Anise Hyssop

Anise Hyssop

We are excited to announce the newest addition to our database — the lovely and delicious herb, Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This native of the rugged northern plains (and much of Canada) may seem like a somewhat unlikely candidate for the refined habitat of the herb garden, but only until you taste it. The sweet and tender, anise / fennel flavored leaves are quite delicious and have become the favorite herb of my finicky 10 year old daughter. She loves it so much she eats the leaves almost as fast as they are produced, which makes her the only pest they have in my garden. This year I started a fresh batch from seed, with the intention of growing so much that I will get some too.

The sweet leaves are most often used for tea, but are also a nice addition to salads. The bright blue flowers can be added to salads as well (unlike many edible flowers, they add flavor as well as color), though individually they are quite small. This isn’t a very important medicinal herb, though the tea has been used for coughs, fevers and to “relieve a dispirited heart”.

Anise Hyssop is sometimes grown purely as an ornamental, for its bright, bold, blue flower spikes, though not to eat it too seems like a waste to me. The flowers are also very attractive to bees (it makes good honey) and other beneficial insects.

Anise Hyssop is a member of the mint family, but it spreads slowly and isn’t invasive like some of its cousins. It prefers a moist well-drained, fairly fertile soil, but is quite a tough plant and can survive less than ideal conditions. It can be grown from seed, division or cuttings. Some people report problems in getting the seed to germinate (it is sometimes said it needs light to germinate), but I have always found it pretty straightforward (maybe it just needs to be fairly fresh). The flowers produce seed easily and in the right conditions it can self-sow so readily that it might be considered a weed, if it wasn’t such a nice plant. If you don’t have children around to nibble it daily it can grow to 3 or 4 feet tall.

Anise Hyssop is now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by browsing under Herbs:

How to mulch

How to mulch

I consider mulch to be an indispensable part of the summer vegetable garden.

  • reduces evaporation of water from the soil
  • prevents weeds (many weeds need bare soil)
  • supplies nutrients to the soil (when it breaks down)
  • protects the soil from damage by sun and air
  • reduces disease (by preventing soil splashing on leaves)


If a genetically engineered commercial product did as much, it would be patented, hailed as a miracle of science, promoted in all of the garden magazines and sold for a hefty price. Yet mulch does all of these things and more and costs next to nothing (or nothing).

The best all around material for mulching the annual vegetable garden is straw (avoid the similar looking hay at all costs, as it is full of weed seeds and can turn your soil into a weedy nightmare). Straw comes neatly compacted into a convenient (if rather heavy) bale, is clean and easy to use and looks quite attractive on the bed. If you are growing transplants, you spread a 2 to 3 inch layer around the newly planted plants (it will settle as you water). If you are direct sowing you have to wait until the seeds have germinated and the plants are a few inches high before you can apply it.

If you don’t have access to straw, you can use grass clippings or chopped tree leaves (run these over with a lawnmower to chop them, or put them in a metal bin with a string trimmer). Compost can be used as mulch too, if you have enough of it. You can also buy the hulls of cocoa bean, cottonseed and buckwheat for use as mulch, but they are expensive when compared to straw.

The only time I don’t recommend mulch if you have lots of slugs (it provides the perfect hiding places for them) or when you want the soil to warm up rapidly (it insulates it from the warming rays of the sun). Otherwise, it’s probably the most important thing you can do for your garden.

It’s not too late

It’s not too late

Summer is in full swing and for most gardeners, the harvest is already starting. I’ve seen summer squashes, tomatoes, carrots, and loads of lettuce pictures in posts by friends and fellow gardeners. I’ve even been gifted some of the produce by friends who have more than they can handle.

Sadly, there isn’t much of a harvest going on at my house. I have no real garden this year for a number of reasons. My beds are empty, having never been replanted after the spring harvest of kale, chard, and radishes. All the seedlings I started back in March and April are long since dead and composted.

But I’m not completely giving up on the whole summer. It’s warm and sunny here, and we’re blessed a long growing season. I spent some time this weekend planting some extra tomato starts a friend brought me a couple of weeks ago, and I even planted a small patch of early corn. I figure that with a little extra TLC, and the cooperation of the sun and temperature, they will recover quickly and start to catch up to where they ought to be, had I started them a month or so ago. I also have some time to start some second crop plants, like beans and carrots. I don’t expect to get as much of a harvest as I might have, but something is better than nothing!

