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Category: Thoughts

April Garden Update During COVID-19

Apr 20

It’s been one month since Germany closed its borders to neighboring countries, one month since we’ve been able to visit the Kleingarten located only 200m (660ft) in Switzerland. It’s a little sad not being able to observe the garden transition into spring. Around this time of year the fruit trees are blooming and it’s the perfect time to celebrate spring by cooking food over a fire. We were lucky enough to enjoy a small picnic, with proper social distancing of course, under the flowering plum tree the day before the closing.

Header: Honeybee collecting pollen from plum tree. The tree was buzzing with activity all day. Here: Fruit trees blooming in the Kleingarten April 2019. The bushy growth on the left was the 2019 winter rye and hairy vetch cover crop.

Header: Honeybee collecting pollen from plum tree. The tree was buzzing with activity all day. Here: Fruit trees blooming in the Kleingarten April 2019. The bushy growth on the left was the 2019 winter rye and hairy vetch cover crop.

When we left, the onions and raspberry brushes were awakening from their wintery slumber and we noticed the tiniest of seedlings popping out of the prepared meadow areas from the fall. They were so small that it was undetermined whether they were in fact the meadow seedlings or weeds, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the birds might have helped themselves to the seeds over winter. If we had access to the garden to see if they are weeds, we could have cheated and sowed another round of the mixes and protected them from the birds with a thin layer of fleece until germination.

The garden probably looks a bit rough at the moment with overgrown grass, but we enjoy its wild look and in the past have even put off mowing a few extra days to enjoy the casual nature of the space. Before the border closing, Dan, a member of the Schrebergartencrew, sowed peas, carrots, cilantro, spring onions, spinach, and potatoes, of which the carrots and peas had already begun sprouting.

Before and after mowing April 2018

Before and after mowing April 2018

I’m confident the vegetable seedlings will do well in our absence, so long as the slugs show some mercy; I am slightly concerned about the meadows sown last fall, as they are supposed to be mowed by mid-May for the success of the project. It would be a shame to see the hard work from the garden crew go to waste, but there is a more concerning issue that needs to be carried out by June: the winter rye cover crop.

For the three sisters project—corn, beans and squash—we sowed a cover crop of winter rye Secale cereale and hairy vetch Vicia villosa in September 2019. Cover crops suppress weeds, protect the soil from the winter elements, and improve soil structure when chopped and dropped or rolled and crimped the following late spring. As a grass, winter rye usually grows back when you cut it, but it won’t if cut at a certain time, and this trait makes it an easy annual cover crop. And the time of the cut varies from year to year based on the weather.

How it works: the rye grows in the vegetative state from late summer to early spring. Then when daylength reaches 14 hours it’s triggered into the reproductive state of forming flower heads. Part way through seed maturity, during the milk stage, is the time to cut the rye. The ‘milk’ is the nutritious sap sent up from the roots and body of the plant; it’s the perfect time to cut because the movement of sap makes the plant think it has fulfilled its purpose producing the next generation. Cut the rye too early, the roots still have the nutrients and energy to grow vigorously in order to produce another seed head. Cut the rye too late, you lose the benefit of storing the nutrients from the decaying roots in the ground because all the nutrients will be in the seeds above ground and the seed might spread.

Left: Ladybug resting on a hairy vetch leaf that’s growing up a rye stock. Right: Maturing winter rye seed head.

Left: Ladybug resting on a hairy vetch leaf that’s growing up a rye stock. Right: Maturing winter rye seed head.

Depending on how warm or cool the spring is depends on whether the chop and drop occurs in May or June, at least in our area; it is not done on a specific date in the year. Last year we chopped it in early to mid-June; this spring we’ve experienced some lovely almost early summer-like weather so the rye might need cutting in late May.

The maturing winter rye seed heads are also a wonderful indicator of warm temperatures and tell you, as a gardener, that it’s time to plant out the warm season crops such as the three sisters, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers etc. I’m nervous about spreading the rye to the three neighboring plots. Once the milk stage begins, there is a 2-3 week window to cut the plant and if the German-Swiss border stays closed by mid or late June, I feel we will have a headache later in the year with the neighbors.

Though we haven’t been able to visit the Kleingarten, the Balkongarten has taken off! The flowering waves of Blumenzwiebel are a joy to observe now more than ever during these uncertain stressful times. The miniature irises and crocuses were a beautiful first act followed by the lightly scented grape hyacinths and anemones with the now grand finale of tulips. Behind the scenes of the spring bulb performance the herbs, leafy greens, and flower seedlings are germinating for their mid spring and summer debut.

