The time is ripe for garden planning

January is a time for new beginnings; nowhere is that more true than in the garden.

A difficult task for newcomers to Western North Carolina who want to garden, or for first-timers to gardening, is an absence of good information on what vegetables to begin planting when.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has when-to-begin lists on its website and at  local offices. Frankly, though useful as a baseline, the state’s lists aren’t in my experience particularly helpful. That’s because the agency isn’t daring in its recommended growing practices, doesn’t factor in the use of protective covering and compiled the lists with traditional growers in mind.

Nothing wrong with any of those things, but traditional WNC growers were and are more interested in summer produce: corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. There’s much more out there than that. And much more fun to be had during our lengthy growing season than in just planting traditional garden mainstays.

If you have a greenhouse, an indoor growlight setup or a sunny place near the window, you can get started with this year’s garden now. During my stint farming in Bryson City I compiled a seed-starting list. I thought I’d share the first few months of the year in this space, and perhaps the remainder of the list in upcoming columns. I do need to take the time to tweak the list based on later farming journals I kept. Some of the Asian vegetables I became interested in aren’t well represented.

A few caveats are in order. Bear in mind that I was growing for farmers markets, and that I was farming for a financial living. This meant I was aggressive with my start dates. I wanted to be the first into market, if possible, with various vegetables. Factor in that I was farming at about 2,000 feet in elevation on a southerly slope. The average last frost date in that location is May 10. If you live in higher elevations, adjust my starting dates by roughly two (or more) weeks.


Mid January

• First round cabbage, broccoli to plant later under row cover.


Last week January

• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through February as needed).

• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).

• Artichokes (you can “trick” artichokes into growing in WNC by introducing the plants to various temperatures in their first weeks of life. Perhaps I’ll write on that topic more fully at a later date).


First week February

• Leeks.

• Head lettuces.

• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).


Second or third week February

• Parsley.

In garden toward end of February, first week of March weather permitting, (be prepared to cover transplants when temperatures threaten to drop lower than 20 degrees):

• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.

• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets (keep succession growing through late winter into spring).


First week March

• Start tomatoes in greenhouse (Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).

• Start eggplant.


Second week March

• Plant potatoes in garden.

• Direct seed kohlrabi in the garden.

• In greenhouse, marigolds, zinnias, ageratum, if you enjoy cutting flowers.


Continue transplanting in greenhouse. Direct seed in garden:

• Beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes.

• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans, and sweet corn when the soil warm (old-timers here in the mountains planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).


Early to mid May

• Plant leek transplants into garden.

• Direct seed okra into garden.

• Direct seed basil, can plant later, too, to have with ripe tomatoes.

Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radishes.

• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.

• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.

• Direct seed red noodle bean (an Asia bean I’m particularly fond of).


Mid to late May

• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut squashes.

• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.

• Plant sweet potato slips.

• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Warm weather brings unseasonable activity

Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.

That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.

When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.

This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.

The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.

The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.

A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.

Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.  

The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.

I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.

There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.

Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.

The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The sage gardener won’t put off these chores

If you haven’t covered your greens yet — and I’m among those who have not — it’s time. We’ve been favored by a long, relatively warm fall, but these 20 degrees nights cause wear and tear on our mustard, collards, turnips and whatever else currently survives outside. A telephone call this past weekend from a friend in search of row cover (I had some extra to spare) served as a reminder. Cover those greens, and you’ll get a lot more out of them than you would otherwise. A few nights below 20 degrees without protection, and they’ll disappear on us.


The last time I wrote about using row cover I received an email from a nice fellow, I think from up in the Cashiers area, who thanked me for my suggestion to use it liberally and often in the winter garden. “But what, exactly, is row cover?” he asked ever so politely after delivering several effusive compliments about my writing style intended as balm to remove any possible sting from the question. I felt more than a little embarrassed by my failure to actually define what I was writing about. As my new friend Harold is prone to ask, don’t they teach that in Journalism 101?

Harold, I’m discovering, likes to read my articles and columns and, in a jolly way, note any little journalistic errors I’ve committed that week. Everybody needs a Harold in their life; I’m glad I found mine. Harold keeps me humble and amused. But anyway, back to row cover.

So this is for the email writer and Harold: Row cover, my friends, is a type of material placed over crops to provide protection from either insects or, in the winter, cold. Or, to be more precise, to protect plants from the damaging and drying of winds — the chill and thaw and chill and thaw cycles destroy garden greens and other vegetables much more quickly than low temperatures ever will. I use a product called Agribon 19, which in theory provides a mere 4 degrees of frost protection. But in reality, that thin barrier also breaks the wind — and that’s where the vegetables get the truly needed protection. Agribon is readily available through almost any garden supply company.