I know that out here in California, the summer growing season is long, and often extends well into September, and that most of you live in areas where summer is done closer to the end of August. In that case, you are running out of time to start summer vegetables, but it’s not too late quite yet. If you are careful to select plants that won’t take more than about 60 to 70 days to harvest, you should be able to get a couple of veggies from your garden this year.

Vegetables you can still plant

  • Beans: Your best bet are fast-growing snap beans, like Blue Lake or Rolande.
  • Carrots: Depending on how early your first frost is, you can pretty much plant most varieties and still get a good harvest. If you’re concerned about a very early frost, you can choose a smaller carrot, which matures more quickly, such as Little Finger or the delightful Tonda di Parigi.
  • Lettuce: If it’s not too hot, you can easily start some lettuce seeds now and get several good harvests before your first frost. Even if it is hot, you can start some in a container in the shade. Garden Babies and Sweetie Baby Romaine are great for quick harvests.
  • Radishes: Radishes are always a great idea for a fast harvest! If it’s hot where you are, you can just grow them in the shade of your other plants. My favorites are Easter Egg and French Breakfast, but you really can’t go wrong.
  • Summer Squash: Believe it or not, you can still start squash for this summer. They grow quickly in the warm sunshine. Little squashes like Ronde de Nice and Summer Dark Green will grow quickly and give you some nice squashes for your Labor Day weekend BBQ!

And even if you think it is too late for your summer garden, this doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means it is time to start thinking about your first fall crops, like kale, broccoli, swiss chard, or Brussels sprouts.

Whatever you are planting can help you plan your garden layout, select and purchase your seeds, and help you remember when to plant them!

National Pollinator Week

National Pollinator Week


This week, June 18 – 24, 2012 is National Pollinator Week
which was initiated and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership

Pollination and pollinators
As you probably learned in grade school, pollination is vital to the successful reproduction of most plants. Flowers and bees and pollen, and all that good stuff, right? Grains of pollen are transferred from the stamen to the pistil, and voilá a seed is produced!

But pollination is rarely that simple. Not all plants are pollinated by insects. Some, like corn, are pollinated by the wind, while others, like peas, are self-pollinated. There are even plants that are pollinated by water!

That said, most plants do require a pollinator to help with the fertilization process. Did you know there are over 200,000 species that act as pollinators? And they’re not all bees! There are bats, hummingbirds, and even small mammals which play a role in the fertilization of many plants.

Other insects often act as pollinators as well. Butterflies, wasps, ants, beetles, and moths all serve an important function in their local ecosystems, pollinating plants, as well as controlling pests, and adding to the biodiversity of the region.

While quite a bit of attention has been given to the plight of honey bees, justifiably, it is important to remember that they are not native to the Americas. Instead, many plants and animals had developed a complex relationship ensuring the continued survival of both. These pollinators are often keystone species — they are critical to their ecosystems.

As gardeners, we are well aware of the the importance of pollinators. What good would all our hard work tilling the soil, starting the seeds and staking the tomatoes be if the flowers simply fell off, unfertilized? Can you even imagine a world without tomatoes? Do you want to?

Creating a safe haven for pollinators
Eliminate Dangers: Pesticides are one of the most dangerous threats to pollinators. While designed to control the populations of species considered to be pests, the chemicals involved have a negative impact on all insects and some animals as well. Reducing or eliminating pesticides in your yard and garden is the best thing you can do to improve the health of all the animals, including pollinators who may visit your plants.

Provide Food: Plan your garden so there are always some plants blooming, providing pollen and nectar nearly year-round. In the garden, you can plant perennial flowers that bloom at different times, attracting pollinators to your other plants regularly. In particular, you may want to favor heirloom or old-fashioned varieties, since many modern plants have been bred solely for color and have lost the scents and, in some cases, even the pollen needed to attract pollinators.

Include Natives: Since many pollinators are native species, it might be a good idea to create a pollinator-friendly space in your yard, making sure to include native flowers and other plants, which will give them the food and habitat they require. If you’re unsure about what may be a good list of plants to include, you may want to reach out to yourlocal Master Gardener group or agricultural extension program to see what plants they recommend.

