Garlic Experiment

One question many gardeners have is whether you can plant supermarket garlic and have it grow successfully. If you search the web for the answer, you get both yes and no. Some people say, “Sure, just stick it in the ground and it will grow.” And this is tempting since seed garlic is expensive compared to supermarket garlic. Others — and especially those selling seed garlic — will say that supermarket garlic may be treated with growth inhibitors or that it may bring disease to your garden. I decided to conduct an experiment to compare the two. 

Supermarket garlic (left): It cost less than $0.65 per bulb. Seed garlic (right): It cost about $18.00 for this bag, making it roughly $5.40 per bulb. The sizes of the seed garlic bulbs, and cloves inside, were bigger than the supermarket variety, however.

Garlic is planted in the fall. In my area, they say that mid to late October is the best time to plant. So, my experiment is already up and running. In one of my 50-gallon planters, I planted both supermarket garlic and seed garlic. Both types were softneck garlic, although they are different cultivars as I couldn’t find seed for the supermarket variety. The seed garlic I planted is called Lorz Italian. Sharing the same planter, both types are in the same type of soil, will get the same amount of watering, and the same amount of sun. I planted the garlic cloves in a grid with alternating types. That way, if — for some reason — one section of the planter was more favorable to growing garlic, both types would be growing in it. That’s not likely, but a good experiment is designed to control for all possibilities.

Everything in the experiment was designed to treat both types of garlic the same way. That way, any differences between them should be due to the experimental variable (supermaket or seed), not to differences in how they were raised. I’ll give more “science-y” details about this experiment in a later post. These will include a discussion of sample size, statistics, and whether this experiment has the power to answer the experimental question. I will also discuss limits to the inferences that can be drawn from the data and more. 

On the left, a picture of the planter after the supermarket garlic was planted, but (immediately) before the seed garlic was. The red markers show where the seed garlic will go. The supermarket garlic is planted to the left or right of the markets, with the spacing being even. The cloves are all separated by 5 inches. On the right, the planter today, with a few sprouts visible.

I planted 10 large, healthy-looking cloves from the supermarket garlic and 10 from the seed garlic. The seed garlic cloves were substantially larger than the supermarket cloves. (I still have some of each type left and will weigh them to get a ballpark difference. I should have done that with the actual cloves I planted, but didn’t think about it until after they were in the ground.) I will assess the germination rate of each type. In the summer, I will give a rating based on how large and healthy the plants look during mid season. I will also reassess at maturity. Most importantly, at harvest time I will weigh the garlic heads to see if one is yielding more than the other. And of course, there will be a taste test. 

I planted both types two weeks ago and they have already started sprouting. (There looks to be a pattern emerging, but I’ll wait until all the data is in before reporting it. For one thing, early sprouting may not be a good sign. Or it might be, I don’t know. However, through the experiment, I have a good chance of finding out.)

Two types of seed garlic — softneck (left) and hardneck (right).

I also have a second garlic experiment running, although this one is not as well-controlled as the first. In a separate planter, I have planted 12 cloves of hardneck garlic, a variety called German White. I want to see how softneck garlic performs vs. hardneck in my neck of the woods. The answer in every garden guide I’ve ever read is that hardneck garlic will do poorly in the south (where I live). But, I’ll find out. 

My hardneck garlic planter. I’ll need to mulch this down before cold weather arrives (if it does).

Cranberry Zinger (Partial Mash) 

Thanksgiving is coming and there’s still time to brew my Cranberry Zinger. The Cranberry Zinger is a dry, fizzy beer with a tart taste and puckering mouthfeel from cranberry relish. The base beer is an American honey wheat beer.

Fresh whole cranberries are what I use.

The interesting part of the beer is the fruit mixture — the standard mixture for cranberry relish as it is usually prepared for Thanksgiving except for the sugar. Cranberries are tart and strongly flavored, with a relatively high amount of tannins. This, combined with the bitterness from the orange pith, gives the beer a slightly bitter, somewhat puckering quality even though the hop bitterness is low. The combined cranberries, oranges, and Granny Smith apples produce a very fruity aroma, which is enhanced by the high degree of carbonation. 

Don’t attempt to sanitize the fruit mixture. It’s not needed. The pH of the beer and relish mix, plus the alcohol in the beer, won’t support the growth of most brewery contaminants. I usually add two packets of dried yeast to ferment the 5.0 gallons (19 L) of beer, but that’s not strictly required. I like the base beer to ferment quickly and end up maximally dry, though, so I add the second packet to help with this.

A 2-gallon (left) or 3-gallon (right) beverage cooler can hold up to 4.0 lbs. or 6.0 lbs. of grain, respectively. This can yield 2.6 gallons or 3.9 gallons of wort at SG 1.044.

This beer is extremely straightforward to make and turns out great every time. It’s one of my most foolproof recipes. Everyone who has made it says it turned out great and was a crowd-pleaser.

