Checking stored flower bulbs

Several weeks ago I blogged about how I store dahlias. Did you keep some of yours too? If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to check on them to see how they’re doing. Serious dahlia growers begin planting their tubers in mid-March, in pots and in a greenhouse of course.

I opened mine up right after the polar vortex blew through a couple of weeks ago. They were in a spot that normally stays cool but never freezes. However, this fall I rearranged boxes and stuff in the garage. Without realizing it, doing that must have changed the airflow pattern and allowed cold air to settle in the spot where I stored my dahlia tubers. I didn’t have a thermometer in that area but I knew it got cold because the storage bags were partly frozen. That’s not a good sign.

They didn’t look too bad when I opened them up to take a peek, but some looked to be partly frozen. The outside layer of damp sawdust was lightly froze. Instead of warming the tubers up to thaw, I moved them to another more temperate part of the garage to slowly warm up. Today I finally brought them out to see how they were doing.

It's very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged.
It’s very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged. The one on the left was frozen.

As suspected, most of them were damaged beyond salvaging, I’m looking at about an eighty percent loss. The ones that survived look healthy though. I’ll re-pack the good ones in fresh sawdust and compost the rest.

I also had some elephant ears tubers in storage, those I kept in the pots that they grew in last summer. They look pretty good. I gave them a small amount of water whenever the soil looked really dry — maybe once every other week or so. In the spring I’ll knock them out of the pot, divide them and replant.

You can't see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.
You can’t see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.

Other large pots have cannas that I stored the same way as the elephant ears, right in the pots they grew. They got some water through the winter too but not as much as the elephant ears. I wanted to keep them a little on the dry side so they wouldn’t get water logged and rot. Remember, they are dormant and not growing so they don’t really need much water. On the other hand you don’t want them to dry out and shrivel up. It’s something you have to learn trough experience. I usually ere on the side of less water.

The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.
The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.

Unfortunately, we lost a large geranium to the cold. It was one that we’ve been saving and taking cutting from for years and years.  During the most recent warm-up, we set the potted plant out on the front porch and — you guessed it — forgot it was there and it froze overnight. There may be some dormant buds that survived, I’ll let you know how that turns out.




Selecting squash, pumpkin and gourd seeds

Under good storage conditions, winter squash and pumpkins can stay edible well into winter. I have a spot in my garage that stays cool, around 50 degrees, through the winter and that is right around the ideal storage temperature for squash. Air circulation is also important and there is plenty of air movement in that spot too. So we have been eating squash on and off for the past couple of months.

One thing I have noticed is that flavor can vary from squash to squash of the same variety. Sometimes there can be quite a large difference in quality. You can buy seeds of the same variety from two different seed sellers and even though the squash looks the same, the flavors may be close but not the same. I think that explains some of the difference in opinion people have when discussing which variety they prefer. I’ve noticed this inconsistency in other vegetables too, especially with certain heirloom tomato varieties.

What I like to do is save squash seed from the best tasting squash and discard seeds from those that are bland or off-flavor. That way year after year I gradually improve my squash. Since the seeds are well preserved inside the fruit until it’s ready to cook, seed saving for me is an ongoing thing until the squash run out. You can end up with a lot of squash or pumpkin seeds in a hurry since each one can have dozens or even hundreds of seeds as anyone who carved a pumpkin knows.

Squash and Pumpkins
I have three different kinds of winter squash. I keep pumpkins to feed to my chickens in the winter.

The way I go about it is that I never toss out the seeds until dinner is over and I’ve had a chance to sample my squash. I mentally rate it and if it is better than the last one I had, I keep the seeds and get rid of the ones from the previous meal. By the time I eat my last serving of squash, I’ll have the seeds from the best tasting one from the garden. The rest of the seeds go to the chickens. I know it seems like a lot of fussing around but hey, it’s what I do.

Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.
Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.

This is a relatively simplistic way to select for a single genetic trait. Professional plant breeders select for other things such as disease resistance, high yields, ease of storage and other traits. In the home garden, flavor is a good one to select for.








Digging dahlia tubers late

Last week I talked about my potatoes that I dug up very late in the season. What I didn’t mention was that same day I also dug my dahlia tubers that were still in the ground. Turns out they where in fine shape shape as well.