Give them a Home: In addition to providing native plants for habitat, you should consider installing “houses” for pollinators. If your garden is large enough, you may want to build a bat box, to attract bats to your yard. Besides providing pest control for mosquitoes, you would be aiding an endangered species. For smaller gardens, building an insect hotel is a wonderful idea. Wood blocks with small holes, open patches of mud, or a collection of plant stems would attract many native bees and other pollinators.

Water them Well: Pollinators, like most all living things, need water to survive. Many older gardens come already equipped with dripping faucet, but if yours doesn’t, you can create other watering opportunities by suspending a milk carton or plastic bottle with a pinhole in the bottom and allowing water to slowly drip out, selecting a patch of yard to overwater so that it pools and puddles on occasion, or setting out shallow saucers of water. If mosquitoes are a concern, you can fill the saucer with stones.

Grow your own pumpkins

Grow your own pumpkins

I know it’s not even officially Summer yet, but it’s already time to start thinking about Autumn, and selecting your pumpkins for Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whether you grow pumpkins for decoration or for cooking, now is the time to get those seeds in the dirt.

If you haven’t grown your own pumpkins before, don’t be intimidated. They’re easy to grow, don’t require much care, and are fast growers! The hardest part is choosing which type of pumpkin to plant.


Pumpkins (Cucurbitaceae Cucurbita) are native to the Americas, where they have been cultivated for at least 5000 years. Native Americans roasted pumpkins on the open fire. When Europeans arrived in the Americas they began carving pumpkins and using them as a “Jack ‘o’ Lanterns”.

The name pumpkin originates from the Greek word pepon, which means large melon. In fact, the Pumpkin is actually a large winter squash that grows on a vine. They come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. The internal flesh can be cooked and used for many recipes, and is especially delicious roasted and cooked in soups and pies. The seeds are edible and great roasted.

Types of Pumpkins

  • Giant: These are enormous pumpkins, weighing anywhere from 100 to 300 pounds! They were originally cultivated in the early 19th century, when experimental farmers crossed the hubbard squash with kabocha pumpkins. While some varieties are better used for jack-o-lanterns, others also make surprisingly good pie pumpkins, like the Big Max. It’s best to double check each variety before you plant it.
  • Medium to Large: These pumpkins typically have an orange shell with creases from the stem to the bottom, just like you imagine a jack-o-lantern to look. They tend to be stringy and are generally grown for carving, like the Howden variety.
  • Small: These little guys are generally the pumpkins you see used as decoration on holiday tables. Some can be quite sweet, and make a lovely decorative and edible “bowl” for soups or grain dishes, such as the stunning white mini, Seminole.
  • Pie: Sweeter, smaller, and with a fine-grained texture these pumpkins are perfect for cooking, like the Small Sugar.
  • Specialty: Specialty pumpkins have been bred by blending traits from pumpkins and other winter squashes, to give them different colored skins, such as blue, like the Jarrahdale, or white, like the Casper, or change the shape, like the Cinderella’s Carriage.

Tips for Growing Pumpkins

  • Space: Pumpkins need a fairly large space to roam. Select an area approximately 9 square feet. This will give it enough room for the vine to spread out along the surface of the ground. This can be a square, 3 foot by 3 foot, or a longer rectangle. For smaller varieties, you may even consider training them up a trellis, as long as you make sure to provide support for the developing pumpkins.
  • Location: Pumpkins, like other winter squash, like full sun. Because the vines like to trail, many gardeners plant them in hills along the outer areas of the garden, and let them run freely into open space.
  • Care: These are quite hungry plants and need a soil that is loose, fertile, moisture retentive and rich in organic matter. In fact, they grow the best near the compost area.
  • Disease: If you live in a humid area, your squash plants may be affected by Powdery Mildew. Keeping them protected is difficult, so acting quickly is a good way to ensure you get a good harvest. You can spray the leaves with a homemade mixture of 1 tsp baking soda and 1 quart water. If your plants are large enough, you can remove the infected leaves, but do not use these leaves in your compost — it will contaminate your compost.
  • Harvest: You’ll know your pumpkins are ready when their stems begin to shrivel or you can no longer pierce the skin with a thumbnail, but be sure to harvest before the first hard frost.

