Fresh Produce at Billings Hardware and Garden Center

Some say food is medicine, and great fresh produce certainly nourishes our bodies for optimal health. This weekend is the 8th Annual Produce Sale, Friday and Saturday, September 8th and 9th at the Billings Hardware Garden Center. Local growers will have the best fresh produce for you. Get there early as things sell out quickly.

The recommended daily serving of fruit is 3-5 servings and vegetables 5-7 servings, according to Superfoods RX: The Basics  by Steven Pratt, MD and Kathy Matthews. These numbers vary some depending on which source you read, but these appear to be supported by other sources also.

Understanding serving sizes makes it a little easier to work this much produce into your diet.  For vegetables, one serving equals one-half cup cooked or raw vegetables, one cup raw greens, or one-half cup vegetable juice.  One serving of fruit is one-half cup chopped fruit, one-half cup fruit juice (juice your own or buy 100% juice), one medium piece of fruit, two tablespoons raisins, or three prunes.

Pratt and Matthews identified twenty-three fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and grains that they consider super foods. Let’s look at fruit and vegetables today:

Here are some superfoods to look for at the produce sale.

Super Fruit

Apples – good source of polyphenols, fiber, vitamin C and potassium.

Blueberries – polyphenols, salicylic acid, carotenoids, fiber, folate, vitamin C and E, potassium, manganese, magnesium, iron, riboflavin, niacin, and phytoestrogens. Reads kind of like a multivitamin!

Kiwi – vitamins C & E, folate, potassium, fiber, carotenoids, polyphenols, chlorophyll, glutathione, and pectin.

Oranges – vitamin C, fiber, folate, limonene, potassium, polyphenols, pectin.

Pomegranates – vitamins B6 and C, polyphenols, and potassium.

Pumpkin – alpha-carotene, vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, potassium, high fiber, magnesium, pantothenic acid.

Super Vegetables

Broccoli – sulforaphane, indoles, folate, fiber, calcium, vitamin C, beta-carotene, Lutein/zeaxanthin, vitamin K.

Garlic – oganosulfur compounds, saponins, polyphenols, selenium, arginine, vitamin C, potassium.

Spinach – lutein/zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, glutathione, alpha lipoic acid, vitamins B, C, and E, minerals, polyphenols, betaine, and coenzyme Q10.

Tomatoes – lycopene, Vitamins B and C, alpha-and beta-carotene, lutein/zeaxanthin, potassium, chromium, biotin, and fiber.

Kale – vitamin A, B6, B2, B3, C, and E, manganese, copper, fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, omega-3 fats, phosphorus, protein, and folate.

Beets – folate, manganese, potassium, copper, fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamins B and C, and iron.

Cauliflower – vitamin C, K, and B6, folate, pantothenic acid, choline, dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, manganese, phosphorus, and biotin.

Leeks – vitamins A, B6, C, and K, manganese, copper, iron, folate, carotenoids, fiber, magnesium, vitamin E, calcium, and omega 3 fats.

Look at all the healthy nutrients you are probably getting and didn’t know it.

Continuous Color in Your Landscape

The goal of many gardeners is to have something blooming in the landscape all season. Planting annuals every year achieves this, but it’s nice to also have perennial plants that come back every year. The problem is, most perennials have a short bloom time. The resolution to this problem is to plant perennials that have different bloom times. The perennials below are just a sampling of plants readily available, but there are many more to choose from. Some of these bloom in overlapping seasons.

Bloom Times:

Spring Shade Perennials– Bleeding Heart, Columbine, Primrose, Foamflower, Bergenia, Hellebore, Jacob’s ladder, Lungwort, Viola, Solomon’s Seal.

Spring Sun Perennials– Alpine clematis, Candytuft, Creeping phlox, Dianthus, Sea thrift

Late Spring to Early Summer Shade Perennials – Coralbells, Meadow rue, Foamy bells, Lady’s mantle, Yellow corydalis

Late Spring to Early Summer Sun Perennials – Bear’s breeches, Baptisia, Fleabane, Iris, Lamb’s ear, Peony, Geranium, May Night Salvia, Poppies

Summer Perennials for Shade – Astilbe, Goatsbeard, Hosta, Ligularia, Lilyturf (Liriope), Lobelia, Meadow rue

Summer Perennials for Sun – Balloon flower, Bee Balm (Monarda), Bellflower (Campanula), Black-eyed Susan, Blanket flower, Liatris, Butterfly weed, Catmint, Coneflower, Crocosmia, Delphinium, Evening primrose, Phlox, Hollyhock, Agastache, Lavender, Shasta Daisy

 Late Summer and Early Fall Perennials for Shade – White turtlehead, Day lilies (sun to part shade)

Late Summer and Early Fall Perennials for Sun – Aster, Chrysanthemum, Japanese anemone, Joe Pye weed, Obedient plant, Russian sage, Sedum

The chart in the link below lists plants by color and height as well as sun or shade and provides a much more extensive list of plants.


