Growing wheat in Gaithersburg

Wheat sheaves hanging up on a stick to dry
Wheat sheaves hanging to dry. Photo: L. Davis

Wheat is in the news this year (recall export restrictions from Ukraine and India). We don’t usually think of wheat as a home garden crop, but it does grow well in this area.

In 2017, 2019, and 2021 I planted wheat on a small section of my community garden plot in Gaithersburg. I planted hard red winter wheat in late October in a 5′ x 7′ plot in full sun. Winter wheat needs about 8-10 weeks of growth before the ground freezes, at which time it should be about 5-6″ tall. Rows can be 6″ apart, so it also serves as a cover crop over the winter. I surrounded it with a rabbit barrier of chicken wire.

Full grown wheat
Full-grown wheat. Photo: L. Davis

In spring, the wheat grew to about 4′ in height and began to form kernels in May, and I encountered my first challenge – birds. Sparrows swooped in and started eating the young seed heads. Recycling some cicada netting over the top and draping it over the chicken-wire fence surrounding the wheat was effective for a while, but when the stalks began to mature and dry, the pesky little sparrows found ways to get in. I had to use clothespins to secure the netting to the chicken wire.

Harvesting wheat with a scythe
Harvesting the wheat. Photo: L. Davis

Harvest time was in early June. I found an old scythe in my community garden toolshed, sharpened it in my kitchen, and cut the wheat stalks about 18″ long. After gathering them into sheaves and tying each bundle with a shoestring, I hung them to dry for a couple of weeks. The second challenge was threshing.

There are lots of ideas on the internet for threshing; that is, removing the grain from the stalks. An ancient no-machinery method is to walk on the wheat heads, or hitch your animals to a circular contraption and have them walk around and around over it. We preferred a more sanitary way. Other methods repurpose bicycles and other machinery to release the grains. Or you can beat the stalks against the inside of a bucket. In my case, I put my husband to work bashing a pillowcase of wheat heads against the floor and then stomping on the pillowcase.

Next comes winnowing. I set a simple household fan on the kitchen counter and poured the wheat berries into another bowl in front of the fan. The heavy kernels dropped into the new bowl and the chaff, which was much lighter, blew away. (This required a major cleanup of my kitchen. It could definitely be done outdoors!)

To preserve the wheat berries, I packed them into jars and plastic containers and stuffed what I could into the freezer. When we are ready to make bread, I thaw a jar of the wheat and grind it with a NutriMill electric grain grinder. That does an excellent job, and I make bread using half whole wheat and half good quality white bread flour. Pass the raspberry jam!

Linda Davis is a Master Gardener living in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She completed the Master Gardener course in Virginia in 1997.

Do plants get food from the soil?

cabbage plant
Cabbage. Photo: A. Bodkins

People often say you have to feed your plants, but in reality plants make their own food through the process of photosynthesis, which yields oxygen and glucose. Glucose is the food that plants use for energy and growth, they don’t need us to actually feed them. Since plants can make their own food, they are called autotrophs.  The green pigments in plants, called chlorophyll, capture light energy from the sun. The process isn’t nearly as simple as I’ve described it. 

Plants can further be divided into two classifications, C3 or C4, which is determined based on how efficiently the plant can photosynthesize and whether the plant has to go through the process of photorespiration, which is required for C3 plants. This makes C4 plants, like corn, sorghum and  sugarcane more drought resistant because of the complex processes that occur within the plant at molecular levels. The majority of plants are C3 plants. For more information on this topic check out the article from University of Illinois, The difference between C3 and C4 plants

So why do plants need a soil that is sufficient in macronutrients and micronutrients if that is not their food?  Well, the short answer is that nutrients help plants grow and keep them healthy so that they can photosynthesize efficiently. As the plant mass increases, the plant leaf size/surface area increases, which allows the plant to capture more sunlight and turn it into more food.  