It makes perfect sense that the tubers would look so nice.  The ideal storage temperature for dahlias is around forty degrees Fahrenheit and that’s about what the soil temperature was. I checked the soil temperature in my garden again this morning and found that even now, during the first week of December, it’s running about 40F.

What kind of surprised me was how warm the soil is even with the colder than normal November we experienced. Looking back on the several weeks,  a pretty good set of circumstances lined up for my dahlias. First, the tops were froze back by the frost back i October. Then I left them in the ground for well over a month. That allowed the tubers to develop healthy “eyes”, just like the eyes on a potato. With strong eyes, my tubers should make good, strong growth next spring — that is if I take good care of them over winter.

This is a typical dahlia tuber but they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

There’s a few simple tricks to keeping dahlias over winter. The first is to store them at the proper temperature and we already know what that is — just don’t let them freeze.

The second crucial factor is humidity. If left out in the air during storage, the tubers will dry out due to the low humidity we typically have in our homes in the winter heating season. So the solution is to store them in air tight containers. For a small amount of tubers, maybe under a hundred or so, I find keeping them in zip-loc bags is a good way to go. I usually separate the clumps of tubers into singles, then place one or two in each bag. To maintain good humidity I add moist sawdust to the bag. If you have more that one tuber per bag, the sawdust also keeps the tubers from touching each other. While you’re at it, add a tag so you know what variety it is.

Even though I had success in the past using peat moss, potting mix or garden soil, I’ve found that sawdust works best for me. I’ve heard of people using shredded newspaper but have never tried it. However, with so many people opting to get their news online, printed newspaper is getting harder and harder to find these days . You can easily solve that dilemma by subscribing to Detroit News home-delivery, but I digress.

The third and final secrete is to check on them once in a while. Open them up and make sure the packing material is still moist. Also, toss any rotting tubers you might find. It’s pretty disappointing to open them up in the spring only to find out your tubers were ruined due to neglect over winter.

Those plants you bought from the garden center and planted in your garden, most likely grew a set of usable tubers. Since soil temperatures are still hovering around 40 degrees F, it may be fun to check in your garden to see if your dahlia tubers are still good. Dahlia farms are asking $3.00 and up for each tuber (not including shipping) so it may be worth your while to poke around in the garden. Let us know in the comment section what you find.


Protect potted perennials from winter cold

Just about every year, going into winter, I have perennials or other potted plants left over from the growing season that never got planted for one reason or another. I usually have plans for them so I like to keep them over winter.

It’s a good idea to keep plants out as long as possible in the fall. An occasional short cold snap doesn’t bother the plants at all. This year the mild fall weather lasted so long that I just now got most of them put away into their winter storage spots.

The most valuable plants I worry about are my bonsai.  They are several years old, my false sequoia is well over 20 years old. All the bonsai are hardy trees that require a cold dormant period to complete their annual life cycle so have to be kept outside during the winter.

There’s a spot under my mature pine trees where the bonsai spend the winter. There I dig a hole and place them in the hole on their sides. Placing them sideways keeps snow melt water (which we get sometimes) from accumulating in the pots. That reduces the chance that the terracotta pots will crack when the water re-freezes. Soil excavated from the hole gets banked up over the pots and the crown of the trees. I then rake plenty pine needles over the tops to insulate them from the cold winter temperature and wind. The entire storage area gets covered with a tarp or other kind of covering.


I put the rest of my perennials in various places around my property. I have a number of  left over grape cuttings that I rooted this spring. Those I tucked away in a well-drained spot in the vegetable garden. A few miscellaneous perennial flowers are mixed in there with the grapes.

Pots in trench

A few years back I had some potted elderberry plants that I overwintered in the ground. I buried the pots as usual but put them in a new place, somewhere way out of the way. When spring arrived I was so busy that I forgot I even had elderberry plants. It wasn’t until late June that I saw a group of elderberries growing out of the soil that I remembered I stored them there the previous fall. I learned how a squirrel feels when it forgets where it buried its acorns.

The soil is still unfrozen thanks to our recent mild temperatures but that probably won’t last long so those plants into the ground now while you can.


