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The Gardener Wife Newsletter

Hi folks,

Happy Valentines Day! This is a lovely time for hearts and flowers–either for yourself or for a loved one. Nowadays we can get flowers from a garden, a flower shop, or a store with a floral department.


BUYING FLOWERS & DRYING FLOWERS – garden-style living

I usually avoid buying flowers when I have blooms available in the garden. That’s not the case during the winter, of course, so I did buy some recently to put in a centerpiece at our church’s Women’s Winter Tea. When buying cut flowers, I look for the freshest ones: stems that are straight and strong, blooms that are not drooping, and petals that are crisp and not starting to turn yellow or brown at the edges. Because the centerpiece was going to be used the next day, I chose roses with opened blooms. If I had wanted the arrangement to last longer, I would have looked for tighter buds.

After the tea, I brought the arrangement home to display in my front hallway. It looks surprisingly good a week and a half later. My next step is hanging the flowers upside down until they’re dried. Drying upside down will keep the flower heads upright. Then I’ll put them back on display until I’m ready to redecorate for spring.

Drying flowers from the garden is an alternative to buying fresh flowers in the winter. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the foresight to do it in the summer and fall. Typically if I happen to notice that flowers I’ve picked are drying nicely, then I'll keep them around for as long as they look good. One of these years I will plan ahead for dried winter arrangements. Several of the flowers I’ve grown in the garden work great as dried flowers: hydrangeas, amaranth, cockscomb, and gomphrena.

I have always liked to dry flowers–even before I started gardening. After our wedding, I used silica gel crystals to dry the flowers from my bridal bouquet. I’ve kept them in a covered glass bowl ever since. The flowers have faded but our love hasn’t–it’s still a lovely memento! I’ve also saved flowers from other occasions but have not protected them from dust. If you want to keep your dried flowers looking good for more than a year, you should put them under glass.


WINTER SOWING GUIDE – practical gardening tips

You may be thinking that you could afford to grow more flowers for fresh and dried arrangements if you started them from seed. As much as I love seed starting, I always warn people away from it because it can be frustrating and heartbreaking. It’s also addictive! But don’t worry–if you want to start the adventure of starting seeds inside your home, I will write about it in a future newsletter and on my blog.

In the meantime, however, I recommend that you try winter sowing first. Winter sowing refers to starting seeds outdoors during the winter in small greenhouses made from recycled plastic containers. This method can be used to start vegetables and herbs as well as flowers. The seeds sprout when the weather warms up just like seeds that have fallen to the ground on their own. Here are the advantages to this method of seed starting as described by Wikipedia:

The last one is my favorite! I'm glad I got a screenshot of that page before it was corrected. Like Abraham Lincoln said, don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

In any case, it’s thanks to the internet that winter sowing has taken the gardening world by storm. Trudi Greissle Davidoff first coined the term and documented her experiments on Today you can find instructions, photos, and discussions of winter sowing not only on that website but all over the internet. In fact, you could probably find a winter sowing class near you to attend in person.

Here are my tips, based on several years of experience.

Timing – The beauty of winter sowing is that you do not have to worry about when to sow your seeds. You plant them in the dead of winter, and when it’s time for them to come up, they will! However, if the seedlings cannot handle frosts, you will then have to protect them with some kind of covering whenever there is a chance of frost. The more tender the plant, the more often you will have to protect it.

That’s why it’s best, when you’re starting out, to stick to seeds of perennials and cold hardy annuals. Their seed packet descriptions might have any of the following words or phrases: hardy, self-sowing, colonizing, withstand frost, stratify, stratification, and direct sow in early spring/late fall or as soon as the ground can be worked.

If you move beyond this category and want to try winter sowing tomatoes or any other tender annual, then you could put off winter sowing them until March–or even April for the tenderest ones. That way you’ll have less covering and protecting to do after they sprout. Folks who have tried winter sowing live all over the world, and they have done it with all kinds of plants. I have collected some of their findings and adjusted them for my zone here: Winter Sowing Dates - Zone 5b.

I like to do my winter sowing in January and February. Once March rolls around, I get more involved in indoor seed starting. I also go outside and start direct sowing cold hardy annuals in my kitchen garden beds. I see no need to cut up jugs and use this process for seeds that are easily direct sown.

Containers – We drink a lot of distilled water, so I use the plastic gallon-size jugs it comes in. They’re just like milk jugs, but I don’t have to wash them. Whatever container you use must be tall enough to accommodate the seedlings as they grow and transparent enough to see your hand through its side.

I cut almost all the way around the jug about 5 inches up from the bottom and leave a hinge on the handle side. Then I poke 4 or 5 holes in the bottom. Most people seal these jugs with duct tape after they’ve planted in them. Last year I just punched holes in the top and bottom at the corner opposite the hinge and tied them together with a twist tie. This method allowed more air inside the container, so I kept the caps on the jugs. I was successful with starting leeks, celery, cilantro, hollyhocks, and even a few delphiniums this way. Who knows? Perhaps more would have come up if I’d used duct tape.

Potting Mix – I use a professional quality soil-less potting mix, the same kind I would use for indoor seed starting. It must hold moisture and drain well. I fill the containers at least 3 inches, which is deeper than necessary for indoor seed starting. You don’t need a ruler: the rule of thumb is to fill it to a depth that is about the same as the length of your thumb.