You can check out the Home and Garden Information Center’s webpage about fertilizer to learn more about macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are those elements that the plant needs the most of to be healthy. Water provides hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon dioxide provides oxygen and carbon which are part of the required macronutrients for all plants. The remaining macronutrients are provided by soil (unless the plant is being grown hydroponically, of course). Plants can only take up or use nutrients that are dissolved in soil water. This is why it is so important to make sure that your soil gets sufficient water. Some plants are called heavy feeders and this is generally in relation to their need for larger amounts of the macronutrients, especially nitrogen. Some examples are tomatoes, everything in the cabbage family, and beets.  The University of Maryland provides more information on fertilizing vegetables.  

By providing an optimum growing environment, through correct amounts of light, moisture, and nutrients, the plant will have the best chance at reaching its full potential. As I eagerly wait for the first produce from my vegetable garden this season, I want to be sure that all my plants reach their full potential and produce a large amount of food for me and my family to enjoy this growing season. 

Please comment below with what you are doing this year to ensure that your plants are healthy and happy and growing well. Do you test your soil every 3 years or whenever you are planting a garden in a new area?  Do you research the plant needs (full sun, part sun, or shade) before planting? What questions do you have about managing soil fertility and nutrients? 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.


This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.

2022 is the year of soil health

Variety is the spice of life: creating a new garden with native plants

Nothing like starting out a blog with a cliché, right? But this perfectly sums up one reason to change from a monotypic lawn to a mix of native plants. Instead of looking out at a sea of sameness, the diversity of colors, sizes, and shapes of plants offer a more pleasing landscape to view. And, bonus points, more and different kinds of plants attract more and different kinds of butterflies, birds, and beneficial wildlife!

butterfly milkweed with monarch caterpillar
Butterflyweed planted in spring 2020 provides food for Monarch caterpillars later in the summertime.

A do-it-yourself garden is harder but more fulfilling

Once you figure out that you do want more variety of plants instead of lawn in your yard, the real planning begins. But, it can be hard to know where to start – do you just chop up the lawn and start planting? How much will it cost? What’s the maintenance on these plants? What about soil conditions? Don’t worry! There are some really good online tips for beginners. To sum mine up: start small, don’t overthink it, and stick to things you like looking at.

For example, my sister moved into a small house with a fenced backyard. She knew she wanted to avoid the pain of mowing. She knew she wanted low-maintenance, flowering plants. And since she’s a redhead, she knew what colors she liked (hint: little to no red flowers). The first thing we did was start tracking the sun, in both the front and back yards. Each month over the winter, we took a picture in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. We also got started on the paths needed through the garden areas.

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Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Tips for using garden evergreens for holiday décor

Using evergreen cuttings to decorate the home offers an easy way to incorporate different textures, shapes, and aromas. Evergreens add a touch of simplicity, elegance, and nostalgia to holiday décor. They can be used easily on doors and entryways, as garland, or centerpieces. Cutting materials from your own landscape can provide a thrifty option.   

Here are a few tips for making evergreens a beautiful addition to your holiday décor. 

  1. If cutting from your own landscape, be cautious not to cut too much. Pruning in the early winter is generally not recommended unless it is to remove diseased or damaged material. It won’t hurt a well established plant to trim off a few branches, but try not to cut anything from newly installed plants. Check out this factsheet for additional information on pruning evergreens
  2. Caution! Several critters are overwintering on evergreens so once they get warm in your home, they will become active. These uninvited guests can cause surprise and panic from those not expecting them this time of year. If you find spiders, etc., you can put them outside.
  3. Keeping evergreens cool and hydrated will extend how long they stay fresh and beautiful. Place the ends of cut branches into water.  
  4. Often mixing different types of evergreens is a fun way to add unique smells, shapes, and texture to your home. 
  5. Shorter needled (hemlock/spruce) plants tend to lose their needles faster than longer needled species.
  6. Evergreen boughs are easy to stick into seasonal planters before the soil freezes. Be warned that if the branches freeze in the soil, they will be impossible to remove until it thaws. 
  7. Don’t forget to gather interesting seed pods, ornamental grasses, pine cones, etc. These add additional interest and natural beauty.