Straw Bale Gardening


Straw bales can be set up anywhere. You can set up this garden on your driveway, patio, grass, or dirt plot. At the end of the season, you have wonderful compost for your other gardens or to build new in-ground beds.

You can configure the garden any way you want in rows, squares, or u-shapes. You can very successfully grow vegetables and flowers without much work. This method is great for people who can’t bend down to ground level or are in wheelchairs.


The bales are basically composting bins, so as you water them, any seeds left in them can sprout, so you have to pull out the sprouts before they get away from you.

Toward the end of the season they can become unstable and start to fall apart because of the composting. While most critters will leave them alone, ground hogs may be a problem. You may need to fence around your bales or garden to keep them away.

Setting Up the Bales

Bales are heavy after watering, so set them up where they will stay. Position the ends of the bales in a north/south direction to take advantage of the east/west sunshine. Place the side without bindings on top (cut side).

Conditioning the Bales

You need to start the decomposing process by adding fertilizer to the bales. There are many recipes for this conditioning process online. Many use UREA in a 32-0-0  formulation with nitrogen being the highest, but I have seen as high as 48-0-0 used. If you want to grow vegetables organically, use organic fertilizer. (see blog below for recipe). The process takes about 10 days applying fertilizer on odd days and watering every day.

Planting the Bales

 Planting is quick and easy. For seedlings, simply use a trowel to make a hole in the bale and plant your seedling.  Some people add a little compost or potting soil to the hole, but it is not necessary. For tomatoes, use a crow bar or long stick to open up a deeper hole. If you want to start seeds in your bales, add compost or potting soil to the top of the bale and plant your seeds.


Straw Bale Gardens Complete by Joel Karsten (

Organic Fertilizer

Straw Bale Gardening


Growing Seedlings Under Lights

You can germinate seeds and grow plants under lights anywhere in your house or basement where it is warm. Most seeds need 60 -70 degrees to germinate. A group of friends rented a small greenhouse and we started our seeds there before moving them to the basement, but you can start seeds under these lights also. Check your seed packets to see how many weeks ahead of last frost date you need to plant seeds. It is not too late to get started now for planting outside in June.

How Many Lights?

For a 30X72 inch table, I used three 48-inch shop light fixtures with two 40 watt daylight bulbs in each fixture. You can also use one warm and one cool light in each fixture. Since I am growing them in the basement, I attached 3 one and one-half inch PVC pipe hangers to every other rafter and threaded one and one-half inch by 6 foot PVC pipe through each hangar. For a larger table, use a longer pipe and an additional light fixture or two perpendicular to the first three. From the PVC pipe, I suspended 36-inch long chains to hold the light fixtures. Loop one end over the pipe and secure below with S hooks. Attach 1 inch rings and S hooks to the top of the light fixture. Thread the chain through the ring and attach with the S hook. As you need to raise the light fixtures, just move the S hooks up a couple of notches.

How Many Plant Trays per Table?

Seed starting trays have two parts. The bottom tray has an open weave pattern to let water pass through. Inside that tray goes a plug tray which can have between 24 to 72 cells to plant seeds in. A standard plant tray is about 10 inches wide and 21 inches long. I had room under the lights for 4 trays side to side and 2 trays length wise, then one regular or 2 smaller ones on the end. On an 8-foot table, I would place additional trays on the end and use appropriate length lights to cover all the trays.  One light should provide adequate light for the width of one tray, so for each long row, place the lights over the middle of the tray. Lights should remain on at least 16 hours each day.

You will be so proud of your plants.


Different Kinds of Mulch

Most people think of mulch as that black, brown or red stuff made from wood chips and artificially colored. I admit, I have used the black stuff myself because I like the look, especially for walkways. However, these chips take a long time to break down. This may be an advantage if you are using it for walkways but there are other materials that will give your plants nutrition as it breaks down. Mulching with the right stuff preserves moisture, puts back some nutrients the plants use up, and cools the root zone.

Bark as Mulch

You don’t necessarily want to mix bark into your soil because it can tie up the nitrogen available to plants until it is fully decomposed. If you use it to top dress your plants, as it breaks down, it won’t tie up the nitrogen and will release nitrogen that the plants can use.  Cypress or pine bark mulch has a nice look and doesn’t put dyes into your soil.

Compost as Mulch

Compost, either something you have composted yourself or a quality bagged compost, is a great mulch.  As water washes through the compost, it puts beneficial nutrients into the soil where the plants can access it. Well-aged compost such as animal manure mixed with straw, is a nutrient rich mulch for your plants and can be used in holes when planting new plants.