Squash Sans Stem Spoils in Storage

We had a pretty decent crop of  Butternut squash this year. I planted them in a new part of the garden, which I’m sure helped boost the yield. Plus, we had very few insects on the squash. As a result, we now have plenty of Butternut that will go into storage straight from the garden — unprocessed.

If you keep winter squash under the proper conditions, you can enjoy them well into winter. The most important thing to keep in mind is to leave the stem on the squash. This is true of all varieties of winter squash and pumpkins.

A broken stem leaves an opening for the organisms that cause spoilage to enter the squash.


If you plan to use them in the next week or two, then it really doesn’t matter if the squash has a stem or not.

Sometimes you can find farmers selling stemless winter squash at a deep discount. Other than cooking them for a meal, you can freeze or can those bargain farmer’s market squash to use later on.

If the stems are breaking off  your squash as you pick them, use your pruning shear to cut the stems from the vine. You’ll find it’s worth the extra effort.

Store your best, unblemished squash in a spot that will stay around 50 degrees F with about 50 percent humidity. You should be able to enjoy your home-grown squash into early 2013.


Too Many Watermelons

One of the best investments I made this year wasn’t in stocks or bonds. It was buying a $1.89 pack of watermelon seeds from the hardware store.

I forgot to order watermelon seeds in my regular online seed order so, I bought them locally. They had only one pack of one variety left so I bought it. I mentioned these melons in previous posts.

This week I needed to harvest all of the watermelon since they were all ripe and ready to go.

That one pack yielded 32 full-sized watermelons! What do you do with 32 huge watermelons? After friends and family got their melons, there were still plenty left.

One thing I always wanted to try was dehydrating watermelons. That’s exactly what I did.  About 2 – 1/2 watermelons — minus their rinds —  fit into my food dehydrator. It took almost 20 hours to dry them down so they were no longer moist and sticky. I filled up four quart food storage bags with that batch.

Once dried, the watermelon slices are about the size and thickness of a nacho chip. They were about a half an inch thick going into the dehydrator.

The dehydration process concentrated the sweetness so much that they taste like some kind of exotic candy.

My dried watermelon will be a real treat this winter when the snow is flying. I still plan juice a few melons and try out watermelon wine with some others.


Bitter tasting carrots

Not long ago,  I came home with a bag of carrots from the grocery store. It was disappointing; every carrot in the bag was bitter tasting. This reminded me of the experience I had many years ago as a new gardener.
Back then I had a plan to grow enough fruit and vegetables to last through the winter. I grew carrots, cabbage, onions, apples and some other produce I wanted to put into storage. I built a small storage space and carefully put my produce away.
All of the fruit and vegetables I was storing had similar storage requirements. They needed a temperature around 32 F and fairly high humidity. It made sense to me to store them all together in the same space.
Later in the winter I took out some carrots to use. They all had that bitter, almost soapy flavor. Later I learned that apples give off ethylene gas. The ethylene caused the carrots to form chemical compounds called terpenes. Those terpenes were the source of the bitter flavor.
Somewhere along the line, the carrots I bought this week must have been exposed to ethylene; probably from apples in a cooler.
That’s a good reason why you shouldn’t store apples and carrots together in the same refrigerator drawer; especially if you don’t plan to use them right away.


Blackberry Jam

We”ll be finishing up the last of our wild blackberry jam this week… making it not eating it.

One batch of blackberry jam.

Our blackberries have been producing quite well for a number  of weeks now. We only have a few plants but as long as we keep picking them, it seems like they keep on producing.

You need to pick this many berries for one batch of jam which will give you ten half-pint jars.

In our little corner of the township we have been experiencing a mini-drought, so the berries are not as large as they usually are. Even so, we’ll have nearly 50 half-pints of blackberry jam made up to give out as Christmas presents this year.

If you or someone you know is out of work and out of money and is worrying about what they’ll give for Christmas to all of the extended family members, I suggest you think about making some jam or jelly to give away as gifts. It really doesn’t take much of an investment in cash, it just takes some time.