Some favorite cuttings include Junipers, Arborvitae, Holly, White Pine, Rhododendron, Boxwood, Lavender, and Rosemary.  If you have a live Christmas tree, be sure to repurpose those trimmings as well.

wreath made with grasses, seed pods, evergreens, and a bow
Here is a wreath base made from dried ornamental grass. Also, ornamental grass seed heads, Monarda seed heads, pine cones, and mixed evergreen cuttings are included. Photo: A. Bodkins
wreath made with Juniper and lamb's ear leaves
This wreath uses cuttings of native Eastern redcedar and leaves of lamb’s ear. Photo: C. Carignan
door swap made with evergreens, pinecones, and a bow
Door swag. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you gather your materials and get ready for crafting, remember that:

  1. Sharp pruners give a clean cut that will help increase the life of your branches and prevent premature needle drop. Guidance on sharpening pruning tools can be found here
  2. Use green floral wire to put cut branches together. It blends in well and is easy to work with. It is widely available at craft stores and low in cost. 
  3. Repurpose metal clothes hangers for inexpensive frames for swags/wreaths/garland. 
  4. Swags are often simpler and easier than a wreath to make and require less material, but provide a nice garnish for your entryway. Think of making a bouquet and then turn it upside down to get an easy door swag.
  5. If you’re placing cut evergreen stems into a container, use clean water and clean containers to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  6. Keep arrangements out of direct light and as far away as possible from the heat source.
  7. Misting cut evergreens can help extend their beauty.
  8. Using cut evergreens outside the home will help them last the entire season.
  9. Ribbon with wired edges is easier to work with for beginner bow makers. 

You can create many beautiful decorations by working with nature! Be creative and enjoy the gifts that your garden continues to give all year round. And it’s never too early to start thinking about garden plant additions for 2022! Think about items you could use in future holiday decorations or another season’s decor. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Fighting CO2 on a Balcony

It’s well known that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the leading causes of climate change and that plants play a role in mitigating its impact by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. But did you know that even the smallest gardens can make a difference? Container gardens can be effective ways for adding plants to the ecosystem, nurturing pollinators and other beneficial insects, and even providing food for your table.

A container garden with mixed perennials and annuals provides beauty, food, and habitat. Photo: Pat Wilson

High above Columbia’s Wilde Lake at the Residences at Vantage Point, long-time gardener Barbara Schuyler continues the gardening that was her passion when she and her wife Pat Wilson lived on a rural property. More than 90 containers of shrubs, annuals, perennials, and vegetables grace two balconies that face west and south.

Barbara’s approach to container gardening

Shrubs and perennials comprise a significant part of the garden. Hardy perennials winter over and are especially effective at drawing down carbon dioxide. Some of the perennials, like the orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) pictured below, are natives. Native plants are well-suited to our climate, require less care than imported species, and support native insects. Barbara’s native plants also include lots of Rudbeckia, some Echinacea, and several Heuchera

orange and blue flowers planted in a container garden
Native butterfly milkweed (orange flowers) combines beautifully with the blue-theme flowers. Photo: Barbara Schuyler

In addition, each year Barbara and Pat decide on a theme and collect annual seeds to plant when the temperature warms up each spring. Last year, the blue flower theme provided a consistent backdrop for the foliage and flowers of other plants.

She uses regular potting soil and each spring spreads the old soil on a tarp to remove roots and debris and returns it to the pots with a portion of fresh potting soil added.