Cranberry Zinger

by Chris Colby

Partial mash; English units

 

DESCRIPTION

This my cranberry beer that I think goes well with Thanksgiving. It is a honey wheat beer is flavored with cranberry relish — cranberries, Granny Smith apples and Navel oranges (zest, rind, pulp and all). The beer is fairly dry and somewhat tart due to the cranberries. The orange pith lends some bitterness and the cranberry skins give the beer a dose of astringency that keeps the beer from seeming like alcoholic fruit punch.

 

INGREDIENTS (for 5 gallons)

Water

carbon filtered tap water, preferably low in bicarbonate ions (<50 ppm) 

 

Fermentables (for an OG of 1.045, not including sugars from fruit, and an SRM of 4)

2.0 lbs. Pilsner malt

2.0 lbs. wheat malt 

1.0 lbs. wheat dried malt extract

2.0 lbs. honey (your choice of variety), at knockout

 

Hops (14 IBUs total)

Willamette hops (14 IBUs)

1 oz. (of 5% alpha acids), boiled for 30 minutes

Fruit (makes the “virtual OG” roughly 1.046)

4.0 lbs. cranberries (whole, preferably not frozen)

2 medium Navel oranges

2 medium Granny Smith apples

 

Yeast (for an FG of 1.007 and 4.9% ABV)

22 g (two 11-g sachets) Fermentis Safale US-05 dried ale yeast

 

Other

1/4 tsp. yeast nutrients (15 mins) 

1/2 tsp. pectic enzyme (in secondary fermenter) 

6.0 oz. cups corn sugar (for priming to 2.8 volumes of CO2)

 

PROCEDURE

Line a 2-gallon beverage cooler with a large nylon steeping bag and place crushed malts in it. Heat 1.5 gallons of water to 164 °F and pour into grains, stirring as you proceed. Place lid on cooler and drape with a heavy towel, to retain heat. Let grains mash undisturbed for 40 minutes. Then, lift lid and stir mash and let it mash for another 5 minutes. Recirculate the wort by drawing off 1 or two cups at a time and returning the liquid to the top of the grain bed. Heat 2.0 gallons of water to 180 °F. (Yes, this is hotter than most homebrew sources would recommend. Trust me. Or don’t.) Draw of 1–2 cups of wort and place in brewpot. Then, add that same volume of hot water to the top of the grain bed. Repeat until you have collected 2.5 gallons of wort. Begin heating as soon as the first few cups of wort are in the brewpot. Ideally, the wort should come to a boil right as you are adding the last runnings of the wort to the brewpot. Boil for 45 minutes. Add boiling water, if needed to prevent boil volume from droping below 2.0 gallons. With 30 minutes left in the boil, add the hops. With 15 minutes left in the boil, add the Irish moss. With 5 minutes left in the boil, stir in the dried malt extract. At the very end of the boil, stir in the honey and let the wort sit for 5 minutes before cooling. After the boil, chill wort with wort chiller or by placing the brewpot in a sink of tub of cold water. Drain hot water and replace with cold water every 5 minutes. Add ice after the first 3 water changes. Transfer wort to a fermenter, aerate, and pitch the yeast. Ferment at 68–70 °F. When fermentation is complete, make cranberry relish. Do this by rinsing the fruit in water, then combining cranberries, apples (minus the cores) and whole oranges (rind and all) in a food processor. Blend to the consistency of cranberry relish, Place fruit in sanitized bucket fermenter and rack beer onto it. (You can put the fruit in a nylon steeping bag to keep it contained.) Add pectic enzyme. Let fruit contact the beer for 7–10 days, then rack beer to bottles or keg. Carbonate to 2.8 volumes of CO2.

 

Cranberry Zinger

by Chris Colby

Partial Mash; metric units

 

INGREDIENTS (for 19 L)

Water

carbon filtered tap water, preferably low in bicarbonate ions (<50 ppm)

 

Fermentables (for an OG of 1.045, not including sugars from fruit, and an SRM of 4)

0.91 kg Pilsner malt 

0.91 kg wheat malt

0.45 kg wheat dried malt extract

910 g honey (your choice of variety), at knockout

 

Hops (14 IBUs total)

Willamette hops (14 IBUs)

28 g (of 5% alpha acids), boiled for 30 minutes

Fruit (makes the “virtual OG” roughly 1.046)

1.8 kg cranberries (whole, preferably not frozen)

2 medium Navel oranges

2 medium Granny Smith apples

 

Yeast (for an FG of 1.007 and 4.9% ABV)

22 g (two 11-g sachets) Fermentis Safale US-05 dried ale yeast

 

Other

1/4 tsp. yeast nutrients (15 mins) 

1/2 tsp. pectic enzyme (in secondary fermenter) 

170 g cups corn sugar (for priming to 2.8 volumes of CO2)

 