Princess Irene tulips

Princess Irene tulips

This is my fourth year container gardening and second year seed growing, and so far there’s a noticeable improvement in my abilities, everything seems to be faring much better than previous years. The major change I’ve made is consistent fertilizing with liquid seaweed and adding a top dressing of worm compost to the pots. But I believe the biggest contributing factor to the improvement is the focus. My attention is not divided between the Balkongarten and Kleingarten at the moment, giving me more time to make mistakes, act quickly, observe, and learn from them. It’s also allowing me to accomplish tasks, such as potting on, at the correct time.

This year’s balcony plan was supposed to focus on herbs, leafy greens, and a few flowers but due to the circumstances I’m growing a tomatillo, a few tomatoes, carrots, and parsnips as well. In fact, because of the extra time at home, I thought of a way to squeeze more plants on the balcony by creating a string wall for the spring peas and summer beans to grow up. Will it be a problem to lose my focus growing a few vegetables on the balcony this year? Probably, but that’s the beauty of learning.

And with the extra plants comes the shrinking of space. I’m facing the small-space dilemma many gardeners are experiencing: not having enough room for all the seeds that were sown. This is not the worst problem to have, for the seedlings bring us joy and they are a way to spread joy to the community, which is needed at the moment. If you feel comfortable and have extra seedlings, set them on the street with a sign stating “free seedlings” or in my case “Setzlinge zu verschenken.” Be sure to wash the outside of your pots with a mild soapy mixture to prevent the spread of the virus, being careful not to get soap on the soil. Your seedlings will brighten someone’s day on their walk outside the home.

The Balkongarten packed with plants. I can’t wait until the spring bulbs die back so the herbs, tomatoes, and peppers can go into the balcony boxes.

The Balkongarten packed with plants. I can’t wait until the spring bulbs die back so the herbs, tomatoes, and peppers can go into the balcony boxes.

It’s important during this time not to lose hope. We will get through this crisis and become stronger as a result. I hope you are staying safe and if you’re feeling stressed, remember that a garden, whether it’s a large plot of land or two pots on a windowsill, is there to help soothe an anxious mind.

2019 Flower of the Year

Dec 19

I want to talk about a flower I fell in love with growing this year. It’s called Tithonia rotundifolia, commonly known as Mexican Sunflower or Rundblättrige Tithonie in German. There are many things about this plant that I love, but the main reason is that it’s easy to grow from seed and very forgiving, so beginner balcony growers take note!


First bloom opening up for the season

fresh tithonia

Fresh electric orange bloom

older tithonia

Bumblebee on fading bloom

Tithonia rotundifolia produce sturdy stems and have the ability to reach over 1.4-2m (4-6ft) in height, which is tall for a small balcony space but the wonderful thing about this plant is you can control its height by pinching out its growing tips to induce compact branching growth, much like basil, and grow them in a small sized container to restrict overall growth. Their leaves have a large beautiful triangular shape with a velvety soft touch. The flowers present sunny yellow disks with otherworldly electric orange petals that almost seems to glow. When fading, unfortunately we have to tolerate the less vibrant bright orange. Their flat upright facing blooms invite native bees and other insects to land on them and if deadheaded regularly, they will produce buds until frost. Collecting seed is also easy when a few flower heads are left to seed. Missouri Botanical Garden

I’m really excited to grow these plants again next year because I think they will make a beautiful shade screen on our hot south facing balcony. They were grown in balcony boxes with 15cm (6in) depth and grew 60-70 cm (24-27in). Next summer, they will be planted in a tall 60cm (24in) pallet pot to see if they’ll reach their full height. I tried growing tomato vines in the tall pallet pot in order to create a shaded section but they were too much of a hassle for our space.

They are, however, greedy plants requiring full sun, weekly/biweekly feeding, and daily watering when grown in containers. If forgotten for a day or two they will wither to the point of seeming lifeless but don’t worry, they will quickly forgive you once provided with water again, almost expanding before your eyes. Next year I’ll try growing some in the Kleingarten and imagine once planted out they will take care of themselves so long as they are not in a waterlogged area. Slugs will probably be the biggest problem.


Me forgetting to water the seedlings one day but they perked up a few hours later

If you need a back of the garden border plant or have 15l (4 gal) or larger container, give this beauty a try next season; it will not disappoint.

tithonia at sunset

June Update

Jun 19

This is the craziest time of the year for gardeners. Everything is growing so fast that we can’t keep up. For a while I managed to keep on top of everything but now I’m falling behind, in both the Kleingarten and my Balkongarten. The most pressing jobs in the Kleingarten, such as the grapevine roof trellis and winter rye cutting, are completed on time, but the balcony has taken a back seat. This past weekend I committed myself to the balcony, which is finally taking shape, although there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Some of the chaos on the balcony

Some of the chaos on the balcony

My main task was to get plants into their final pots. Two tomato plants, dahlias, wallflowers, a cucumber, and pepper seedlings were all desperate for transplanting. All but one tomato plant made it into new pots. Unfortunately, it has to wait until I can get more soil, which adds to the delays.