I also haven’t planted either my garlic or flower bulbs. It isn’t too late, so if your neglected bulbs are in the corner of the garage as mine still are, pick a day soon and go ahead and plant them. I’ve heard of people actually not getting their garlic in until January. Now that is pushing the garlic growing season a bit far, but those farmers say the crop is usually productive even with the planting so amazingly delayed. But if the ground freezes and stays frozen, which can happen anytime now, we’ll all be out of luck, period. So get those garlic and bulbs in — I plan to.


I’ve planted carrots the week before Christmas in previous years with success. Those sown then will germinate one warm day and simply sit there, seemingly without much growth, until daylight hours lengthen. Then the carrots rapidly grow, giving the early bird gardener an early bed of carrots, indeed. The trick is to double cover the carrots after planting the seed. You can plant this bed anytime from now through whenever — to me, this early carrot planting marks the beginning of the new garden season.


And speaking of new garden seasons, this is a fine time to get your garden soil tested through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The lab folks can get to it much faster right now than will be the case in the spring, giving you the jump on amending it as necessary. I have not actually ever followed this advice and tested my soil early, but it’s good advice nonetheless, and I’ve enjoyed intoning it for others’ benefit in an ever-so-wise gardener’s voice.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

To dream the impossible garden dream

As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.

But order is boring, chaos exciting.

In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.

I have similar tidy habits in the house.

You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.

In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.

The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.

But I mustn’t wander.

In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.

There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.

After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.

Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.

I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.

After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.

Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Box of spring bulbs will light the way through winter

A box of bulbs arrived Saturday, containing within the cardboard confines all the promises of fall work, winter waiting and spring wonder.

The decision was made last March or April to order then rather than waiting to select and purchase the following season’s bulbs during these autumn days. That way, the reasoning went, the choices would be thoughtful, with awareness of precisely where new daffodils, fritillaria, tulips and crocuses should best go.

Needs were plain to see, as absences that begged filling. I also developed an itch that required scratching: a heated passion for tulips. With this newly awakened appreciation I marvel at how I could have wasted more than four decades failing to enjoy the beauty of these flowers. Hoity-toity me, I sniffed and condemned tulips as too artificial for the likes of my cultured self.

My ignorance, now that I’ve discovered the vast array and endless beauty of the tulip, staggers me; my condescension toward those who enjoy them shames me. Before this past spring, I suspected tulip aficionados to be of a type who most likely enjoyed ‘tulip tires,’ too, and who whitewashed tree trunks. And who were capable of positioning an abandoned metal bed frame beside the road, planted with flowers, bearing a helpful hand-painted sign for passer-byes cleverly noting that here is a “flowerbed.”

Gentled this past year, tulip tires, white-washed trees and metal flowerbeds seem poignant  — a Southern phenomenon like our Easter-egg trees, when mountain families festoon winter-bare trees with colorful plastic eggs, a cultural practice I can’t, frankly, quite fathom. But we’ll be poorer for it when that day comes in the South when no one in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina decorate their yards for motorists’ enjoyment, and if trees in Western North Carolina each April don’t inexplicably spawn plastic Easter eggs.   

To return to bulbs: I’m very happy, now that bulb-planting time is here, with the decision to order early. It was so unlike me to do something in anticipation, rather than in mere Pavlovian-conditioned response. To actually plan nearly 12 months in advance for future pleasures — how thrilling now that the box has arrived in the mail, how satisfying the expectations of spring beauty to come.

The word “spring” is used in the loosest sense. For the flower gardener, at least this particular flower gardener, the beginning of spring is the onset of bloom following snows. That can be early February some years in Western North Carolina, though sometimes we must wait almost for March to arrive.

After months of hot weather and crazed growth, I can no longer easily picture what the landscape looks like during the comparative bareness of spring. Not with the flower garden bursting with fall bloom. I can’t see beyond the now of lilac-colored asters, gold- and maroon- and salmon-colored chrysanthemums, bright zinnias and light, delicate pink cosmos flanked by the husky, darker pinks of autumn sedum. A huge patch of grasses, as tall as I am, has declined to remain within its allotted space but towers resplendent in the gold and fading greens of fall, dominating the front bed. Sea oats bounce in response to the slightest breath of air, a quivering living edge for the back bed nearest the dining-room windows.