PROCEDURE

Line a 8-L beverage cooler with a large nylon steeping bag and place crushed malts in it. Heat 5.7 L of water to 73 °C and pour into grains, stirring as you proceed. Place lid on cooler and drape with a heavy towel, to retain heat. Let grains mash undisturbed for 40 minutes. Then, lift lid and stir mash and let it mash for another 5 minutes. Recirculate the wort by drawing off 1 or two cups at a time and returning the liquid to the top of the grain bed. Heat 7.6 L of water to 82 °C (Yes, this is hotter than most homebrew sources would recommend. Trust me. Or don’t.) Draw of 1–2 cups of wort and place in brewpot. Then, add that same volume of hot water to the top of the grain bed. Repeat until you have collected 9.5 L of wort. Begin heating as soon as the first few cups of wort are in the brewpot. Ideally, the wort should come to a boil right as you are adding the last runnings of the wort to the brewpot. Boil for 45 minutes. Add boiling water, if needed to prevent boil volume from droping below 7.6 L. With 30 minutes left in the boil, add the hops. With 15 minutes left in the boil, add the Irish moss. With 5 minutes left in the boil, stir in the dried malt extract. At the very end of the boil, stir in the honey and let the wort sit for 5 minutes before cooling. After the boil, chill wort with wort chiller or by placing the brewpot in a sink of tub of cold water. Drain hot water and replace with cold water every 5 minutes. Add ice after the first 3 water changes. Transfer wort to a fermenter, aerate, and pitch the yeast. Ferment at 20–21 °C. When fermentation is complete, make cranberry relish. Do this by rinsing the fruit in water, then combining cranberries, apples (minus the cores) and whole oranges (rind and all) in a food processor. Blend to the consistency of cranberry relish, Place fruit in sanitized bucket fermenter and rack beer onto it. (You can put the fruit in a nylon steeping bag to keep it contained.) Add pectic enzyme. Let fruit contact the beer for 7–10 days, then rack beer to bottles or keg. Carbonate to 2.8 volumes of CO2.

Cold Conditioning Native Seeds (I)

Fresh garden vegetable seed will generally germinate promptly and evenly after planting. For example, if you plant 100 green bean seeds in the correct soil temperature range and water them adequately, they will begin to sprout after about 7–10 days. And, on average, 98 or more of them will emerge over the course of the next few days. The same goes for most commercially cultivated annual flower seeds. If you try that with many native plant seeds, the result will be much different. 

In the best case scenario, most of your native seeds will start to sprout relatively soon. But in some cases, early germination may be sparse and the rest will appear slowly and unevenly. Some seeds may even lay dormant until the next year. By staggering germination times, native plants avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. Their seeds will sprout at different times and hopefully at one point the conditions will be just right for them to flourish. 

In the worst case scenario, none of your seeds — or very few of them — will germinate. Many native plants additionally require some sort of trigger to get them to germinate. One of the most common of these requirements is a period of low temperatures. (Other seeds require alternating periods of hot and cold or other treatments. In general, a treatment meant to increase the germination rate of seeds is called stratification.)  Milkweeds are one example of seeds that benefit from being exposed to cold temperatures before planting, but this very common for native perennial seeds. 

Milkweed seeds (left) and monkshood seeds (right) are two of the many native perennials that benefit from cold conditioning.

In the wild, of course, the cold temperatures are supplied by winter. Seeds that form during the spring, summer, and fall are spread by the wind or by animals. Some of them end up in a location that is suitable for germination. During their time in (or on) the ground, precipation wets their seed coats and germination inhibitors are washed away. Then, in the winter, a period of cold temperatures primes the seeds for germination. When warmer spring temperatures arrive, the seeds sprout and the plants start growing. 

As a gardener, you can cold condition your native seeds in a couple of ways. Obviously, you can plant them outdoors before your first frost and simply wait for spring. To do this, you should clear the planting location of any existing plants. Unless you experience a drought, however, you don’t need to tend to the seeds over the winter. However, it may help to add some mulch over the area and label it with a stake so you remember what sprouts you are expecting in the spring.

The ground on the left needs to be cleared before seeds are planted. If not, it will be hard to tell the sprouts of desired plants from the existing plants growing there. Bare ground (right) can be mulched to keep the soil from drying out.

You can also cold condition seeds in your house to prepare for early spring planting. There are several ways to do this, and I will cover that in a later post.

5 Winemaking Rules for Making Great Homemade Wine

Making wine at home is a relatively inexpensive, stress-relieving hobby (most of the time!) that everyone should try. If you love wine, it’s a great way to save money on your hobby and a chance to get creative and make the wine you’ve always dreamt of! You can be obsessively detailed with every aspect if you want (and commercial winemakers are) but you really don’t need to be to enjoy good wine at the end. In this article, I explain five simple rules that should be followed on your winemaking journey.

1. Be Obsessively Clean

Wine spoilage is a real threat and one that you can help avoid by keeping high standards when it comes to wine hygiene. From the grape crush to bottling, you need to keep your wits about you and stay clean at all times. That means any winemaking tools or apparatus that come into contact with your wine need to be sanitized. That means your hands and arms and your arms too! Pretend you’re the surgeon and the wine is your patient! So what does this mean? Give your equipment a brush with hot water first to remove dirt and grime first. 