Her collection of containers is eclectic and includes salad tables for vegetables, wine barrels, ceramic and plastic pots. A container exchange in the building helps many patio gardeners find pots that meet specific size and decorative needs. Reusing and sharing materials can help reduce CO2 associated with buying and shipping new products. She also tried felt bags but was not pleased with the results.

spray handle attached to kitchen sink
Photo: Christine Hipple

Watering 90 containers with a watering can during dry spells would be a major challenge, so Barbara purchased a garden hose sink adapter to allow her to connect a lightweight flexible hose to the kitchen sink.  

One big advantage of balcony gardens is that deer can’t get to them, though she has seen a squirrel or two.

Benefits

Visiting her garden every morning is a joy in itself. It provides Barbara the opportunity to be present with her plants, be aware of their needs, and appreciate what they offer throughout the seasons.

Even at this extreme height, pollinators are attracted to and supported by the garden. Three species of bees, several types of moths, and even a few monarchs have been spotted.

Lettuce and arugula do well in pots, and along with cherry tomatoes provide healthy super-local produce — yet another reduction in their carbon footprint. One lesson Barbara’s learned about cherry tomatoes is not to crowd them. Plant just one to a large pot and prune assertively to be sure the energy goes into making tomatoes rather than excess foliage and that there’s sufficient air circulation.

cherry tomatoes ripening
Growing some food at home is fun and helps reduce the carbon footprint of food transport. Photo: Barbara Schuyler

While there’s some level of physical work involved, container gardening is within the reach of nearly everyone – no matter your available space, skill level, physical abilities, or budget. Start small. Share stories, plants, and pots with other gardeners, and enjoy the benefits for yourself, your community, and the planet!

Are you taking any steps in your garden to help mitigate and adapt to climate change? Have a story to share? Let us know! Leave a comment or contact us.

By Christine Hipple, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener, Howard County, Maryland

Mix It Up! Perennial Vegetables

Most of us plan our gardens each year with abundant annual vegetables to harvest and enjoy. There are, however, several perennial vegetables you may want to consider adding to the mix, some familiar and others, perhaps, less so.

Perennial vegetables have some attractive benefits: they tend to be low maintenance, are generally easy to cultivate, high-yielding, and often more pest and disease resistant than their annual brethren. On the downside, they can be slow to establish and, if they do succumb to disease, will often need to be removed.

One critical consideration in planting perennial vegetables is location. These are perennials and once established some will not be easy to relocate or, as in the case of sunchokes, to eradicate, so site them thoughtfully. And be certain to clear away any perennial weeds before planting.

Following are just a few selections for Maryland, ones I have personal experience growing. The most comprehensive and enlightening reference by far is Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables (2007, Chelsea Green Publishing), which offers a fascinating window into the many options available for our area.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

Yes, rhubarb is a vegetable although we use it more like a fruit, sweetened in pies and sauces. (An annual rhubarb crisp endeared my neighbors to me!) It is the stalks we cut and use as the leaves and even though much of the flower heads are toxic to people and animals.

Root crowns should be sited in full sun with ample space (plant 3 feet apart) as the clumps can grow to be 3-5 feet wide. Rhubarb really prefers cold climates and our Zone 7 is about as far south as it will grow happily. A heavy feeder, it is good to provide extra nutrients with compost annually. Once mature, the attractive large-leafed clumps can be divided for propagation, which should be done every few years to re-energize the plant. Two or three plants will keep you in pies (but try it in savory stews and soups, too). Some growers recommend removing the showy flower stalks once they open. To harvest, twist or cut the stalk at the base and be certain to remove all of the leaves. Rhubarb will die to the ground in winter and in early spring you will see its lovely red buds swelling up from the earth. And you will know it is spring!

Ramps (Allium tricoccum)

Here it is, an easy-to-grow shade-loving vegetable that also happens to be delicious! Often referred to as wild leeks, ramps are native to eastern and central North America. These early spring bulbs have wide leaves compared to most onions, growing to about 10” long. They die back with the coming of summer.

Ramps are found in the wild in moist deciduous forests. They prefer rich, moist soil, much like woodland humus, and form small clumps that can slowly spread to form large colonies. Harvest the whole plant leaving some bulbs for next year, or simply harvest some leaves. The smallish bulbs are like onions or garlic, the leaves like scallions or leeks.

