Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Friday, December 26, 2008

Our Own Food

(Photo Caption: greens I picked on Christmas Eve)

On Christmas Eve, I went out to the garden and picked some greens. Some were out in the beds, the overwintering arugula, kales, chard, and mustards and others were in my new cold frame, mostly lovely green and rose-colored lettuces. Italian flat leaf parsley and sage are also overwintering and I picked some for a vegetarian “stuffing” for Christmas dinner. The thought struck me, as it often does, that I find nothing more satisfying than feeding my family on food I grew myself. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner we had home grown braised greens, fresh salad greens, apple sauce made from apples from our tree, and pickled beets and onions. All were organic, from the garden, and grown with love. I have the same feeling of satisfaction often, when I serve a dish or dessert made from home canned tomatoes, pickles, peaches, dried fruit, jams and preserves, even frozen berries…this is why I garden.

Happy New Year, happy gardening….if you garden now, do more next year. If you don’t garden now, start and nurture a pot of herbs and see where it leads. I'll be back after the 1st.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Southern Gardener's Book of Lists: Book Review

The Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists: A Review of a Book by Lois Trigg Chaplin (1994, Taylor Publishing: Dallas)

This is a great book, though it is not a “great read.” It is not the type of garden book that you read page by page, learning new tips, salivating at great garden photos, finally understanding double digging. However, this book is incredibly useful for the southern gardener. This book is exactly what its title says it is: a book of list after list of all types of garden plants under all sorts of conditions (soil, sun, moisture) in three regions: upper, mid and deep south. Want to plant a tree in a wet site? There’s a list of suitable trees. Want to know the best perennials for heavy, clay soil? What trees produce leaves too big to easily rake? What are good evergreen vines or plants that do well under walnuts? How about shrubs that bloom in shade? It’s all in there.

The book is divided into chapters: trees, perennials, ferns, annuals, vines, shrubs, azaleas, roses and ground covers. Each section has multiple lists. I have found myself running to the book first, whenever I want to plant something new or need to pull out an under-performing plant and replace it with something that will work in a particular site. This book is a great gift for that southern gardener on your list.
Happy Gardening and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Seed Starting Indoors

Seed Starting Indoors (Photo caption: starting seeds in the garden, the good, old fashioned way!)

Starting my own plants from seeds is one of the great joys in gardening. When I started gardening, I had mom and dad take me to the garden center where we would willy nilly pick out plants to bring home, mostly lots of tomatoes. It was fun and I continued this practice as I gardened into my adulthood, picking tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc, from whatever garden center had to offer and buying seeds for lettuces and the like. As I read more about gardening, I learned that there were many more varieties available to the home gardener who starts her own plants. I bought my first heirloom tomato seeds (Brandywine) at a festival in Indiana15 year ago and haven’t looked back.

Now, the only time I buy vegetable plants is when I have a seed-starting failure (like this year’s eggplants), if I have failed to get enough of a jump on the season (yes, I bought 9 Romaine lettuce plants this spring for 99 cents, but got an earlier crop than I would have otherwise) or if my ambitions for that year have outpaced my available seed-starting space (which usually means I buy flower seedlings). I am often tempted to buy a veggie plant or two and some flower plants at a High School horticulture program sale (see entry on “Unusual places to buy plants”)-it helps the school and they sometimes do have a flat of two of unusual varieties or ones that are sold out elsewhere.

Starting seeds indoors has a few requirements:

1. Seeds (I love to go to Pinetree Garden Seeds, www.superseeds.com- they sell smaller quantities as low prices so you can play around with varieties)

2. Some sort of flat (I use standard, black plastic flats from a garden center)

3. Some sort of pot (I like peat pots or make my own out of newspaper and staples- they decompose)

4. Sterile seed-starting mixture (again from the garden center- don’t be tempted to use garden soil or regular potting soil- it will lead to damping off, sprouted weeds, bugs, or floppy seedling growth)(I get this at a garden center, though there are recipes available on line to make your own using peat moss and perlite)