Once visible dirt and grime have been removed you need to use an approved sanitizing agent. A combination of dilute metabisulfite and citric acid is commonly used but I recommend avoiding using sulfites at every clean as you need to thoroughly rinse it off with sanitary (boiled) water to prevent residual sulfites from affecting the balance of your wine. I recommend using a solution like StarSan (commonly used in brewing) which is an acid-based biodegradable sanitizer. Don’t use anything too abrasive to clean with as it will scratch your equipment and provide easy hiding places for bacteria. You should clean equipment as soon as it’s been used to prevent dirt and grime from binding to your equipment.

2. Use The Right Yeast

There are many different types of yeast available for use in winemaking. Be sure to choose a yeast that is suitable for the type of wine you are making. Different yeast will produce different flavors in your wine, and to a large extent will influence the sensory qualities of your wine. Furthermore, using the right yeast will reduce the likelihood of there being problems with the fermentation. When choosing a wine yeast you want to match it to the grape varietal being used. The yeast will complement the specific properties of the grape and allow it to express its maximum sensory potential. You should also consider the alcohol content of the wine you wish to make. Some strains of alcohol have a lower alcohol tolerance and you may find the fermentation becomes stuck because the conditions become unsuitable for them.

3. Monitor Your Fermentation Temperature 

Fermentation is a crucial step in winemaking, and the temperature of your fermenting wine is very important. Too high of a fermentation temperature can produce off-flavors in your wine, while too low of a temperature can slow down or stop fermentation altogether. Be sure to monitor the temperature of your fermenting wine carefully and adjust as needed to keep it within the ideal range for the type of yeast you are using. As well as keeping track of the temperature, don’t forget to chart the progress of the fermentation with your hydrometer too. You can read more about hydrometers in winemaking with Tim Edison’s guide at Wine Turtle.

4. Don’t Stir Too Much 

With red wine, stirring is important in the first 24 hours or so because it helps the yeast to do its job by oxygenating the must (the crushed grapes). However, you want to limit how much you interfere with your wine must once fermentation is in full flow. Punching down the cap with red wine (the floating pulp) regularly is really important to stop bacteria from growing on it, but it doesn’t need much of a stir.

With white wine, a gentle stir every 24 hours during fermentation should suffice. The reason for this is to release the volatile sulfur compounds that are created. One of these compounds is hydrogen sulfide which can make your wine smell like rotten eggs!

5. Age Your Wine Properly 

Your wine will benefit massively from some aging. This is often the hardest part because it takes some patience and self-control not to drink it. However, you’ll thank yourself in the long run. Aging the wine allows flavors and aromas to develop and mature. It rounds off the sharp, abrasive notes and helps round off the tannins too.

After being bottled your homemade wine needs at least four weeks to age but to be honest you should age it for a lot longer. I’d be more inclined to age red wine for at least 6 months. Whites, on the other hand, don’t benefit so much from age and can be drunk while young. Just make sure you have a place that’s reasonably cool and dark to store your bottles.

Above all remember to have fun! There’s an awesome winemaking community out there full of great people who are more than willing to help out beginners with all the questions we all have. Make sure to set up a profile on one of the many online forums or join a local group in your area. It’ll make the process all the easier and more enjoyable.

[This article is a paid guest column and as such is labelled as an advertisement.]

My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (II: Other Flowers)

[This is the second in a series, which started with a post on milkweeds.]

My 2023 Monarch Project — the goal of which is to raise and release 240 monarch butterflies — relies heavily on milkweeds. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarchs, in other words the plant monarch caterpillars eat before becoming a chrysalis. However, adult monarchs will feed on the nectar of a wide variety of native flowers. And, the more blooms that are present in a garden, the more likely monarchs are to visit it and discover the milkweeds. As with the milkweeds, I have a plan for growing a sufficient number of flowering plants to reach my goal. 

These monarch caterpillars are feeding on common milkweed.

I believe my biggest problem in past years has been too few blooms to bring the gravid female monarchs in. (“Gravid” means carrying eggs.) In the last few years, I’ve always had milkweed left after the monarchs moved on. So that has not been the limiting factor for how many monarchs I raise. This year (2022), I am working to solve this problem for next year. I have planted and maintained many more native perennials with showy flowers than I have in the past. These should return larger in 2023 and with more blooms. My goal is to have native flowers blooming continually throughout the period when the monarchs are heading north through my region. Additionally, I want to have more blooming flowers when they pass back through in the late fall. But that’s another update.

Spiderworts are one of the first flowers to bloom each spring in my area. This year, mine have already sprouted in October. If past years are any indication, they will overwinter and then start flowering in February.

I am lucky in have I have some early bloomers growing naturally in my yard. Spiderwort, baby blue eyes, and oxalis all grow wild around my house. I mow around these each year until they are done flowering and the seed heads dry out. I will also be planting a lot of larkspur, which is a very early bloomer. For “merely early” bloomers, I have multiple lance-leaf coreopsis plants that are several years old. I separated two of these older plants this fall and now have four healthy plants from them. I also planted two coreopsis plants from seed last spring. Lance-leaf coreopsis will lend their yellow blooms to the garden at a time when the spiderworts and larkspurs are starting to fade and the other plants are just budding. 