My breakfast, as usual a bowl of cereal drowning in goat’s milk, was spent this morning watching birds visit the feeders and surveying the flowerbeds. This breakfast inspection wasn’t encouraging.

The flowerbeds do not seem to allow for adding even a single blade of grass. Much less the 100 or so bulbs ordered, with more to come in another shipment.

Though I congratulate myself on the ordering early aspect, my failure to map where I intended to actually plant these new bulbs haunts me now. Were the crocuses destined for the empty space I seem to remember near the front of the hellebores, or were they to go along the side of the house entrance? The poppy collection — where in the world did I think they could be planted? Ten minnow daffodil, five tulip, 10 Grecian windflowers, 12 hyacinths; what was I thinking? I’m surprised that in my spring enthusiasm I didn’t order a partridge in a pear tree, because if there’s room for all of these bulbs, there’s certainly room to squeeze that in, too.

If I follow my usual planting patterns, I’ll remain in frozen indecision until the last possible moment. One bleak, cold December day with snow threatening will find me hunched in the flower beds, digging holes with a trowel, dropping bulbs hither and thither in a willy-nilly frenzy, telling myself that come spring the flowers will look good wherever they grow.

And, that’s actually true. Our finest Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, once noted that of the myriad flowers found in our seasonal gardens, none are so important as those first few we discover blooming. I find this particularly insightful following a long, drab winter, when the barnyard is a disagreeable mucky mess and the landscape a dull, lifeless brown for months on end. Those first blooms bring such joy and excitement. Totally out of proportion, perhaps, with the actual discreetness of the white, yellow or purple flowers. As one often discovers in a general way about almost anything in life, context is everything.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Winter garden success come those who labor

I cut my first fall salad this weekend: baby kale, tatsoi, mizuna, baby mustards and more. Following a summer of garden failure, this fall garden has restored my good humor and gardening confidence.

As weedy as my summer garden proved, this one is clean and weed-free. The beds are brimming with luscious greens planted over the last couple of months. The cabbage is heading, and perhaps the broccoli will soon, too. Carrot tops stand about seven-inches tall, giving hints of the bounty growing beneath the ground; winter radishes — daikons and the appealingly named beauty hearts — are doing the same. Who could resist growing a radish called a beauty heart? Certainly not I; only, perhaps, a gardener without poetry in their soul could turn away from such a promising name, if indeed such a contrary being exists.

There are two large turnip beds. The turnips, too, look promising, though insects have been chomping the leaves of some. I soon must intervene or risk losing this staple winter root vegetable. To spray or not to spray? One can be friendlier to the earth by handpicking the creatures off, but that takes more time and considerably more effort than splashes of organic, but still deadly, sprays.   

There were fall gardening failures, as there always must be. And, perhaps, even should be: Success tempered with small disasters keeps gardeners humble and properly thankful for what does grow and prosper.

My beets and chard never germinated. Or, rather, one beet plant can be seen where a row was intended; four or five chard plants where 20 to 25 plants were planned. The spinach didn’t germinate, nor did the rape.

But taken overall, and standing back to admire the big picture instead of focusing narrowly on those few sparsely germinated beds, this fall garden looks to produce wonderfully. I can anticipate harvesting now until at least late December. And longer, on into spring, if I’m willing to work as necessary — gardening needn’t cease after the killing frosts arrive unless gardeners choose cold-weather respites.

I’ll leave the beds uncovered until frost. Then I’ll haul out metal hoops and yards of row cover from the shed and cover the beds.

Wind is more difficult for plants than cold — in fact, any of the plants I’ve mentioned easily endure temperatures around and below freezing, and can withstand even several degrees below that once acclimated. Somewhere below about 23 degrees, though, and you start losing the battle with the less hardy greens if you don’t intervene.

The odds for plant survival increase mightily with row cover. I generally use a product that provides 4 degrees or so of frost protection. But, as mentioned, the greater benefit of row cover is the protection from moisture-sucking winds.

Until the last couple of winters, I usually added a plastic barrier overtop the row cover when really cold weather set in. I’ve stopped doing that, however, for the most part. In my experience, the bigger issue for winter gardeners in Western North Carolina is dealing with the extreme variation in temperatures. Extreme cold followed by a week or two of balmy weather wreaks havoc in the winter garden. The plants adjust to the warmth, and then a sudden descent back into single digits is more than they can withstand, particularly within a double-protected bed of row cover and plastic.