Labeling – I use a grease pencil to write the name of the seeds sown on both the bottom and top parts of the jug. These labels will not fade. Plant only one type of seed per container to avoid confusion. Use smaller containers, such as 2-liter bottles, if you’re planting only a few seeds.

Seeds – Use fresh seeds. When I first discovered winter sowing, I thought it would be a great way to use up my oldest seeds. Wrong! Hardly anything came up, and it was a waste of time and effort. Before going to this year’s seed swap, I threw out all my seeds that were five or more years old. One to three years old is OK for many seeds. Remember that the older the seeds, the more you should plant because fewer of them will germinate.  

Spacing – Except for plants that grow well clumped together, I space the seeds about an inch apart. If I expect the seedlings to grow in the container for a while before I transplant them out to the garden, I thin them to the appropriate spacing as soon as they pop up. Be firm: do not postpone thinning! Otherwise, those seedlings will not grow well.

Watering – As with indoor seed starting, I prefer to water winter sown seeds from the bottom so I put them in trays. Let the trays hold water until the potting mix is soaked; then drain them. After you put them outside, they will not need any watering during the cold and snow of winter. When the seeds sprout, start monitoring the moisture level in the containers. Water when needed. This could be as often as every other day or even every day when the lids are off later in the spring.

Location – I have wire shelves outside in the corner between our house and the garage. Here the winter sowing containers will not be disturbed by animals or blown around by a strong wind. It’s also easy for me to check on them because they’re right by the garage door.

Protection – After the seeds sprout, open the containers up on warm days and close them at night. Add a covering for tender seedlings during a light frost and for all of them during a hard freeze.

Transplanting – The sooner you can get your winter sown seedlings into the ground, the better. I left several languishing in their jugs last spring for too long. Once I separated and finally planted the hollyhocks, they hardly grew at first. They did better later and are biennials, so I hope they will grow and finally bloom for me next summer. The tiny winter sown celery plants never caught up to the indoor sown ones. I didn’t plant the winter sown delphiniums until the third week of June when I got a couple blooming ones on clearance. Nothing came of them. My cilantro started to bolt before I could transplant it. The leeks, which I planted out sooner, were fine. Next spring I hope to transplant all my winter sown seedlings to the garden as soon as their “plant out” dates and temperatures arrive.


MAKING CHILI WHEN IT’S CHILLY – garden-style eating

My winter sown seeds are fine with the deep cold of winter, but I am not. Last week it was super cold: -22º on our deck! One of my favorite ways to warm up is to make chili in the slow cooker. Plus, it’s a fantastic way to use many vegetables from my summer garden, and that warms my heart, too.

My chili recipe did not start out as a way to use garden vegetables. I’ve adapted it from a recipe that originally came with my first slow cooker over 25 years ago. I’m a recipe tinkerer, not a recipe developer! Almost from the beginning, I substituted ground turkey for the ground beef, dried pinto beans for the canned kidney beans, and a salt-free herb blend for the salt. Later as a beginning gardener, I found that chili was a great way to use end-of-season tomatoes that were ripened indoors and then frozen whole. Those tomatoes don’t taste as good as the ones ripened outdoors, but they’re still homegrown organic tomatoes. The spices in the chili kick up their flavor. Since I grow more things in my garden, I now use my homegrown tomatillos, peppers, onions, and garlic, too, whenever possible. You could make adaptations like mine with your own favorite chili recipe if you get any of the ingredients from a garden, farmers market, or CSA.

If you have to buy tomatoes from a supermarket, then I recommend that you get canned ones, diced or whole. Those will be tastier than anything in the fresh produce department. I also recommend that they be organic. The same goes for bell peppers, hot peppers, and anything else on the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list.

Chez Rea Chili


2 pounds ground beef and/or turkey
1 1/2 cups onion, chopped
1 cup organic green pepper, chopped
2 whole garlic cloves, minced
32 ounces organic tomatoes, canned (undrained) or frozen (from the garden)
16 ounces dried pinto beans
2 teaspoons salt-free seasoning
2 tablespoons chili powder 
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon cumin

Optional garden additions: If I have tomatillos and jalapeños or other hot peppers from my garden, I add them, too. I don’t grow squash, but I know that some people add squash puree to their chili. You can use whatever you like! If you don’t have a freezer full of garden goodies, you can still make this recipe with store bought ingredients.


  1. The night before: Sort and rinse beans, and then leave them in a large bowl of water to soak overnight. You can skip this step and replace the dried beans with 32 ounces canned kidney beans, undrained.

  2. Preheat pot on a range top.  Add ground meat and brown.  Move pot to the slow cooker base. NOTE: If your slow cooker does not have a metal insert that can be used on the stovetop, you will have to use another pan to brown the meat. If using an Instant Pot or other multi-cooker, use the saute setting to brown the meat and then use its slow cooker function to cook the chili.

  3. Add everything else and stir to combine.  Cover and simmer on LOW for 7 to 10 hours.  Keep warm for serving.

May garden food and flowers keep your heart warm this winter!

Digging it,


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