Lance-leaf coreopsis is an early bloomer. This flower attracts butterflies when little else is blooming.

After the coreopsis blooms, I have multiple gaillardia, partridge pea, and salvia plants. Partridge pea blooms heavily in the spring. Gaillardia and salvia bloom continually throughout the late spring, summer, and into fall. A little deadheading (removing faded blooms) keeps them producing flowers. Purple coneflowers, anise hyssops, and early sunflowers will also begin to bloom around this time. Additionally, four-o-clocks grow wild in my back yard. 

Gaillardia, also called blanket flower, is a prolific bloomer that keeps going all summer and into the fall.

For mid-season bloomers, when the monarchs have mostly passed, I have butterfly weed (a type of milkweed), western sunflower, California poppy, black eyed susan, and others. I have a few late season bloomers too, including aromatic aster. Most of these plants bloom at “butterfly height.” The others are still accessible to bees and other pollinators. 

Echinacea, also called purple coneflower, starts blooming mid-spring — after the early blooming flowers. It is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

With far more flowers than I have ever had, the 2023 spring garden should be more attractive to butterflies. I will also be planting new flowers in 2023, even though many native flowering plants do not bloom until their second year. I’ll also be planting and transplanting some flowers into the side yard . . . and I found a patch of my backyard that gets just enough sun for plants comfortable with partial shade. So, I can squeeze a few more plants into the yard.

Monarch butterflies in one of the enclosures I use to raise them. The enclosure is kept outdoors, so the caterpillars and chrysalises know where the sun is throughout the day. This may effect their ability to orient and migrate in the correct direction.

I will have one more post describing my 2023 Monarch Project. Then, in March of 2023, I’ll start posting weekly updates of how the project is progressing — what plants are sprouting, what flowers are blooming, how many monarchs are visiting the garden, how many caterpillars I’ve caught, and — of course — how many adult monarch butterflies I have released.

Gardening As The Climate Changes (II)

Scientists expect that climate change will have a number of effects on our lives. As gardeners, one of the most important of these is a change in the arrival time of spring temperatures. Averaged globally, spring temperatures will start arriving very slightly sooner each year. However, at any individual location, the arrival of spring temperatures — compared to their expected arrival date — will be highly variable. Since spring is more likely to arrive early than late, make a plan to take advantage of this situation.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones correspond roughly to the last frost dates in those areas. Mountainous regions will have later than expected frosts compared to flatlands. Check the internet to find your local average last date.

Most gardeners are well aware of their region’s average last frost date. Gardeners generally begin planting vegetables and annual flowers once this date has passed and the weather forecast indicates a continuance of above freezing temperatures. In northern gardens, the overall growing season is fairly short. For long-season crops, such as pumpkins, getting them started at the right time will ensure that they develop and reach maturity under favorable temperature conditions. In the south, vegetables needs to be planted promptly so that exceedingly hot temperatures don’t arrive until after the plants have flowered and set fruit. Most vegetables will not set fruit at temperatures over 95 °F (35 °C). As an example, the unprecedented heat in Texas in the spring of 2022 was disastrous to watermelon farmers. (It also did in my watermelons and limited my tomato crop.)

Sometimes it seems like spring has arrived early, but don’t interpret early warm temperatures as an indication that no future freezes are coming. Watch your local long-term weather forecast as your last frost date approaches.

As spring approaches, you should plan to plant when you normally do in relation to your average last frost date. As this time approaches, however, keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast. If your last frost date is still approaching, but the forecast does not include a freeze, consider planting at least some of your spring garden plants. Keep in mind, though, that nearly every year there are at least a few days of comparative warm weather near the end of winter. Every year, this entices gardeners everywhere to set out tomato transplants early only to have them freeze later. Recall that half of all final freezes occur after the average last frost date. So resist the urge to plant over three weeks early. That’s just asking for trouble. Planting early can reap big benefits, but it is also taking a risk. If your last frost date is three weeks away, and the forecast overnight lows are all above 36 °F (2 °C) or so, think about planting the vegetables that will thrive (or at least tolerate) those temperatures. For example, most peas will be fine when planted immediately after the soil thaws. Most beans, however, will do poorly if the soil temperature is lower than 50 °F (10 °C). Lima beans require even warmer soil temperatures and daytime air temperatures should be around 65 °C (18 °C).

Covering plants with cloches, row covers, or by growing them in mesh enclosures allows you to get a jump on the season. They will also keep out pests, but must be removed before temperatures get too high. (Cloche photo courtesy Wikipedia)

If you do plan to plant early, invest in some hoops and agricultural netting. This will allow you cover the rows if a light freeze is forecast. For individual large plants, a cloche can serve as a mini-greenhouse when cold weather threatens. If the plant is only a few inches tall, you can cut the bottom out of a gallon milk jug and use that as protection. Large plants, of course, can be planted indoors in small containers and moved outside when the weather is suitable. Even before climate change became an issue, gardeners had been doing this to raise transplants for spring planting.