I’ve found the plants actually withstand temperature fluctuations better when simply given protection of row cover, without the plastic. I could speculate on why, but I’ll spare you my intuition-based musings. The truth is I have no real idea how this single barrier does the trick, but it often does.

I double or triple, the row cover protection on some beds, and turnips and carrots covered in this manner can be harvested all winter.

My best-producing winter gardens have come in years when we’ve had unremitting cold and the insulation of heavy snow. My worst when we get mild weather followed by cold; and repeats of mild weather followed by cold.

This leaves me torn between desiring warm winters so that it will be easier to get outside and work; or cold, hard winters, which virtually ensure good garden production, but means that on some days you can’t harvest because the row cover is actually frozen to the ground.

And that reminds me of the wonderful “Gardener’s Prayer” by Czech writer Karel Capek, who clearly understood the vacillation that afflicts all gardeners:


O Lord, grant that in some way

it may rain every day,

Say from about midnight until three o’clock

in the morning,

But, You see, it must be gentle and warm

so that it can soak in;

Grant that at the same time it would not

rain on campion, alyssum, helianthus, lavendar,

and others which

You in Your infinite wisdom know

are drought-loving plants-

I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like-

And grant that the sun may shine

the whole day long,

But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the

gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron)

and not too much;

That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,

enough worms, no lice and snails, or mildew,

and that once a week thin liquid manure

and guano

may fall from heaven.



(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

It’s time to get going with planting a fall garden

With the weather so hot and sticky, it’s hard to grasp that now is the time to start preparing the fall garden.

I, for one, am glad. I’ve always hated summer gardening, which for organic gardeners poses particular difficulties. Heat and moisture equals blight and disease, and those are exactly the weather conditions summers usually cook up for us here in Western North Carolina. Then, of course, there is the unending war with legions of summer insects bent on destroying whatever might be left.

Additionally, as I’ve written previously, the garden got away from me this year. It is a weedy mess, totally unlike any garden I’ve ever had before. I blame the shock to my system of having to actually work again at a newspaper — I believed those days were long in my past, and yet I awoke to find myself once again a reporter. Laboring under deadlines, attending municipal and county board meetings, conducting endless interviews on an endless number of subjects, it’s no wonder (or so I reassure myself) that I haven’t devoted the time needed to the garden. Why, it’s amazing I even get out of the bed some mornings.

But the changes of seasons can bring rebirth, and I’m now planning a fall garden that will redeem my summer failures. I will be a phoenix rising from the ashes; or something like that, anyway.

• I am slightly behind on the calendar of when I usually start my Brussels sprouts plants for later transplanting, but it’s not too late yet. I’ll start them when I also plant broccoli and cabbage, this week or this weekend at the latest.

• This week or next is also the time to direct seed rutabaga in the garden. This is a slow growing plant, and it needs ample time to reach its full potential before cold weather sets in.

• Beets, too, can go into the garden now, as can additional carrots. The difficulty is germination — if the rains let up, then I’ll need to use shade cloth to keep the soil from drying out too quickly after I seed. Or, you can use a board — seed, water well, lay a board on top, and be sure to check each day for signs of germination. When you see the tiny green sprouts, remove the board, which helps to trap moisture in the ground so that this small miracle can take place.

• I tend to plant my fall greens later than is traditionally done in WNC. Many local gardeners will start seeding turnips, mustard and so on in mid-August. I generally wait until the first week of September, because it seems to help with insect control. Besides, unless you are a market farmer, what’s the rush? You don’t want a cooked mess of greens anyway until you can eat them alongside a bowl of pintos and a slice of cornbread, and that culinary delight is only enjoyable with a bit of frost on the ground.

• In late August I direct seed winter radishes, such as the black Spanish radish and daikons.

• From late August through the first couple of weeks in September is a good time to plant Chinese cabbage and other Asian greens such as mizuna and tatsoi. More on those, and soon — I’m a big fan of Asian plants, and each year I’ve tried a few new ones, and rarely been disappointed.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Perry’s Water Garden nurtures love of water plants

Most of the business being done at Perry’s Water Garden these days is selling plants through the wholesale market. But if you are interested in aquatic plants even the tiniest bit whatsoever, it’s well worth a trip over the Cowee mountain range and into Macon County to visit this unique Western North Carolina garden attraction.

