Eat your veggies and your chocolate, too!

“Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one?s life … but 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers and 1937 the Kit Kat – these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the memory of every child in the country.”

– Roald Dahl, author of the children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964

Roald Dahl was very much impressed by chocolate companies when he was growing up in England. Back in the 1920s, he happened to live in a neighborhood to which the famous Cadbury  Company sent test packages to schoolchildren in exchange for their families’ opinions about the company’s new chocolate products. Can you imagine growing up as a taste-tester for one of the world’s most famous chocolate companies? No wonder Roald Dahl wrote the fantastical story about Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, the Oompa-Loompas and the rest of all the characters in the beloved  book and film adaptations.

In Sunday’s column (Feb. 11, 2018), I wrote about how gardeners can grow a sweet chocolate garden filled with perennial and annual flowers and herbs that look and smell like chocolate.

My vegetable garden is another place I can grow my chocolate and eat it, too. This year, I’m growing a “chocolate” salad with organic heirloom ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’ container tomatoes and ‘Brown Dutch’ lettuce. I picked up the lettuce seeds last summer when I visited Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Monticello.

I like growing my tomatoes in canvas bags so I can move them out of the late-afternoon sun if I need to. ‘Tasmanian Chocolate’ tomatoes produce clusters of rich mahogany  and chocolate-streaked globes with a sweet, earthy taste that also smells delicious on the vine. The ruffled fruits are dense, flattened on the top and slightly ruffled. They grow vigorously on deep-green vines reaching 3-3 1/2 feet tall.

This week, I’m starting a tray of tomato seeds in my greenhouse. The seeds will be sown in cell trays in a soil-less medium 1/4 inch deep, and kept moist on heat mats set at 80-degrees F. under lights for 16 hours each day. I cover the plants at night but remove the tray lids during the day to allow for air circulation. I find that if I don’t provide enough light for germination, my tomato seedlings become leggy very quickly. I rotate my trays every day so each side of the tray receives the same light exposure.

When the seedlings are about 2 inches tall, I transplant them into larger pots in soil with compost and organic fertilizer – all tomatoes, and especially container tomatoes – are hungry plants. I’ll keep the seedlings indoors, and keep monitoring their moisture levels, until the weather permits hardening off. I’m looking for consistent night-time temperatures of 50-50-degrees F. before I’ll move to the canvas bags and place them outside.

I’m also excited to start some ‘Brown Dutch” lettuce in the garden, partly because it sounds so delicious and partly because it was the. most frequently planted lettuce of 17 varieties that Thomas Jefferson consistently grew in his vegetable gardens at Monticello. Southern climates favored sowing the seeds in the fall for winter crops, but for outdoor planting, I like to sow my lettuce seeds directly in the garden in late February and early March for spring harvests that sometimes last through June.

Lettuce seeds will be sown in soil amended with compost and organic fertilizer and kept moist with plenty of sunshine. 1-inch seedlings should be thinned to 6-8 inches apart. It’s important to have row cover ready for cold nights. The biggest challenge I’ve had in growing spring lettuce is keeping varmints, including the rabbit that we inherited from our daughter, away from the tender green lettuce shoots. I’ve started planting loose-leaf lettuce in containers, too; it does well as long as the soil is kept moist, and the container is tilted slightly to capture the sun. I cover the containers at night until temperatures stay around 50-degrees F.

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Technology in the garden

“Americans…saw themselves creating a society in the image of a garden.” ~ Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 1964

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Feb. 4, 2018), I shared six garden apps that I think are useful mini-machines for planning, designing and maintaining our vegetable and flower beds. Here’s a link to a nine more garden apps that you may find helpful. I particularly like the digitized, interactive version of The New Sunset Western Garden Book.

I’d love to hear about your favorite garden apps. Post a comment here to share with other gardeners.


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Local sources for assessing and planning pollinator-friendly gardens

“I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 1993

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Jan. 21, 2018), I offered 10 ideas for creating a pollinator habitat in our gardens and landscapes. Here are links to three local sources that are helpful for assessing and planning pollinator-friendly gardens and yards.

Gardening with Oregon Native Plants West of the Cascades

Native Pollinator Plants for Southern Oregon

Plants for Pollinators in Oregon

  1. 1.     Sun, soil and moisture conditions of areas for pollinator habitats

My pollinator-friendly garden

Sun exposure varies in my yard, from full sun to partial sun in areas where the tall maple and sycamore trees provide shade during part of the day. I have a lot of native clay in my soil, so it is often wet in the winter and dry in the summertime. The soil in my yard is watered by drip and spray irrigation. For the past several years, I’ve amended the soil by working in 3-4 inches of compost each spring and mulching with bark to keep moisture in during our summer drought periods.