Don’t feed the birds

Don’t feed the birds

There are few things more frustrating than preparing, planting and pampering a bed of peas or beans and then discovering that the newly germinated seedlings have all been wiped out by birds.

In most places birds are only a significant problem in spring when they seem to relish the abundant succulent green seedlings, but in my garden quail can be a problem anytime. In winter they go for the Brassicas, in summer they like any succulent greens, and in fall they eat newly sown, or emerging, cover crops. I’ve learned the hard way if I leave a seedbed unprotected I am pretty much wasting my time, as I will be lucky to harvest anything from it.

Tips on how to protect your plants:

Easy: The easiest method to keep birds away is to use scare tactics such as flashing tape, hanging old CDs, scarecrows, and predator balloons. The problem with these is that birds will eventually get used to them and start to ignore them, though they may work long enough for your planting to grow out of its most vulnerable stage.

Functional: The usual solution to serious bird predation is plastic netting. This is awkward to handle and put up (it’s an extra step after planting that you don’t need), and somewhat hazardous to wildlife (I have released several tangled snakes) but in these circumstances it is a necessary evil. I usually support the netting on hoops made from lengths of discarded ½” polyethylene irrigation pipe, weighted down at the edges with wood or soil. It’s not particularly elegant, but its quick and it works.

Extreme: In the most extreme cases you might decide to cage the whole garden (especially if you are also plagued by rabbits, deer, squirrels, or raccoons). The simplest and cheapest way to do this is to put an 8 foot tall chicken wire fence around the garden and make a roof out of plastic bird netting.

How long do seeds live?

How long do seeds live?

I love trying different edible plants and so I grow a wide variety of crops (and often several varieties of each one) every year. This adds greatly to my enjoyment of the garden, but also means that I end up with a lot of half empty seed packets at the end of the growing season. Fortunately most seed remains viable for at least 3 years (even if just sitting in a drawer) so you can use up the rest of the packet later. A few kinds of seed (corn, onion, leek, chives and parsnip) are only considered dependable for 2 years, so you should try and use these up in the following year. Others (cabbage, chicory, endive, cucumber, squash and tomato) may last as long as 6 to 8 years.

Seeds are sleeping plants
The exact length of time a seed will remain viable is determined by how it is stored. Seeds may not look like living plants but they are (just in a different form) and have to respire to maintain life processes. While a seed is dormant they do this at a very slow rate, but warmth and moisture (the same things required for germination) increase this rate, causing them to use up their food reserves more quickly. As these are gradually depleted, less is available for germination and their vigor declines until the seed is no longer able to germinate (this is why 5 year old seed isn’t as vigorous as one year old seed).

How to store seeds
If you are planning to use the rest of the seed in the following year, all you need to do is keep them in a dry, cool place. If you want them to survive as long as possible you must keep them very dry and very cool. This means drying them thoroughly (put them in a glass jar with a moisture absorbent such as silica gel) and then keeping them in a place that remains cool even in summer. For longest possible storage they may be kept in a freezer, though any seed you store in this way must be very dry, otherwise moisture in the seed may freeze and damage it.

Good idea
Garden centers often sell off year old seed packets cheaply when the new seed arrives in February or March and this can be a good way to save a little money and try some new varieties. It should still be good for at least another year and often a lot longer (just be aware of which seeds are long lived and which aren’t). The best deal is seed that comes in packets lined with aluminum foil, as this keeps the seed very dry and extends its life considerably (I’ve had good germination from 12 year old lettuce packed in foil).

We make it easy
If you’re at all unsure how long you should keep your seeds, we include seed viability information right in the plant description.

Spring Vegetables

Spring Vegetables

So you’ve got your soil ready, it’s finally warm enough, and now you’re thinking about what to plant. It’s tempting to start planting all those great seeds you bought over the winter, but it’s best to take a moment and consider what weather conditions each plant needs to germinate and thrive. Each plant has an appropriate time to be planted, and it’s important to be aware of which plants can go out at what time.

The vegetables that grow well in spring all originated in temperate climates and prefer cool (50-75˚ F) growing conditions. When you first plant your spring crops, the soil and air are cool and days are fairly short, so crops germinate and grow slowly. As spring progresses the days lengthen and the weather gradually warms, until by the time most crops are ready to harvest it may be warm most of the time. Fall has cool weather too, but there the reverse is true, conditions are warm for seed germination and growth (and pest activity), while maturation takes place in cooler weather.