5. Florescent lights, hung on chains so they can be raised and lowered.

6. For bottom-heat loving plants, some source of bottom heat (I use grow mats, not cheap, but they last a long time, but some people use old heating pads or set the pots on heat registers or baseboard- beware of this latter idea- it can literally cook and dessicate your seedling very quickly, depending on how hot it is). Plants needing bottom heat include several garden favorites, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Of course, the easiest way to start seeds is to stick ‘em in the ground! But when seeds need special culture, the plants have too long a growing season for your zone or you just want to get a jump on the season, starting seeds indoors is for you. Before you start your seeds, read the seed pack or catalog instructions carefully to learn seed starting requirements. Packages often tell you if the plant is best sowed in the garden or started indoors, time to allow until the plant is a good, transplantable size, soil, light, water and heat requirements. If you cannot find this info on the package, look it up. There is something quite disappointing to find out 6 weeks later that the seed you put under the soil needs light to sprout or the seed that you planted did not come up because it did not have bottom heat.

For most seeds, I start then in rows in a flat. I transplant them to individual peat pots when they have their first 2 true leaves. The first leaf like things that come out of a seed when it spouts are usually not true leaves, they are cotyledons (part of the seed). I prick (dig) out the seedling with the handle of a teaspoon and place it into an already filled and watered peat pot. Remember, if you are starting any plants of the tomato family, they need some sort of bottom heat to sprout. They no longer need this supplemental heat once they are transplanted. And, you can bury the stems of tomato seedlings deeply, leaving the leaves and a bit of stem uncovered, which encourages root growth.

All seedlings need supplemental light to grow. Standard florescent bulbs suspended on chains about an inch or two above the plant are sufficient. Some specialized “grow lights” are expensive and encourage flowering (you do not want your seedlings to flower in the small peat pot indoors-this can stunt its growth). The lights need to be on chains so you can move them upwards as the plant grows. This encourages growth, but make sure to keep the lights at that inch or two distance, or seedlings might get leggy and flop over. Some seedlings need light to germinate and must be spread across the surface of the soil and placed under a light. The seedling packet should tell you this.

I like to run a fan on low in the room with the seedlings for at least half the day. This improves circulation to keep fungi at bay, gently dries plans off after watering and helps make the stems thicker and stronger, thereby helping to harden them off. Once plants are at the transplantable stage, you must harden them off before planting them, or they might just keel over and die in the garden. To fully harden plants off you need to slowly, over the course of a week, put them outside for longer and longer periods of time, starting for a hour or two one day, three the next, etc, until they are outside full time for several days. Some garden books say to do this for two weeks, but I find that conditioning the seedlings by running a fan on them while inside shortens the time needed. They are then acclimated to outdoor conditions and ready to plant.

Some seeds can last, stored in dark, dry, cool conditions, for 5 years (e.g. most of the tomato family), other for just a season (lettuce). Seed starting can be a cost-effective way to produce plants. When you get some experience, you can start seeds that require special conditions, For example, I am cold stratifying (keeping cold in the fridge for 6 or 8 weeks) some paw- paw seeds to start in spring. I’ll let you know what happens with them!

So go to it! Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reblooming Poinsettias

I love poinsettias. I get them every year and, for a few years, managed to coax them into rebloom! First, cut them back after flowering in March (BTW, the part we think of as a flower on poinsettia is a modified leaf, called a bract. The little yellowish things inside the colorful bracts are the true flowers, both male and female on the same plant). Then, Starting around October 1st, they need a place where they get light (florescent tubes are fine) for 14 hours, then total darkness. I use a plant stand with lights, put into a closet, to restart mine. After a few weeks, you should start to see new growth, and later see the flowers form. Keep them evenly watered, then enjoy!

These photos are of specialty poinsettias from the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., December of 2007 (I’ll have a field trip report from there next summer!) and some I bought this season.

Happy holidays! And gardening!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home: A book review
Tallamy, D.W. (2007). Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
(Photo caption: A native: American beautyberry)
Douglas Tallamy’s book is a good addition to the book shelf of anyone concerned about wildlife, sustainability, organic yards and gardens and the health of our native lands. Tallamy’s main premise is that we have substantially reduced the wild areas in which native creatures live, have introduced (accidentally or intentionally) exotic and, at times, invasive species, and that our yards and gardens can provide havens for displaced native creatures. IF there are native plants to provide forage and shelter for them. He suggests that many of the plants we use for landscaping are often chosen because no native creature eats them, but this is exactly the wrong thing to do if we want to preserve these creatures. For example, butterflies in their caterpillar stage are often restricted to eating one or a few types of plants (think Monarch caterpillar and milk weed). We might not like the caterpillars eating our landscaping plants (and indeed, pay a lot of money in chemicals to kill them), but their reduced habitat makes out yards and gardens their “life boat” for survival.