I want to focus on drought-tolerant plants that do well in full sun or (8 hours of direct sunlight a day; afternoon sun OK) and partial sun exposure (4 hours of direct sunlight a day, preferably in the morning).

  1. 2.     Water for pollinators  

I have an electric fountain in my front yard. I used to also have a bird bath, but some neighborhood turkeys (the bird kind) knocked it over and broke it. I still need to replace it. Drip/spry irrigation also provides moisture on plants.

  1. 3.     Shelter for pollinators

I provide lots of natural shelter for pollinators in my yard. I have trees with exfoliating bark and cavities. I have bare patches in my soil for ground-nesting pollinators. I also keep most of my perennials standing over winter to provide food and shelter for pollinating insects and birds.

  1. 4.     Current pollinator plants

Native pollinator plants

Oregon white oak, Oregon vine maple, evergreen huckleberry, kinnikinnick (bearberry), goldenrod, Western yarrow

Non-native pollinator plants

crabapple ‘Snowdrift,’ black-eyed Susan, candytuft, purple coneflower, rose campion, lavender, lupine, oregano, rosemary, sage, sedum, statice, strawberries, thyme, coreopsis, purple verbena, foxglove, Erica (heather) nicotiana and annual and perennial chrysanthemum

  1. 5.     Other appropriate pollinator plants

Native pollinator plants

Full sun and drought-tolerant shrubs, perennials and annuals: blueblossom (SH), deer brush (SH), Oregon sunshine (P); horsemint (P), narrowleaf milkweed (P); farewell-to-spring (A), globe gilia (A), California poppy (A)

Partial sun and drought-tolerant shrubs, perennials and annuals: red-flowering currant; red-twig dogwood, red elderberry, mock orange, ocean spray, Oregon grape, Nootka rose, salal, serviceberry, Douglas spirea, asters (Douglas, Eaton’s Henderson’s, Oregon golden), blue-eyed grass, camas, Western red columbine, Douglas and Oregon iris, Oregon sunshine, Cascade penstemon, broadleaf stonecrop

Non-native pollinator plants

Full sun/partial sun and drought-tolerant perennials and annuals: agastache mint, perennial alyssum, Gaillardia, bluebeard, erigeron, centaurea, pelargonium, globe thistle, hyssop, allium, scabiosa

  1. 6.     Pollinator cover crops

Early to mid-blooming (N=native)

Alfalfa, baby blue eyes (N), bell beans, calendula, crimson clover, mustard, vetch

Mid to late-blooming

Alyssum (annual or sweet), basil, borage, California buckwheat and sulphur (N), coriander, cosmos, red clover, dill, marigold, Mexican sunflower, scabiosa, single zinnias

I’m creating a spreadsheet that includes bloom times, flower color, and plant size. I’ll use the information to create a planting map for the new pollinator plants I select for my yard and garden.

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Orchards, observation and creative expression

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!
  ~ “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide; lyrics by Richard Wilbur


In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Jan. 14, 2018), I wrote about some things to think about when planning a residential orchard.  Here, I want to digress from practical matters and share a few pieces of “orchard poetry” by one of my favorite poets, Richard Wilbur (1921-2017). Wilbur also wrote the lyrics to several songs in Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical, Candide.

Wilbur died a few months ago (Oct. 14, 2017) at the age of 96; however, during his long lifetime, he earned acclaim for his rhythmical insights about everyday objects and experiences. Among numerous awards for his work, Wilbur won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award for Things of This World (1956), and another Pulitzer Prize for New and Collected Poems (1989).

Wilbur grew up on a farm in North Caldwell, New Jersey, and he said that experience made him more attentive to the natural world – “to fruit trees and animals and garden crops, to woods and various kinds of labor.”

My orchard in January, 2017

“The activities of the farm were interesting enough to be worth hanging around and looking at,” Wilbur said in a 1995 interview. “I suppose that growing up on a farm as a privileged observer of these activities contributed to making me observant.”

Here is what Wilbur observed about orchard trees in winter in his poem, “Orchard Trees, January” (2010)

It’s not the case, though some might wish it so
Who from a window watch the blizzard blow

White riot through their branches vague and stark,
That they keep snug beneath their pelted bark.