You can plant garden plants indoors before it is warm enough for them to be outside. Take them outside on warm afternoons and bring them in at night. Or, keep them by a window that gets sun or under grow lamps.

Among the longer-term effects of climate change will be a shifting of agricultural zones towards the poles. North American gardeners on the southern edge of where growing a typical vegetable garden is possible will find it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to grow anything other than a few locally-adapted plants. Gardeners on the current northern edge of vegetable gardening feasibility will start experiencing longer growing seasons and higher peak temperatures. The line on the map separating places that normally experience at least one hard freeze every year from places that do not usually experience freezing temperatures will creep northward. This line is currently in the very southern tips of Florida and Texas. Gardeners south of this line may experience more insect pests in the early spring as they won’t freeze in the winter. (And of course, some insects are adapted to survive freezing temperatures in the winter.) However, these conditions will not arrive overnight.

 

Conclusion

So, to make a long story short, expect the change in climate to proceed fairly slowly. (Or at least, it will seem slow from our perspective. On a geologic scale, it’s happening blindingly quickly.) But expect the variability in your local weather to become progressively more pronounced. As a gardener, expect that spring temperatures are more likely to arrive sooner than usual than later than usual. But realize that advance will be sporadic. Most years, your weather will likely stick close to the long-term averages. However, sometimes spring temperatures will arrive substantially earlier than expected. So plan for your usual gardening season, but be prepared to get a jump on your spring planting each year. If the indicators of an early spring are present, the risk of early planting should pay off more often than not.

Gardening As The Climate Changes (I)

Our planet is warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our atmosphere have increased from under 300 ppm in the early 1900s to over 410 ppm today. This is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas and the global mean temperature has risen 1.8 °F (1 .0 °C) in the past 20 years. This change in temperature has affected weather patterns all over the globe. On average, what we expect to see in the coming years is an earlier arrival of typical spring temperatures. Likewise, we expect longer and hotter summers, a later arrival of typical winter temperatures, and less predictable patterns of precipitation. The phrase “on average” is very important to understanding climate change. The average rate of climate change for any given location will be very slow, but the effects on local weather patterns will vary in intensity.

Carbon dioxide levels have been rising steadily in our atmosphere for decades. The average temperature at the earth’s surface is also trending upwards, but notice that it drops for short periods, too. Compared to the 20th Century as a whole, we are now between 0.8 and 1.0 °C warmer. (Figures from NOAA.)

In the coming years, your garden is likely to experience spring temperatures sooner than in past years. However, in some years, spring could come later. The chance of the latter is lower than the former, but far from zero. As we’ve seen in the previous decade, peak summer temperatures will usually be higher than usual. In a like manner, typical fall temperatures will remain a bit longer before falling.  In both cases, the opposite may occasionally be true. But those instances with be rare.

On average, this progression will be very slow. It will also vary with location. For example, regions near the poles are warming faster. In addition to changes in the seasonal temperatures, you may experience more or less rainfall than average, depending global weather patterns. You will also likely experience years during which your weather is relatively normal.

You can think of climate change this way. Let’s say you had a 6-sided die and you rolled it each spring. The number you got determined your weather. One and two meant cooler than usual weather. Three and four meant average temperatures. And five and six meant higher temperatures. In the past, with a fair die, those three outcomes would have occurred equally frequently in the long term. These days, the die would be loaded. It would be fixed so fives and sixes occurred slightly more often than they should. You could still roll a one through a four, though. You could even roll a series of ones, twos, threes, and fours. However, over time, you’d rack up more five and sixes than any of the other numbers. 

The ten hottest years of all time all occurred in the past 20 years. Nine of the past 10 decades have been warmer than the decade before them. 1940–1949 stands out as a comparatively hot decade. (Data from NOAA and NASA; tables courtesy of Wikipedia)

When it comes to planning your garden, the thing to realize is that the average change in your seasonal weather is going to be very slight. However, the variability in weather patterns will be higher than in past years. Most years, your usual planting schedule should work. However, in other years it might be substantially out of sync with the weather. As such, you may want to hedge your bets. Since temperature anomalies are more likely to be higher than lower, your best bet is to assume that you will experience normal temperatures during the gardening season, but prepare for warmer temperatures. In an upcoming post, I will explain how to do this.

In 2021, some parts of our planet experienced temperatures on par with their long-term average. Much of the Pacific Ocean, for example, was not hotter or colder than usual. And, some of Antartica was slightly colder than usual. However, most places on earth were warmer than usual — especially near the poles. (Figure from NOAA.)

 

Octoberfest Season

Octoberfest beers are my favorite seasonal beer and I love Octoberfest season. In the US, Octoberfest beers begin appearing on the shelves in early September and remain available at least into early November. The actual German festival begins in mid-September, runs for two weeks, and ends on the first Sunday in October. German Octoberfest beers imported into the US are often of the Octoberfest Märzen type — malty, orangish-colored lagers around 5.5–6.0% ABV. However, you can also find imported Octoberfest beers in the ligher-colored festbier style. (Also note that German Octoberfests are almost always spelled with a “k” — Oktoberfest or Oktoberfestbier. Some US breweries also do this.) Of the German imports, Hacker-Pschorr — among the darkest and richest — is my favorite. However, as might be expected, there are plenty of German imports that are great and my preference is just a matter of opinion. Somewhat recently, US breweries have begun producing some spectacular Octoberfest lagers. These well-balanced beers taste great on a crisp fall evening. 