When to plant
It is important to get your spring crops into the ground as early as possible, so they have enough time to grow and mature before the long, warm days of early summer cause them to bolt or develop bitter or pungent flavors. Fortunately cool weather crops aren’t perturbed by minor cold snaps, so planting them early isn’t a big problem. If it is cold they will just sit and wait until the weather warms up enough for growth.

  • The hardiest crops can be planted as soon as the ground is suitable for making beds in spring, which may be 4 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. These plants include: leek, onion, parsley, pea, spinach, and shallot.
  • The slightly less hardy crops can be sown 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. These include: lettuce, cilantro, mustard, and radish.
  • The rest of the spring crops are sown a couple of weeks before last frost date. These include: beet, carrot, broccoli, cabbage, chard, kale, and potato.


Smart Gardener makes it easy
We show you quickly and easily when it’s the right time to start your seeds indoors or outdoors, based on your region. Just check the Overview tab in the variety descriptions, and you’ll see when to start your seeds, transplant your starts, and harvest your vegetables. The top lines are for spring/summer crops, and the bottom lines are for fall/winter. Easy as can be!

Early spring planting tips

Early spring planting tips

You’ve already selected the area for your garden, started your seedlings, tended your soil, and mapped out your garden bed. All that’s left to do now is get planting. So, when is the right time to transplant your beautiful starts? Ideally, the spring growing season starts when the day length gets over 10 hours (which seems to be a minimum for plant growth) and the daytime temperature regularly reaches into the 50s or 60s. But it’s a bit more complicated that simply checking the air temperature and daylight hours.

Soil warmth
At this point the only remaining obstacle to significant plant growth is cold soil, as this warms up much more slowly than air. Fortunately you can warm the soil quite easily by covering it with polyethylene sheet for 2 to 3 weeks. Black colored sheet can raise the temperature by 10˚ F, while clear sheet can raise it by as much as 15˚ F. If you plan on using a tunnel cloche to protect your plants, you can simply put this on 3 weeks early and it will warm up the soil for you. These methods will also help the soil to dry out, which is good for soil preparation and planting. It should go without saying that if you had mulch on the bed over the winter, this should be removed several weeks before planting, as it insulates the soil and prevents it from warming up.

Temperature is temperamental
Spring weather varies enormously from year to year and is only predictable in its unpredictability. At Smartgardener we use the average date of last frost to time our planting, because it gives us a practical way to estimate planting times for the whole country. This works well, but it is important to understand that the average date of last frost is just that, an average and that in any given year a frost may come several weeks earlier or several weeks later.

The first spring crops (kale, broccoli, snow peas) are perfectly hardy and aren’t bothered by low temperatures, they will just grow very slowly until warmer weather arrives. The warm weather crops (tomato, pepper, squash) are more vulnerable however, as they stop growing completely and can become susceptible to rot and pests (in some cases they may even be permanently damaged).

It seems like every year I plant my warm weather transplants in sunny weather and within a few days its turns cold and wet. The most urgent need is to protect them from any frost, which could kill them before they even get going. The plants are pretty small at this point and so are easy to cover with frost blankets or a few inches of loose mulch (and maybe a bucket for extra insurance).

Building for warmth
Of course it isn’t enough to just keep the plants alive, you also want to keep them growing vigorously and you can do this by using tunnel cloches (these consist of a simple series of hoops covered in clear polyethylene sheet). The temperature inside one of these may be 20 degrees warmer than outside and it can really speed up plant growth. Being able to protect and pamper your plants in this way allows you to plant earlier and have faster growth. Do it well and you can be eating tomatoes in early June, rather than early August (you might even get into a friendly competition with yourself to get ripe tomatoes earlier every year). Tunnel cloches heat up so well on sunny days, they need to be well ventilated to prevent them overheating and cooking the plants inside.

A dual use tunnel cloche for tomatoes can be made from a piece of hog wire, bent into an arch and covered with polyethylene sheet. When the weather warms up you remove the plastic, but leave the hog wire in place to act as a support for the plants.

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

If you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.