Tallamy gives many examples of his beloved insects and their native-plant needs, along with those of some other creatures. He shows you photos of plants that bugs won’t touch (for example the ubiquitous Bradford pear) and those they will (native black cherry). I guess it is a little “unsightly” to see black cherry leaves with holes chewed in them, but which is worse- unsightliness or extinction? I must admit that I like many exotic plants, but my eye will turn more and more toward natives after reading this book, especially as I live in a once wooded area that is being rapidly developed, forcing native creatures into my yard.
Tallamy gives ideas for creating diverse plant communities that will sustain native creatures, landscaping tips, and choices in native plants. His last chapter “Answers to Tough Questions” is good to read if you don’t have time for the whole book.

Happy (native) Gardening!

Monday, November 24, 2008

EASY Garden Bed Prep

Fall bed preparation (Photo Captions: two garden beds being readied this fall for spring planting).

I do several things to prepare grassy areas for spring planting and I start the spring or fall before. The first is to decide where you want the new bed and cover up the grass with wet newspaper and perhaps a tarp (I have also used old sheets of plywood, old carpeting, too). Under the tarp I layer whatever materials we have that will decay and improve the soil. This year I am making a new tomato bed in my back yard- I covered it all summer with a tarp, then my garden drudge (spouse) lightly dug it up to remove persistent weeds (I helped)(a little). Then I started adding stuff- I dug raw kitchen compost waste into it (though the dog found some and ate it-yuck) and sprinkled coffee grounds from my nearest coffee shop on it (ask for “grounds for your garden). Then we layered on pine straw and leaves (NOT WALNUT) from the front yard, and grass clippings from our last mowing this season. I watered it all in and covered it back up with the tarp. I will continue to add coffee grounds to it over the winter, they are high in nitrogen, should help with decomposition and break down quickly. I am looking for a source for animal manure to compost and add in, too (let me know if you have a source for manure in the Richmond area!). I will uncover it in early spring, dig in everything, and water it again…and should have some great soil for my ‘maters!

I also started a flower bed this fall (see photo). I covered the grassy area with wet newspapers, surrounded it by bricks and covered it with spent soil from various pots of annuals I had this year. To this I added clover seeds as a cover crop, to prevent the soil from washing away and to improve the quality of the soil. This bed will be ready for some sun loving plants come spring!

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Planting bulbs the easy way
(photo caption: planting bulbs in a trench)
Another quick idea, appropriate for this fall bulb planting season (plant spring-flowering bulbs in VA from Nov 1 to Dec. 1, even as late as Dec. 15). In early November, I planted 200 daffodil bulbs (a paltry amount, considering I planted over 900 bulbs one fall season!) Actually, I transplanted 50 species tulips bulbs and 50 so saffron crocuses too, so that’s 300 bulbs. How do I do it? No, I do not use a tubular bulb planter (I use one only when am sticking a few bulbs in an already heavily planted area, a rare occurrence). I dig a trench, sprinkle I some bulb fertilizer and scratch it in, distribute the bulbs right side up and cover them with soil. It goes pretty quickly, esp. if you are planting bulbs that rodents do not like, such as daff’s (they are poisonous to rodents). If you are going to plant bulbs they do like, such as tulips, you will need to take another step, building a garden-cloth cage (garden cloth is not cloth, it is square block, wire fencing- use one with the smallest gauge you can find, or small voles will be able to slip though- chicken wire will not work). Dig the trench, scratch in the fertilizer, line the trench with garden cloth, build up sides of garden cloth and attach it to the liner, place the bulbs in, cover them up and top with garden cloth you attach with wire to the sides of the liner. Another idea is to line the bed with sharp gravel (rodents don’t like it) or plant the tulips bulbs surrounded by daffodils. The only hard part is shifting all that soil. Make sure your garden spade is sharp! You can do this until mid-December here in central VA.

Happy bulb planting!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

New Adventures of My Cold Frame!

First installment of the new adventures of my cold frame!