It’s not a tent in Munich, but I like my beer garden. Despite the name, Live Oak’s Oaktoberfest does not have any oak character. My arm has some poison oak character in this photo, unfortunately.

The best Octoberfest beers are malty, without any caramel or biscuit notes — just a smooth maltiness that mostly comes from Munich malt. (10 °L). The malty character may be accentuated by dark Munich malt (20 °L), melanoidin, or aromatic malt. Also, some Vienna malt (6 °L) — which is intermediate in kilning between Pilsner malt (2 °L or lower) and the Munich malts — may be present. However, a fantastic Octoberfest can brewed from a grist if 100% Munich malt. Neutral hops — noble hops in the case of actual German beers — provide just enough bitterness to make a well-balanced beer. The beer is not sweet, but it isn’t dry either. It has just enough body to feel a little more filling than a Pilsner, but not by much. Festbier types, brewed with mostly Pils malt, are generally a bit drier. The level of carbonation is within the usual range of lager beers. Overall, the Märzen style of Octoberfest is a malty lager beer with a bit more color and “heft” than a Pilsner, and with less hop bitterness. 

Another great local — or at least regional — Octoberfest lager.

US craft brewers have came a long way when it comes to producing Octoberfest beers. In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, most US “Octoberfests” were amber colored ales made with crystal malt in the grist and often showing a strong biscuit malt character. Sadly, some breweries still produce this type of beer. Many of these were also over-hopped, based on the target style. The best US breweries, however, started making lager beers that aligned with the traditional Octoberfest Märzen style and now there are many great examples. I live in Texas and the regional breweries Live Oak, Karbach, and Real Ale all make excellent interpretations of the style. (For what it’s worth, Real Ale was never a real ale brewery in the sense of brewing cask conditioned ales. They make both ales and lagers, including Hans Pils — which is one of my “go to” beers.) From discussions on social media, many homebrewers report local and regional breweries near them producing fine examples. 

For me, Octoberfests are an “indicator beer.” If a brewery or homebrewer can produce a nice Octoberfest, I have some confidence that the rest of their beers are decent. If you are brewing an Octoberfest, here is my advice. First, be fanatical about cleaning and sanitation. Even a hint of contamination — below the level that noticable off flavors are produced — can rob a malty beer of its malt flavor and aroma. Secondly, run an orderly fermentation — pitch enough yeast, aerate adequately, and hold the fermentation temperture in the proper range. Thirdly, if you are brewing an Octoberfest on the darker end of the scale, adjust your water chemistry. Make your water with just slightly more bicarbonate than the color would indicate is optimum. Not enough to throw your pH out of whack, just a bit. If you calculate residual alkalinity (RA), shoot for 1.3–1.4 for a beer that’s 13–15 SRM. Add calcium chloride such that you have 100–150 ppm calcium ions. Taste your treated water to ensure that it tastes good  — and of course eliminate any chlorine compounds through carbon filtration or with Campden tablets first. And finally, use  fresh, high-quality Munich malt.

With Octoberfest season winding down, winter warmers are up next. Prost!

Why Grow Native Plants?

One of the major focuses of this website will be growing native plants. A good question to begin with is why should we divide plants into natives and non-natives and favor growing one over the other? Plants are just plants, right? Long story short, yes but there’s more.

Purple coneflowers and blanket flowers are native perennials.

The native plants growing in your region are adapted to living there. There are adapted to the seasonal weather changes. They are adapted to the local soil types. And they are adapted to local wildlife and vice versa. As a gardener, you will find most native plants easy to establish and require less maintenance than non-natives. This is especially true of perennial plants — plants that live for more than one year. After their first year, during which they made need a little attention, perennials will often flourish without any intervention. 

A spider on a black eyed susan and a moonflower, which opens at dusk.

Native plants generally require less water than non-native plants. This is especially true for native plants adapted to living in prairies, open fields, or drought-prone regions. Of course, some natives live next to streams or ponds, and their water requirements reflect that. Knowing the microenvironment a plant lives in can help you decide what to plant where on your property. However, on average, you will need to water native plants less than non-native plants — especially those bred to be showy landscaping plants.  

Texas red salvia (a mint) and partridge pea (a legume) are native plants.

Native plants generally require less fertilizer than non-natives. They are adapted to living in soil that has not been amended by humans, unlike many landscaping plants. They also generally do not require pesticides. Native plants have insect pests, of course. They and the insects that feed on them have coevolved for long periods of times, up to hundreds of millions of year. But those pests also have native predators, including insect predators — such as ladybugs, preying mantises, and robber flies. They also have other predators. Many birds are insectivourous. So are many bats. So are many small reptiles. (I have a thriving population of Texas spiny lizards living in and around my garden.) And of course, spiders eat insects. 