They take affliction in until it jells
To crystal ice between their frozen cells,

And each of them is inwardly a vault
Of jewels rigorous and free of fault,

Unglimpsed until in May it gently bears
A sudden crop of green-pronged solitaires.

He writes again of orchards on a windy spring day in “Young Orchards” (2008):

These trees came to stay.
Planted at intervals of
Thirty feet each way,

Each one stands alone
Where it is to live and die.
Still, when they have grown
To full size, these trees
Will blend their crowns, and hum with
Mediating bees.
Meanwhile, see how they
Rise against their rootedness
On a gusty day,
Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,
Swept by flutterings
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.

Young blossoms on my crabapple tree in April, 2017

The poet’s words are reminders that gardeners, too, are privileged observers, and the same skills of observation that make a successful gardener can also be tapped for creative expression. Some gardeners take photographs, some paint or draw, and others write poetry. Sometimes I think it’s fun to turn my garden notes into a poem, such as this one I wrote about my crabapple tree last spring:

Malus ‘Snowdrift’

Your blossoms will fall like
Snowflakes in a
Few weeks’ time,

But now it’s early April, and many of your
Pink buds are still tight against the
Lingering hint of frost.

Yet, you’re eager for springtime and so you
Open yourself to the

Joined on reaching branches by
Fresh green leaves that welcome your

Your soft presence
Attracts a blue jay couple who sing as they
Build their nest among your limbs.

Fragrant pheromones wafting through the air
From your blossoms entice a
Thousand bees.

I stand beneath your flowered limbs, and
Listen to their frenzy. The
bees know

Your blossoms will fall like
Snowflakes in a
Few weeks’ time.

But right now
The bees and I are in

We don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to turn our garden observations into artistic expression. As Wilbur said,  there is a place “for poetry of close observation, for poetry that acknowledges the importance of things however small…” After all, Wilbur noted,”The world’s fullness is not made but found.”

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Really local sources for seeds

“It was on the wings of seeds that Thoreau sailed home, where he found peace…” ~ Gary Nabham in Faith in a Seed (1993) about Henry David Thoreau’s last years studying seeds

Campanula scouleri (harebell) - Photo courtesy of Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds

Happy New Year! In Sunday’s column (Jan. 8, 2018),

I shared 10 Considerations about Seeds, some of which Thoreau would never have imagined when he was scribbling down notes about seeds and seed dispersal in 1860.

Here are the first four considerations again: 1. Are the seeds grown/harvested locally? 2. Are the seeds heirloom? 3. Are the seeds from plants native to our region? 4. Are the seeds organic?

The three local sources below address these four considerations by providing Rogue Valley gardeners with a variety of vegetable, herb and flower seeds that are certified organic and open-pollinated. You’ll find several heirloom varieties offered by Restoration and Siskiyou seeds, and you’ll be amazed at the wide selection of native wildflowers available at Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds.

One of your New Year’s goals might be to grow your first wildflower garden! Now’s the time to plan your garden and support our local farmers.

Restoration Seeds

Siskiyou Seeds

Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds

Rainbow blend carrots - Photo courtesy of Restoration Seeds

French Breakfast. radishes – Photo courtesy of Siskiyou Seeds

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A plant collector’s garden

“Like a corner of the kingdom of heaven, the plant enthusiast’s garden is a place where gardeners bring out their treasury of things new and old – the rare, the ordinary, the unknown, and the well known.” ~ Roger Turner, “The Plant Collector’s Garden: From Chaos to Beauty,” 2005, p. 10 

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Oct. 29, 2017), I wrote about what it’s like to be a plant collector. Now, I’d like to show you what it’s like to be a plant collector by sharing a video of “My Garden Story” 2017. Enjoy the show!

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Backdrop plants for rock border garden

“The best site for a rock garden is where it ought to. be.” ~ Henry Sherman Adams, “Making a Rock Garden,” 1912

In Sunday’s column (Oct. 22, 2017), I wrote about making a rock border garden around a pond in my backyard. Although by no means natural-looking as Adams insists is the only kind of rock garden worthy of the name, I can create a more naturalistic look to my lava border by planting small saxatile perennials in the crevices of the rocks. In addition, I can add taller perennials as backdrop plants that will also soften the area between the pond and patio. Backdrop plants can be grown in the ground or in containers as space permits. The following are good choices for backdrop plants that provide year-round color:

Spring bloomers: daffodils (Narcissus); columbines (Aquilegia hybrids); wallflowers (Cheiranthus cheiri; biennial, grown as annual), scented geraniums (Pelargonium species; tender perennial)

Summer and fall bloomers: daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids); Brazilian Verbena (V. bonariensis); Zinnia (Z. angustifolia)

Other options for backdrop plants are grasses (blue fescue; blue rye grass) and dwarf evergreen plants, such as dwarf conifers.