I went there last week with a friend who was interested in buying aquatic plants for a small home-water feature. We left with water hyacinths, a lotus, a couple of lilies, five water snails (guaranteed to eat the slime off the sides of ponds) and a lot of really useful information from Nikki Gibson, whose step-grandfather, Perry D. Slocum, founded the garden in 1980.

Nikki clearly knows her water plants. And that’s no surprise, given the high stature in the water-garden world once held by Slocum, who died in 2004.

He was an internationally respected hybridizer, winner of the 1986 Water Lily Hall of Fame Award. Slocum also was the president of the International Water Lily Society from 1988-89.

Flip through a book on aquatic water plants, and you’ll likely be both flipping through a book he helped write — Water Gardening: Waterlilies and Lotuses, published in 1996, or Waterlillies and Lotuses: Species, Cultivars and New Hybrids in 2005 — and eyeballing plants he hybridized.

The list of plants bearing the Slocum stamp is stunning: by one accounting I found on the Internet, he hybridized 83 waterlilies, 30 lotuses and two irises.

Slocum was born in New York state in 1913 on a dairy farm that also produced certified seed potatoes. In an April 1996 article for Water Gardening magazine, Helen Nash noted that Slocum’s interest in aquatic plants started at age 13, when he and a brother ordered three water lilies from California and planted them in an iron kettle normally used for scalding hogs.

Slocum went to Cornell University for his undergraduate work, and spent two years in medical school at Syracuse University before devoting himself to plant hybridizing. He first built a 10-acre water garden near Binghamton, N.Y.; then went on to build Slocum Water Garden in Winter Haven, Fla. After “retiring” to the Cowee Valley area in Macon County, Slocum promptly built Perry’s Water Garden, 13 acres of aquatic ponds. This, I theorize based on the evidence, must have been a man who liked to stay busy.

Ben Gibson bought the water garden in 1986 from his stepfather, and the two worked side by side until Slocum’s death. Hybridizing still continues at Perry’s Water Garden — when the family sees a particularly lovely or interesting volunteer, they carefully cultivate it.

Nikki clearly loves the family business, which to survive has meant everyone now works outside jobs to help make ends meet and keep the garden going, she said.

This means you’ve got to get to Perry’s Water Garden in a window from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. You can find Perry’s Water Garden on the Internet at, and there is contact information there as well. Good directions to this out-of-the-way place can be found on the home page.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Despite my neglect, summer greens are coming on strong

I have not put the time into my garden this year that I usually do. Between a lack of rain early on and a failure to attend to weed pulling, the beds aren’t looking particularly attractive.

Even given my unusual neglect, however, there are still many vegetables to harvest and eat. Evidence, perhaps, of the undeniable will of living beings to produce, though perhaps not thrive, in the worst of situations.

Lettuce, the summer variety at least, is coming on strong, though it will probably bolt in the next week or two. There’s chard, beets, carrots and onions. The soybeans look good, too.

And busy I might be, but now is the time to plant a mix of greens to serve when the summer lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Sometime this week I hope to broadcast patches of kale, chard, collards, mustard, beets and arugula. I usually add whichever Asian greens I happen to have on hand, and this year that would be mizuna and kommatsuna.

Some people grow these green mixes on top of hay bales, crowning the bales with prepared soil mixtures or mushroom compost. This removes the possibility of weeds, and is a very nice idea, except that most of us would have to buy hay. At about $6 a pop right now through the local feed and seed stores, that route seems a bit pricey. You would, of course, get a desirable return on the cost of the bales because they would be turned to rich organic material for the garden. But still — there are less expensive ways to have your salad and eat it, too.

The other option is to pay great attention and care to the area being planted. Eradicate every weed possible, knowing that despite these great efforts, weeds will still compete and ultimately emerge victorious against the greens. All we can do is the best that we can, taking satisfaction in the effort, I suppose, if not always the results. Though in this situation, I believe the results will be surprisingly pleasing if you’ve not grown hot-weather greens before.

Prepare the planting areas. Broadcast the seed (this means to scatter it liberally about by hand), rake the seed in lightly, and be prepared to water frequently if there isn’t adequate rain. In this case, adequate means enough rain to keep the beds continuously moist.

Germination occurs quickly this time of the year, almost as if by spontaneous combustion — within two or three days, generally.

These greens are to be cut with scissors, or handpicked, when they are still quite small: three to 4 inches tall is about right. You are not growing cooking greens, but young succulent baby greens to eat raw in the place of salad.  