Ramps are being over-harvested in the wild. This is yet another good reason to start your own colony (and move some into that forested land nearby).

Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

Also known as Jerusalem artichoke (although neither an artichoke or from Jerusalem, go figure). These edible tubers are native to northeastern North America. Sunchokes grow 6-10 feet tall with cheery sunflower-like blooms in full sun or light shade. If sited in a wind prone area they will need support, or you can prune them back by a third to encourage bushier growth.

Sunchokes are very productive. Some varieties have knobby tubers while others are smoother (and easier to clean). They are sweet to the taste and rather nutty when roasted. Anything you can do with potatoes you can probably do with sunchokes. Harvest annually leaving some pieces of tubers with eyes 1-3 feet apart for next year’s crop. The flavor is best after a hard frost. A word about inulin: sunchoke tubers are high in inulin, a type of starch, which is not digestible by humans and can cause gas. Some people do not tolerate it well. Inulin does increase the ability to absorb calcium.

Here is where caution is required! Left to their own devices sunchokes will form large colonies – they are best treated like a mint using containing methods. I grew mine in a large raised bed and they gave me more tubers than I could use and a glorious mass of tall yellow flowers.

Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus)

Found in the wild all along the Mediterranean, cardoons are more popular as a food crop in Southern Europe and North Africa where they are native. They are related to globe artichokes but are grown for the edible stalks rather than the flower heads, which taste like artichokes and are used like celery. Their dramatic spiny silvery foliage and beautiful thistle-like flowers, however, have earned them a place in many gardens. Perhaps as architectural interest in a border? Bonus: Deer won’t touch them.

Cardoons do best in full sun and well-drained soil, although they tolerate some light shade. Start them from seed 6-8 weeks before the last frost and transplant them after the last frost date. The first year they can grow 3-5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, so plan some space. Plants have about a five-year productive life span. They can be divided in spring.

For eating, the stalks are usually blanched (protected from sunlight), to make them more tender and easier to cook, in the fall. This is done by tying the plant into a bundle and wrapping it with cardboard or newspaper to 18 inches then leaving it alone for a month. Hill up the soil around the stems. Cut the stalks off at ground level. Alternatively, you can harvest just some of the fleshy leaf stalks. Clean the leafy bits from the stalk (it will look like a celery stalk), peel away the outer skin, and parboil them before using them in recipes to mitigate any bitterness.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

Last on this list but probably the most widely known and loved perennial vegetable: asparagus. This edible shoot is a native of Eurasia but has naturalized throughout North America.

Asparagus can live for 15 years and longer, so situate it thoughtfully. (I well remember helping my dad pull out an ancient asparagus bed as a kid. Suffice to say it involved a tractor and chains.) It requires full sun and good drainage. Annual applications of compost or well-rotted manure keep it productive and plentiful water all season will keep it happy. It is easy to grow from seed but generally, year-old rooted crowns are planted in early spring to speed the time to harvest. Plant them 15-18 inches apart in wide beds or rows, with 4-5 feet between rows. All male varieties will not seed (females have berries) and tend to be more productive and disease-resistant. A broad selection of asparagus is available including lovely purple varieties (white spears are blanched).

Spears develop from the underground crowns in early spring. Do not harvest at all in year one and harvest lightly in years two and three. Spears should be snapped off or cut at 6-8 inches. After 8-10 weeks let the spears grow. They will form a lovely, tall, fern-like frond. After frost, the foliage will turn yellow, and at that point, it can be cut down to 2 inches. Asparagus can have a number of pests and diseases. Purchase resistant varieties, keep patches weeded and remove all foliage after frost for best prevention.

These are but a few of the interesting options available to you! 

More information about asparagus is on the Home & Garden Information Center website.

By Deana Karras, Baltimore County Master Gardener