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Rogue Valley’s fall pageantry

“Come,” said the leaves to the wind one day/”Come o’er the meadows and we will play./Put on your dresses scarlet and gold/For summer is gone and the days grow cold.” ~ George Cooper, “Come Little Leaves”

See if you can identify the following Oregon native and non-native trees from their fall foliage. Back click on the photo and “Save As” to reveal the name.

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Grow pansies from seed

“The beauteous pansies rise/In purple, gold, and blue/With tints of rainbow hue/Mocking the sunset skies.” ~ Thomas John Ouseley, “The Angel of the Flowers” (c. 1874)

In Sunday’s Mail Tribune column (Sept. 24, 2017), I wrote about growing pansies. Of course, it’s not difficult to find pansies to buy and plant out in the garden, but oftentimes pansies sold in nurseries are overgrown and rootbound in their containers. I enjoy growing my pansies from seed, although they require cold stratification and darkness to germinate.

I start pansy seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before I plan to plant them in the garden. First, I place the seeds I’m going to sow in the refrigerator for one week to cold stratify. Then, I fill clean seed trays with a seed starter mixture made of  coconut coir/peat moss and vermiculite/perlite. Pansy seeds only need to be covered with a fine  layer of growing medium sifted through a sieve. Then I cover the seed tray and place them somewhere where the temperature remains below 70 degrees F (this is my “sunroom” in the winter).

The most challenging part of growing pansies from seed is finding a cool place for the seeds to germinate, keeping the seeds moist by misting, and remembering to check the seeds everyday for signs of emerging growth.

Pansy seeds should germinate in 2-3 weeks. Once they do germinate , I uncover the seeds trays and move them to my greenhouse with my other sun-loving plants. There, I maintain bottom heat for my pansies between 55-65 degrees F. and continue to keep the soil slightly moist.  Once the seedlings grow their first set of “true leaves” (not the cotyledons), I transplant them into 4-inch pots where they will overwinter until early spring. ‘

I found a website that provides very interesting information about the history of pansies at:

Happy pansy growing!

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My crabapple tree isn’t one bit crabby

“Fetch me a dozen Crab-tree staves, and strong ones.” – William Shakespeare, “King Henry VIII,” Act V, scene 4 (1612)

M. "Snowdrift" Spring 2017

Crabapple wood is, indeed, a sturdy wood; it also makes an aromatic  barbecue wood and lends itself well to woodworking. In Sunday’s column (Sept. 17, 207), I wrote about my crabapple tree (Malus “Snowdrift”) and how much I enjoy it in the spring when the tree is blooming with masses of delicate-looking pink buds and white blossoms.

I’ve found that my crabapple tree is easy to keep healthy. Although crabapple trees need lots of moisture when they are young, they are not very thirsty trees once  established. I use drip irrigation and water my crabapple tree along with the other plants in my garden berms that require slightly moist soil (this takes an hour of water once or twice a week depending on the temperature). Sometimes I use the soaker nozzle on my hose and supplement the amount of water my crabapple tree gets while it’s working hard to produce all those beautiful blossoms in the spring. I also add compost to the soil around the tree every spring, and I prune away dead, damaged or crossed branches and any suckers that have sprouted after it has stopped blooming. In addition, I measure the new growth of the crabapple tree in late spring and if less than a foot of stem and foliage has sprouted, I add a slow-releasing, high-nitrogen fertilizer to support more new growth.

As you can see from the picture, the birds love my crabapple tree, too; they build a nest in it every year!

I don’t love the crabapples in the fall so much, though. I learned there are hormone sprays that can be applied when the tree is blooming to reduce fruit production. The insecticide Sevin was once used to reduce the amount of fruit produced by trees, but was found harmful to bees. It is now illegal to use Sevin as a fruit inhibitor.
I don’t like to mess with Mother Nature, so I’ll just continue using my crabapples for compost, and enjoying my crabapple tree’s splendor in the spring!

To find out the crabapple tree that is best for you, here is a useful crabapple tree chart online at, compiled by a wholesale tree grower in the Willamette Valley. The chart describes 40 crabapple trees, with color photographs, so gardeners can find the best tree for their property. The chart even provides information about each tree’s resistance to common orchard diseases such as scab, fire blight and powdery mildew.

Happy fall!

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  • About the Authors

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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