Grass as Mulch

Grass clippings whether green or dried are a great mulch for plants and vegetables. As it breaks down, it enhances the soil, suppresses weeds and preserves moisture. Grass clippings break down fairly quickly and provide nitrogen which plants need. If using fresh grass, layer only about one-fourth inch to avoid grass that stays too wet and may smell as it breaks down. A mixture of dried grass and shredded leaves (1 part grass to 2 parts leaves) mixed into your planting beds will break down quickly and creates very healthy soil.

Straw as Mulch

Straw works very well in the vegetable garden to keep weed seeds from germinating, retaining water, and as it breaks down, it puts nutrients back into the soil. Straw is very inexpensive if you don’t grow it yourself and most garden centers have bales available in the spring. Straw bales also work very well for growing vegetables if you don’t have much space for an in-ground garden. Check out Straw Bale Gardening next week.

Where is the Sun and Shade in Your Yard

When trying to determine where to build flower beds or plant new plants, it is important to know where the sun hits different areas of your yard at different times of the day. The best way to determine this is by tracking the sun from sunrise to sunset. Every hour, take a walk around your yard to see what areas are bright and sunny and which areas are shady.

Map It

Draw a map of your property with your house, outbuildings and large trees designated on the map. If your neighbor’s trees cast shade in your yard, put those trees in also. You can indicate trees with circles. Mark the points of the compass as they relate to the direction your house faces.

Mark Sun and Shade

As you observe where the sun is at each hour, walk around your property and mark on the map the sunny and shady areas. Using colored pencils, color in the sunny areas and what time span it is sunny. For example, what time of the day is the front yard, or part of the front yard sunny or shady. You could color the sunny areas yellow and the shady areas blue or gray. As the sun moves from East to West you may want to do more than one map. My front yard which faces south east gets sun from sun up until it moves over to the back where the trees shade part of the yard and shade creeps further from the front of the house. The back yard is shady until about 2pm then gets the afternoon sun.

What Grows in Shade

You can have flowering plants in shady areas, if there is some sun or dappled sun showing through the overhead leaves. Hostas have traditionally needed full shade or at least part shade where they get a little sun in the morning, but I have seen them planted in full sun and they got burnt with yellowing, droopy leaves. Recently, new cultivars have been created that can tolerate the sun, so if you love Hostas and only have sun, find one of the sun tolerant varieties. Other plants such as Astilbe, Solomon’s Seal, Lilly of the Valley, Lenton Rose, Heuchera, and Columbine grow well in shade or part shade.




Elements of Successful Container Gardening

One key to successful container gardening is a clean container with drainage holes. With a new container, you’ve met this one if it has drainage holes, but if you are reusing containers, be sure they have been thoroughly cleaned and don’t have any residue from previous soil.


Soil is another important element for container gardening. Use soil that is well-aerated, well-drained, and lightweight. Do not use soil from your garden. It may have pathogens, be too acidic or alkaline, too heavy (like clay), and contain weed seeds. Purchased potting soils will work well but read the ingredients. You may not want chemicals and fertilizers in your pots. Adding your own nutrients, when needed, gives you more control over your plant’s health. Some vegetables like carrots like a mostly sandy or very loose soil.

Some plants may do best in soilless potting medium that doesn’t contain soil but uses other elements such as peat moss, pearlite, vermiculite, compost or sand. One homemade recipe calls for equal parts peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, and sand.  Another would be 6 parts potting soil, 4 parts compost, and 1 part perlite (a natural volcanic glass that helps with water retention and drainage and keeps soil lighter). Coir, shredded coconut hulls, will also help water retention. It comes in a compressed brick and swells up many times its original size when soaked in water.


Flowers – With flowers and foliage plants, you can grow them in almost any size container. Just be aware of how much space they need for roots. Plants with very shallow roots like some succulents, creeping phlox and moss can grow in shallow containers. Medium sized containers will accommodate begonias, coleus, geranium, verbena and many more. Large containers offer the most opportunity to grow multiple plants in one container. Shrubs and small trees are also known to grow in large containers.

Vegetables – If you are growing vegetables in containers, you need to use a pot size that allows the root system to grow. Constricted roots don’t produce great vegetables. Lettuces and radishes, grow well in shallow containers. Most other vegetables except tomatoes will grow in medium sized containers. You can even grow potatoes in cloth bags made especially for growing vegetables. Tomatoes need at least a five-gallon bucket or pot to do well as a container plant. Experiment and see what works best for you.

To Till or Not To Till

In past years, the standard way to build a new garden bed was to remove the grass and till down about 10 inches. This is still how many how-to books suggest doing this. Or, you may see instructions to dig down with a shovel and turn over the soil, or double dig by removing some soil, digging another depth, removing that soil and mixing it with the first pile of soil.