One tomato plant planted in the pallet container

One tomato plant planted in the pallet container

Between the two tomato plants, I planted the worse-looking one. I was afraid that if I didn’t I would lose it. But on this seed-to-plant journey I’ve noticed a difference in stress and plant growth based on what type of pot they were grown in. The weaker tomato plant was in a peat pot and significantly shorter than the other in a plastic pot. The plastic pot tomato is taller, has dark green leaves and, even more surprising, has not one but two plants inside. Having multiple plants in a pot like this normally stunts their growth. I find it very interesting that the two tomatoes are doing better than the one alone in a peat pot the same size. This also conflicts with my desire to reduce plastic in the garden.

Both plants were doing equally well up to a certain point— the point when they needed to be planted out two weeks ago. It appears that biodegradable pots are great but you need to keep on top of schedule and plant out the plants the moment they are ready. Plastic pots may allow for a flexible time frame, keeping the plants happy awhile longer until you’re able to transplant them out.

At the moment, the plastic pot tomatoes are just now showing signs that they are desperate to get into their final place. Their lower leaves turning lime green/yellow, and they are beginning to produce flowers even though they are not yet at their mature height: since they are annuals, their goal is to grow, reproduce, and then die. These particular plants assume they need to reproduce sooner because of the poor conditions. From their viewpoint, producing a few fruits is better than producing none. So my plan of growing two meter tall plants, for both some shade on the balcony and a bountiful harvest, may be lost if they don’t get planted soon.

Keeping to the theme of biodegradable pots, I have mixed feelings about the newspaper pots I used to start seedlings. They are great but, again, only if you keep on top of the plant care, otherwise they turn into a nightmare. The pots dry out faster so they require constant attention to the moisture levels. They also dry out unevenly, with pots on the outside drying faster than those in the middle. And once the true leaves appear twice the size as the seed leaves, they require immediate potting on into a nutrient-rich soil.

Newspaper pots in April

Newspaper pots in April

I still need to do a few more tests, but my current advice for biodegradable pots is to stick to the plant’s schedule, not yours. As soon as you see these signals, you have to act quickly no matter how busy your life is, otherwise they’ll end up stunted or die. Pay attention to what your plants are telling you and they will reward you in kind.

Welcome to Here's the Dill!

May 19

My name is Jayme and I recently discovered my passion for gardening, or rather, in plants and their interactions within the world.

I studied biology with a specialization in marine and aquatic biology thinking I wanted to research coral reef ecosystems—thank you Blue Planet and Discovery Channel. But it wasn’t until I started moving further away from home that I realized what my true interests were: digging in the garden.

On this journey I hope to go from a knowledgeable gardener to full out nerdy expert and share my geeky gardening tendencies with others who have the same passion. This is a space to gain a deeper understanding of the natural processes occurring in your garden. I’ll also explore agricultural and environmental topics surrounding plants in order to understand world wide conversations over climate change and what we as individuals can do to help.

Without further ado, Welcome to Here’s the Dill!

It started around the age of 9, watching my dad turn an overgrown 1.5 acre (0.6 hectare) plot of land into lawn and a series of garden beds. He worked hard digging out forgotten stumps located within a thorny, thistly, poison-ivy-stricken meadow and I got to help. Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent watching gardening programs with my parents on HGTV; you know when the Home and GARDENING Network used to air gardening shows. (Can you tell I was a nerdy kid?) Anyhow, one rainy spring morning, I asked him if I could have a garden bed, and thinking he wouldn’t take me seriously, I went upstairs to play. But within a few minutes he went out into the drizzling rain and dug a small egg shaped bed around a tiny flowering crabapple tree and a patch of peonies. Over the years the bed expanded as I stole one of my mom’s neighboring garden beds and unbeknownst to me, so did my passion for being in the garden.

Expanded garden bed in Ohio

Expanded garden bed in Ohio June 2015

I didn’t realize that every time I visited home from college or from my first job further away I was always drawn back to my garden. During college I even planted spring bulbs in front of the house my roommates and I occupied. It wasn’t until I moved from Ohio to southern Germany that I realized how much I craved being in one. My lifeline was cut; I could no longer visit my parents on a whim and work in the garden. I didn’t realize how much I relied on gardening to reduce stress and no matter how much you prepare, moving halfway across the world is a fairly stressful event.

I’ve been living in Germany for over 2 years and have since created a balcony garden and starting working in an allotment garden thanks to a kind member of the community. On Here’s the Dill I hope to share my successes and failures of organic gardening along with any interesting topics about agriculture or ecological interactions occurring within a garden. Together we’ll become better gardeners and more conscious citizens of the world!

The author on her flower balcony

The author in her Balkongarten