Thank goodness for my sister in law and all the sisters in law of the world like her! On a recent visit she, with the help of my dear brother, initiated the assembly of the new cold frame I ordered, surrounded by their four children helpers…and got it done in one morning (despite some of the helpers!)! My husband and I are severely assembly impaired and we avoid these tasks as much as possible (along with other home maintenance tasks- I think that the storm door that is oxidizing away will have to fall off and block the doorway before we replace it) (Dave Barry once wrote about his home maintenance skills “If I were a bird, my nest would consist of a single twig scotch-taped to a tree.” I hear you Dave!)

For those of you who don’t know, cold frames are a way of extending the season, either by keeping some veggies growing later in the season than they normally would or starting the spring season earlier, growing mostly cool-season plants, like lettuces, greens, cabbages, even peas can be started this way. I have wanted one for a while, tried the old window approach (build old windows into some sort of slap dash frame) and finally ordered this double-walled polycarbonate cold frame.

Anyway, my cold frame is assembled (need to order the automatic opener so I don’t cook my lettuces), is in the garden and is pictured above, along with the assembly team! Look forward to the end of season report, sometime in April! I am soooo excited!

Happy gardening!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Dog in the Garden

The dog in the garden (Photo caption: Looks innocent, doesn't he?)

A garden is a place of many potential joys for your dog. Here are some of the many ways our dog Bob enjoys his garden experience…

1. Figuring out how to slip through the fence or jump it in such a way as to avoid getting stuck in the raspberry brambles.
2. Applying Eau de Compost- go to the compost pit, enjoy first the joyous sniffing, then…the compost roll! Though why a bath seems to directly follow this experience…..???
3. The joy of tugging on landscape fabric - it pulls! It tears! It riiiiips!

4. A similar pleasure of gnawing at a rubber mulch tree ring...and scattering chunks of it around for the lawn mower blade to catch on!
5. Finding an unopened bag of mulch and deciding where to spread it…all over the tiny, vulnerable lettuce seedlings, for example.
6. Digging voles and moles- long narrow trenches dug right through the asparagus bed. The epicurean delight of eating them! The pleasure of throwing them back up! On the living room rug!
7. Chasing rabbits! Catching them! Leaving their disemboweled carcasses right by the swing set for kids to find!
8. The pleasure of “fertilizing” the garden.
9. The joy of the day Judy fertilizes with liquid fish emulsion (do not believe the label that says “odorless” -pah!). I love to lick it right off the soil! And get my head stuck in the watering can, trying to get down to those last drops!
11. Play “collect the burrs!” Run away from Judy when she tries to take them out of my tail! Hide under the deck until nightfall, when it is too scary to be outside. Submit to burr picking.
12. Tree squirrels! Bark at them to the annoyance of neighbors! (But it does keep them away from Judy’s fruit!)
13. Dig up newly planted beds- soil so soft, so fun!
14. Lastly, track all of it into the house!

Happy gardening with your dog!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Monticello Field Trip

Monticello Field Trip Report
I have been to Monticello several times over the years, even before we lived in central Virginia. Our first trip was about 20 years ago, when we travelled to VA for a wedding in Harrisonburg, and took a day trip Monticello. Despite my somewhat ambiguous and vaguely discomforting feelings about Jefferson (I greatly admired his philosophy of science and experimentation and greatly hated his slave-owning and the fact that the place was built and run on slave labor) it was garden lust at first sight. I remember blowing off the tour of the inside of the house until a later hour so I could experience the wonderful vegetable gardens and take the garden tour and wander the flower beds, vineyards and woods for a few hours. I was most taken by the vegetable gardens, instantly wanting to work there and have a garden just like it (my garden is far from that ideal). I remember surreptitiously snacking on a few garden peas, amazed I was eating a similar variety to one Jefferson grew.

The 1,000 foot long terrace that the vegetable garden is on was literally cut from the side of the mountain (yes, another reminder of slave labor). It gets plenty of sun and has an amazing view across the countryside (I will post a photo on this entry). Jefferson experimented with trellising, cloaching (covering plants to protect from cold), cold framing and blanching (e.g. blocking sunlight from plants like celery and asparagus, to get the then desired “white” forms). Jefferson liked to try new things and experimented with 330 varieties of over 70 vegetables. He grew such new fangled vegetables as tomatoes, eggplant, broccoli and cauliflower. He loved to keep records and kept a log of the day peas were first brought to table each spring, peas being his favorite vegetable. The varieties of plants and vegetables Jefferson grew looked different from the “improved,” commercially-available, varieties of today, which have been bred to survive imported pests, diseases, and long trips in trucks and, often, to simply increase shelf life and delay ripening (commercial considerations)(that’s why nothing will ever taste as good as a home-grown tomato…or eggplant…or lettuce… or bean…or…or…). It is worth it just to go and see these “non-improved” varieties.