What Tilling Does

Every time you disturb the soil, you are destroying the micro-organisms (think beetles, earthworms, and beneficial fungi) beneath the soil. When you till or dig down as little as 10 inches, worms and beneficial microbes lose their homes and it takes a long time for them to repopulate the tilled area. You can also move weed seeds to the topsoil where they get air and water and proliferate. Tilling compost into the soil increases the soil chemistry, but it does not take into account the damage being done at the same time.

When Tilling Might be Beneficial

When you are building a new bed from scratch, removing grass, breaking up hardpan clay, or working in compost and soil amendments, tilling the bed may be the most expedient way to go. The grass turned under will decompose and add nutrients along with the compost. However, once the bed is prepared, using cover crops and adding compost will maintain the soil health and tilling will not be necessary in future years.

Alternatives to Tilling

There are many ways to build vegetable and flower beds that do not require tilling. Grass can be killed with cardboard and plastic. Beds can be built up with or without walls. You can use alternative planting methods such as containers and straw bales. Stay tuned in the weeks leading up to planting time for more articles on different ways to build beds without tilling.


When to Plant Seeds

Cool Weather Plants – Some vegetables are considered cool weather plants because they thrive in the cool temperatures before last spring frost and after first fall frost. They also will bolt (go to seed and become bitter) in too much heat (spinach and lettuces). Some cool weather plants such as herbs (chives, dill, thyme, parsley) can be started from seed in February and planted outside in 40-70 days. Cold weather vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts seeds can be started indoors now. These vegetables may also be planted in July or August for a fall crop.

Determining Planting Times – The back of each seed packet will have information about time required to germinate and plant outdoors. Count back from recommended planting time to determine seed starting time. For example, broccoli takes 10-21 days to germinate and should be started indoors 4-6 weeks, and hardened off 1 week before planting outdoors. Last frost date in South Central Montana is toward the end of May, let’s say the 29th.  Broccoli likes cool weather and can be planted outside 2 weeks before last frost. Figuring 20 days to germinate + 42 days to grow indoors + 7 days to harden off, and 14 days before last frost to plant out, would give you a date of March 13th to plant seeds, May 8th to harden off and May 15th to plant outdoors. These times are not set in stone. A day or two or even a week either way will still give you a productive plant.

Warm Weather Plants – For tomatoes and peppers that require very warm soil, it is best to wait until 1-2 weeks after last frost to put outdoors. If you have raised beds, the soil warms up much faster than ground level gardens, so you could plant into them earlier. The best policy is to buy a good soil thermometer and test the soil before you plant.

Not all vegetables need to be started indoors. Beans, squash, cantaloupe, celery, peas, and cucumbers can be direct seeded where they will grow when soil is warm enough.





Starting Seeds Indoors

Seedlings need light, water, and warmth.


You can grow seeds in any number of small containers from nursery seed trays, egg cartons, any shallow plastic dishes, peat pots, paper cardboard tubes from toilet paper or paper towels, newspaper pots, to small paper cups. Some very nice reusable seed starting kits are available at your local garden center. These usually include seed trays with spaces for a number of seedlings and clear plastic covers for conserving moisture until the seeds sprout and begin to grow. It is best to use a sterile (meaning free of any diseases) seed starting mix for your containers. Garden soil or potting soil should not be used as it may be too heavy. Seed starting mix is formulated to provide the plant initial nourishment and moisture to sustain it until you transplant it into a larger pot.


 Most seedlings need about 16 hours of light after they germinate and begin to show green leaves above the surface of the starting mix. You can use ordinary fluorescent light bulbs, just be sure to use a cool light and a warm light in each fixture. You can use grow lights but it is not critical to growing healthy seedlings. The lights should be placed two inches above the plants at all times, raising the lights as the plants grow. Light placed too far above the plants will give you leggy plants as they stretch to reach the light. When you see good root development, it is time to move them to larger pots or to the garden if weather is favorable. Be sure to harden them off by exposing them to a shady outdoor spot for an hour the first day, then gradually increasing their time outdoors for at least a week.


 Most seedlings don’t like to be waterlogged, so use containers with holes in the bottom for drainage. Plants should be kept damp but not wet. Over watering is the most frequent reason plants fail to thrive. If you must use a pot without drainage, put some rocks in the bottom and water less frequently. You may want to invest in a gauge that can measure the moisture in your plants and let you know more accurately when they need water.


Your seeds need warm soil to germinate. If your house is cool, you may want to invest in a heat mat to place beneath the seeds. It may also be enough to put them in a bright south facing window to absorb the sun. Check the back of the seed packet. If seeds that are started indoors need a certain temperature, the seed packet will tell you what temperature is ideal.