Larkspur flowers and berries on a black nightshade plant. Catbirds love these berries.

If you have a typical suburban lawn (of non-native grass) and non-native landscaping plants, you can start small and simply subsitute some natives in your flower beds in the spring. Plant a ring of natives around your vegetable garden or between rows. Surround tree trunks with a ring of native plants or expand your flower beds to take up more room in your yard. Even making small changes can help your local environment and make your life as a gardener easier. 

A butterfly on a lance leaf coreopsis flower and a skipper on a Verbena hastata flower.

Native plants are connected to other species in your region in a way non-natives are not. A native plant may be a host plant for a butterfly. It may provide nectar to a bee, butterfly, or hummingbird — and in turn these animals will pollinate other plants. It may provide seeds for a seed-eating bird. It may draw in insects that insectivorous birds, bats, lizards, spiders, or other insects can feed on. Taller native plants provide perches for insect predators to survey your garden. 

A green-eyed robber fly and another robber fly (in the genus Efferia).

Having insects — and hence insect predators — in your yard and garden can also help you enjoy being outdoors more. If you have a typical suburban lawn and non-native landscaping plants, your yard and garden can easily get overun by mosquitoes or flies. Mosquitoes feed on blood, of course. And flies lay their eggs in dead animals, feces, or rotting food. As such, what you plant in your yard or garden isn’t going to attract or deter them. However, if you have a healthy population of insect predators around your house, they can knock the numbers of these insects down substantially — making spending time outdoors in the evenings more enjoyable. 

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant and a black swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.

Planting natives plants does a lot to help your local environment. And they also require less care, water, and fertilizer — allowing you, the gardener, more time for other things (such as planting a larger garden). 

My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (I: Milkweeds)

In North America, there are essentially two main populations of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The largest population overwinters in Mexico and migrates to the northern United States — from North Dakota to Maine — and southern Canada each year. The second population overwinters in southern California and makes a shorter migration up the West Coast. Additionally, smaller populations of monarchs live in Florida or overwinter in scattered locations along the Gulf Coast.

The number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico has been trending downward since the 1970s. Milkweeds (mostly plants in the genus Asclepias) are the only host plant for monarch butterflies. Many gardeners, like myself, grow milkweed in order to provide food for monarch caterpillars. A combination of milkweeds and other native flowering plants also provides food for bees, other butterflies, and hummingbirds.

The number of monarch butterflies has been declining since the 1970s.

In 2021, I raised and released 77 monarch butterflies. My goal for 2023 is to release 240 — roughly three times as many. The reason for 240 is that for many years I raised roughly twice as many monarchs as the year before — from 7 in 2016, to 15 the next year, 30 the next, and then around 60 in 2019. To fit the pattern, I “should” have raised 120 in 2020. But there was a pandemic and other factors intervened and I only raised around 30. So, for 2023, I want to get back to the doubling — if only for a year.

To hit this target, I figure that I need four things:

1.) Sufficient milkweed to feed the monarch caterpillars

2.) Enough blooming flowers to attract the adult female monarchs

3.) To suppress any disease outbreaks in either the milkweeds or the monarchs

4.) A little luck

In this post, I will discuss the milkweeds.

In 2021, I had roughly 40 milkweed plants in my garden. These ranged from plants I had grown for many years to first-year seedlings. By the time the 77th butterfly was released, I was running low on milkweed. Using this information as a start, I figured that I would need at least one milkweed plant for every two monarchs I plan to raise. This should give me enough milkweed with a little excess. This year (2022), I have around 70 plants and I easily have enough seed for 50 more. That should be sufficient milkweed.

Milkweed is the host plant for monarch larvae (caterpillars).

In past years, I would look for monarch eggs or monarch caterpillars on my milkweeds when the monarchs were migrating through my area. I would then pick the leaf the insect was on and place it in one of my butterfly enclosures. Unfortunately, this wasted a lot of milkweed. When small, the caterpillars won’t consume an entire leaf overnight. By the next day, they want a fresh leaf. So this year, I plan to conserve leaf material by taking a pair of scissors and cutting around the egg or caterpillar. I’ll then lay that bit of leaf on a small plant in an enclosure. When the caterpillar abandons the leaf cutting, it will find itself on a milkweed plant. I can rotate partially consumed plants out of the enclosures to let them recuperate for awhile before using them again. Milkweeds are very resilient with regards to caterpillar damage. This should give me a little more leeway with regards the amount of milkweed biomass I need.

Adult monarchs will feed on the nectar of many native plants, such as these.

In a few days, I will discuss the other plants I will be growing for my monarch project. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarch caterpillars, but adult monarchs nectar on the the flowers of many plants. I have a plan to provide multiple types of flowers — blooming at multiple heights — throughout the monarch migration. In spring, I will update this website often on the progress I have made. At my location in central Texas, milkweeds start sprouting in late March and “monarch season” usually lasts from April through June.

Newly eclosed monarchs in a mesh enclosure, about to be released.