I like to cover my greens patch with an insect barrier so that I don’t have to use sprays. The problem with that method is the possibility of trapping moisture, and a corresponding risk of rot, if we are experiencing a humid weather pattern.

Every two to three weeks, plant the mix again. This ensures a constant supply of greens for the table. And when you lose the race against weeds, you switch to the other beds that are now ready for cutting.

One other note: do not mix the greens. That is fine in the fall when you are allowing them to mature before cutting. With baby greens, however, there are extreme variations in rates of growth — one variety of green will grow wildly with great joyful abandon, others will pick their way into the world slowly, with apprehension and fear. It is imperative — if one is to sustain the greens beds for salad production — to keep them cut back. The new growth is what we are seeking for our salad bowls, and it helps if the rates of production are identical, or nearly so, when you go to cutting.

(Quintin Ellison at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A busy person’s guide to growing great salads

Tonight’s menu calls for salad from the garden, which reminded me to jot down a method for growing lettuce that, being very lazy busy lately, I’ve grown quite fond of doing.

Lettuce doesn’t need coddling, or careful spacing of the seed, or much of anything at all for that matter. Those expensive bags of mixed salad you buy at the farmers market or in produce sections of grocery stores? You can easily and inexpensively grow the stuff at home.

Here’s how you to grow your own Mesclun mix:

Broadcast lettuce seed thickly over a prepared garden bed. Broadcasting means strewing or scattering. A properly prepared bed is one free of rocks, amended with compost or, short of that, amended with organic fertilizer. The soil should have been limed to sweeten the soil, ideally some four months previously. The state extension service people will fuss at me about this — they do so like to recommend soil testing, probably in part because of the job insurance such testing entails — but don’t wait for results to come back from the laboratory if you haven’t tested and limed yet. I can pretty much guarantee that in Western North Carolina, home to acid soil, you need lime if you haven’t limed before. So get a bag of the stuff and, using a light hand, dust the top of the bed. It won’t hurt the seed, and this way rain will drive the lime down to where it can do the most good.  

Your seed should be leaf lettuce such as Black-Seeded Simpson, not a heading lettuce. Though having said that I hasten to be contradictory by adding Buttercrunch lettuce — which is a Bibb type — works particularly well when broadcasted.

After you’ve gotten the seed down, stir it around a bit using the back of a rake. This presses the seeds into the soil and helps with germination. Don’t try to cover every seed, that’s unnecessary; in fact, some lettuces (the white-seeded types) need light for even germination. By stirring the seed you are simply trying to make some contact between said seed and the soil.

Keep the bed moistened if the weather turns dry. This is very important because, using this method, the seed is more or less on the surface of the ground and subsequently will dry out very quickly. The lettuce generally germinates in about a week this time of year.

One wonderful side benefit to using my method if you, too, are really lazy very busy is that by broadcasting thickly, weeds are crowded out.

When the lettuce leaves have grown a few inches tall, take scissors and whack them off, a couple of inches from the ground: tah dah, you have salad. The lettuce will re-grow; you will take a pair of scissors and whack the leaves off again, fertilizing every couple of weeks (liquid fertilizer, such as compost tea or a fish emulsion). Over and over you cut, shearing the bed, at least you can do this until the weather turns really hot and the lettuce bolts or turns bitter.

You can help slow bolting by putting shade-cloth over top and watering frequently, but don’t bother until temperatures stay consistently in the 80s. Interestingly, once your lettuce starts tasting bitter, try rinsing it in warm water: for some reason, that helps more than cold water.

I’ve also found Slobolt, a leaf lettuce readily available through various seed companies, lives up to its name. I seed Slobolt in late spring to help tide me through the hot summer when Black-Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch are a distant spring memory. I also have a hot-weather mix that I’ve grown for market I’ll write about another day. It has no actual lettuce (which is a cool-weather crop, and germination rates drop accordingly as temperatures rise), but instead relies on baby kales, collards and so on.

Other items that go into my salad mix this time of year: baby beet leaves, particularly the variety unappetizingly called bull’s blood beets. This type has lovely dark purple leaves and really dresses up a salad, but any young beet leaves will do. I also add claytonia, or Miner’s lettuce, a West Coast native that has a wonderful buttery taste; lamb’s quarters, a pernicious weed in our soil but a nice salad addition; sorrel; Asian greens such as tatsoi and mizuna; and Arugula.

Don’t forget to clip some dill or other herbs into the salad. I also enjoy adding edible flowers, such as violets or nasturtiums, for both beauty and gustatory pleasure.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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