As I said, Jefferson was a copious note taker and correspondent and recorded varieties he received from many far-flung acquaintances and plantsmen who sent him seeds, bulbs, cuttings and plants. He also recorded information in his farm book, about seeds, crops and yields. As a matter of fact, so much has been written by and about Jefferson the gardener and farmer, it would be silly for me to recap more here. All I can say is, if you haven’t been to Monticello, start planning your trip TODAY! Make sure you stop and buy some cool heritage seeds there (so don’t need to resort to “accidentally” collecting a few in the garden! I swear I do not do that anymore!).

I will end with my two favorite Jefferson quotes:

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden” Thomas Jefferson.

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” Thomas Jefferson.

Happy gardening!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Part II: Garden Mistakes I Have Made

Garden Mistakes I Have Made Part II: Do Not Try This at Home!
(Photo caption: part of the wonderful beautyberry, that is way to large for its current spot).
(See part I). Most of my other garden mistakes have had less severe consequences. The next mistake has to do with under or over-watering, or letting the soil stay too dry (from neglect) or too damp (from mulch). The Irises I had a picture of in the first "mistakes" entry were victims of too damp soil due to mulch-I swore that the mulch was far enough away from the iris rhizomes, but the rain may have washed it into a pile on top of the rhizome. I found them too late, after they were rotted and gone. A similar thing happened to my pricey Flame Echinacea. An example of under-watering, or putting a plant in an area that was too dry, is the Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower) in a dry-ish raised bed (though I admit to doing this twice! Don't learn from your mistakes is the motto here!)

Failing to cage a tuber or root (those that are tasty to rodents) under ground is another mistake. When I first moved here, I planted tulips, not realizing the extent of the mole and vole incursions into my neighborhood. The tulips were eaten forthwith and just never came up (my personal "Feed a Vole" program). The sweet potatoes fooled me, though, with their beautiful, lush foliage. In the fall, I dug up the sweet potato bed- there they were, large, lovely sweet potatoes. It was only when I tried to lift them that I found they had been eaten from underneath, leaving just beautiful shells of sweet potato skin. Every time since I have planted tulips, I have dug a trench, and built a cage of garden cloth (square wire fencing, small gauge) right in the trench, with a top to deter squirrels. Or I have planted daffodils, poisonous to rodents (and hardier than tulips anyway). When I try sweet potatoes again, I will do something similar, though use a much larger cage.

Not marking a plant and accidentally digging it up is another obvious problem. I or my husband have dug up perennial hibiscus (they die back to the ground and are easy to miss), various bulbs, and other woody perennials that die back. I use metal garden markers with indelible pens and wax markers to mark their locations (and they do, until my little nephew pulls them out of the ground or we run them over with the mower).

Other mistakes?
Composting kitchen utensils, even sharp knives (ouch! You do not want to get cut while your hands are in compost- the infection possibility is huge!)
Not bothering to return a defective or dead plant within the warranty (most companies are good about these returns).
Plant non-drought tolerant plants under trees or under a roof overhang- the trees or overhang will divert rainwater.
…and I could go on and on….
Happy mistake-free gardening!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I have always loved Halloween! Something about dressing up and becoming someone or something else! I always preferred scary costumes- witches, ghosts (one year my mother made us three youngest kids devil costumes-I think she was trying to tell us something). One quick gardening tip for Halloween. After Halloween I take my used inedible Jack o' Lanterns and toss them and, most importantly, their seeds into a waste area in the garden (that spot that isn't used to grow stuff) and see what emerges. This year I came away with 15 or so little pumpkins, most Jack Be Little ornamental types, and a few pie pumpkins. You never know exactly what you will get (pumpkins cross fertilize with other squashes easily) but it is fun!

Happy Halloween! Keep those hands in the dirt!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Unusual places to buy plants

Unusual places to buy plants (Photo caption: Banana flower at Edible Landscaping).

