemony, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or lemon zest. Add more salt and pepper to taste.

Spread the pesto on chicken, fish or shrimp before putting the food on the grill, or allow to marinate in the pesto in the refrigerator overnight. Save extra pesto not used to marinate meats for garnishing the finished dishes. It also tastes great as a salad dressing with olives, peppers and a bit of goat cheese, or as a spread on crusty bread. 

The pesto may be kept in the refrigerator for a week, or may be frozen for later use. The pesto may slightly discolor as it freezes, but it will taste just fine. 

Edible Groundcovers for Sunny Spots

Amy HillGrass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape. 

This level of chemical consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns consume 10,000 gallons of water each year on top of the rainfall they receive [1]. Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Certain expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides may be contributing to honeybee colony collapse disorder [2], which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn't curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers. You'll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs to enjoy.


thymus vulgaris

If your climate tends to be on the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide depending on the cultivar, providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum 'Annie Hall' is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Winter Savory

winter savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the homeowner. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.



Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and Omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Chamaesyce species), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery, and try the fresh new growth in salads – there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you'll have plenty.


[1] EPA, Conserving Water, "Landscaping and Irrigation"

[2] The Xerces Society, "Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees"; Harvard School of Public Health, "Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies"

Photo of Thymus vulgaris by Dlanglois; photo of Satureja montana by Kurt Stueber; photo of Portulaca oleracea by ZooFari; all photos via Wikimedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported 

Nettle Tea As a Natural Fertilizer

stinging nettle

Amy HillAmong other new things I'm trying out this year, I'm making a liquid fertilizer out of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Urtica dioica grows easily from seed and spreads easily by rhizomes, so I grow mine in a container. Often used in traditional and herbal/alternative medicines to treat a wide variety of conditions in the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts,as well as on the skin, in the joints and for allergic conditions, stinging nettles contain significant amounts of trace elements like iron, manganese and calcium. The plant also contains the major nutrients potassium and nitrogen. Nitrogen, of course, promotes new green growth, and potassium (symbol K, the third number in a fertilizer analysis such as 4-3-3) is often described as a multivitamin for a plant, promoting resiliency and overall good health.

Gardening literature from the UK suggests that nettle tea is an outstanding natural fertilizer. To make it:

harvested nettles 

– Gather stems and leaves of stinging nettles. (Use gloves. They really do hurt.)

– Crush the leaves and stems with your gloved hands or chop them with a knife, and place in a large bucket. Weight them down with a clean clay pot or saucer.

chopped nettles

– Cover the crushed nettles with water.

nettles submerged

– Leave them to soak for 3 to 4 weeks. Word has it that the brew gets a bit smelly, so keep a lid on the bucket and perhaps locate it away from pathways or entranceways.

– Once the liquid has steeped, dilute it at approximately 1 part tea to 10 parts water. Apply to any plants, but especially those that seem to be struggling a bit.

NOTE: Nettles can interfere with certain prescription drugs, including blood thinners and blood pressure and diabetes medications. Don't take them without consulting a doctor about potential interactions with your current diet and medications.

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