Perhaps you don’t have  berry plants of your own, ask around maybe somebody has a berry patch that they will let you pick from.  There are also pick-your-own farms within reasonable driving distance from anywhere in Michigan.

Blackberries are winding down in our part of the state but blueberries are still going strong and we have raspberries and grapes to look forward to as well.

Never made jam or jelly before? It’s pretty easy to do all you need is fruit, sugar, pectin and a few jars from the grocery store. Then just follow the simple directions that comes along with every box of fruit pectin.

Even if money is tight, by making jelly or jam, you’ll have much of your Christmas list taken care of early this year.

Bob and Judy

Squash Storage Experiment

I never used to like squash.  We never had it when we were growing up. I don’t know what it was, but something happened in the last couple of decades that made me appreciate squash and now we eat it regularly.

Squash is a very nutritious food and is easy to prepare.  Most of the time I just cut one in half, take out the seeds and bake it in the oven until it is soft and tender.

What  I’m talking about here is winter squash as opposed to summer squash such as zucchini.

This past fall I started an informal experiment to see how the different varieties of winter  squash hold up under our storage conditions.   The place I keep our squash ranges in temperature from 40F to about 50F depending on the outside weather conditions.

I don’t do anything special to them.  I just put them into a crate and take one out when I want one.

I have in storage eight different varieties of squash, four crates in all.

Back row L-R: Spaghetti, Blue Hokkaido. Middle row: Baby Hubbard, Butternut, Hybrid Acorn, Acorn. Front row: Kabocha, Buttercup

After going out the other day to get a squash to bake,  I thought “h-m-m-m-m  some people might be interested in the results up to this point”.

Now we are into the third week of February and I see that the Kabocha squash has deteriorated the most.  It has areas of deep spoilage.  These spots can be cut out and some of the squash can be used.

The Buttercup appeared to go down hill fairly quickly. Last month I noticed that most were starting to get a little rotten right in the “cup” of the but the rest of the squash was perfectly fine.

The Butternuts are getting shriveled and some have very soft spots.

The Acorns are firm but have some isolated bad spots that can be cut out, the rest of it is usable.

There are  some surface spots on the Spaghetti Squash but they are otherwise OK.

No spoilage is evident on the Hybrid Acorn.  I haven’t tried to eat one of these yet.

Neither the Baby Hubbard nor the Blue Hokkaido show much in the way of loss of quality.

One thing has to be done if you want to keep these for the winter;  pick unblemished squash.  Be sure they are not bruised, cut or have any other suspicious marks on them.  If they do have spots on them, eat those first before spoilage sets in.

For flavor, my favorite is Buttercup.  They are so flavorful that you think they already have butter and sweet spices mixed in.

So, there you go, lots of great food stored through winter with no canning or freezing.  Now if anyone has any recipes….


Fresh Memories of the Garden

Now it feels like November.  Cold, rainy and dreary.  Gone are the Indian Summer days. Summer’s garden seems long past.

But with a little bit of effort a few weeks ago, I am able to make a pot of chili today using fresh tomatoes!

The day before we had that really cold night (not just the first frost when we covered our tomatoes, but this time it was going to get below  freezing so we knew the covering up wouldn’t do much good) it went to 28 degrees where my garden was.  I had picked all the tomatoes I could.  This was just a few days after that total day long rain that made the tomatoes start cracking , they swelled up so much.  I picked the red ones with a little cracking and all the green larger ones, some with a tinge of red and some that were totally green but otherwise perfect with no blemishes.

My goal has been for many years to have fresh tomato salad for Thanksgiving dinner. Some years a few tomatoes make it, some years they don’t .  So the perfect green tomatoes are wrapped carefully in newspaper and put gently in a cardboard box, then placed in a cool dark place.   They need to be checked every week or so. Take out any that show mold or black spots.  Put them on a sunny window sill and they will redden up after a few days. Cut out the bad parts of the tomato and use the good .

So, today I sorted  the tomatoes I kept in the garage and made a pot of chili with them.  This is the second time this fall that we have sorted through them . There’s still 1/4 to1/3 of them left for Thanksgiving.

Well, the tomatoes are simmering nicely.  I’d better get back to my chili making…  it smells delicious!

bye now, Judy