It is sometimes good to think outside the box when looking for places to purchase plants. Nothing wrong with going to a nursery or garden center for the basics, but I have found some good plants at great places in unexpected places. The first is a high school plant sale. If a high school in your area has a horticulture program, chances are they have a plant sale to support that program. Two of our local high schools (Atlee and Hanover for local readers) have plant sales several times a year. The big sales happen in May, but they also have Valentines, Mothers’ Day and Christmas poinsettia sales. I have been impressed at the quality of the plants and the good prices at high school sales. Large, healthy wave petunias, big healthy tomato plants for a few dollars are some examples. Last year, when all the garden centers were sold out of purple eggplants, I found some very healthy ones at a HS sale-and was given a free tomato plant with my purchase! I now buy a significant amount of annuals (I only have so much room to start my own) at HS sales.

Another fun place to buy plants, and often at good prices (especially if you are knowledgeable about the cost of unusual or exotic items) is botanical garden plant sales. I am a regular at the Lewis Ginter Botanical garden (Richmond, VA) spring and fall plant sales (http://www.lewisginter.org). I have found seedling Japanese and Chinese maples for $1 each, larger specimens for $25 and up, day lilies for a few dollars per double fan (from the Richmond Area Daylily Society- I had help choosing from their amazing variety of day lilies by passionate, knowledgeable lily growers-fun and helpful people), herbs, Australian exotics and other plants not found at your standard garden center. I have also gone to “friends of..” plant sales and horticultural association plant sales with great results. About 5 years ago, in Charleston, SC, I ran in to a hort association plant sale and got salvia “Black and Blue” that I was unable to find anywhere else, along with other cool salvias (warning: if you buy while you are outside your zone, make sure you understand the hardiness of the plant in your zone). Longwood gardens, and Bartram gardens in PA have plants sales and are fun places to go on weekend trips.
Going to the source, that is, a plant nursery, is often fun and rewarding. You get to pick out the specific plant you want, often get to see it in a larger size (this helps you visualize the space the plant will eventually need) and can ask questions direct from the grower. I have done this a few times and have found the experience useful.

I recently went to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and was reminded of their Center for Historic Plants. Though they are currently under some reconstruction, they usually have an interesting assortment of plants. I purchased two lobelia there, Lobelia cardinalis (red) and Lobelia syphilitica (blue- once thought to be a cure for syphilis).
(http://www.monticello.org/chp/index.html) when I could not find them anywhere but catalogs (and I find catalog sales to be of variable quality). I also first saw American beautyberry there- Calicarpa virginica- a great native shrub with startling lavender berries in the fall, and brought one home (photo at the top of this blog entry). They sell historical plants plus historic plant seeds and are well worth the visit (and take your time to view the gardens!)(I will be writing a field trip report on Monticello soon).

Backyard breeders are often a good source for a specific plant. In Indiana, I found backyard iris and lily growers and those who grew flats of annuals. These are often people who know their specialty and are passionate about their plants! Plus, if they live nearby, they can recommend tried and true plants for your particular region.

A few more unusual sources: I found a wild Passiflora (passion flower) growing by a roadside took a cutting and now have a great plant (I was on a passiflora kick a few years ago). Wild roses and apples can also be found on roadsides, though they do take some special skills to root (roses) or graft (apples). Unfortunately, apples do not breed true from seed, so seed saving is not an option. To find good roadside plants takes some knowledge of the plants and a good eye. Another source is “passalong” plants from friends- my flower garden was started by this method. But beware! Know what you are getting – I do not recommend planting purple loosestrife or obedient plant, unless that’s all you want in your garden! One last source are the seeds that “just happened to fall” into my pockets in various gardens. This is probably not a good idea, but it never hurts to ask if you can collect a few seeds (I have reformed). The few times I have asked, I came home with more than I requested, and often some cuttings as well.

I would love to learn about any unusual sources for plants that you can share!

Happy gardening!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why I garden organically

Why I garden organically (Photo caption: organic red and gold raspberries with a touch of sugar)
Well, I am going to start by parsing out the sentence “why I garden organically?” First, why do I garden? (I guess we could go further aback in the sentence to just “why?” but that is a question for philosophers). I garden because it gives me peace of mind and deep personal satisfaction. I can think of nothing I like more (except my son and husband) than building a bed and filling it with flowers, fruits or vegetables and standing back and watch it take off (most of the time). I can find no greater pleasure than getting my hands in the soil. I love to eat and love to harvest my own fresh produce and cook dinner with it, even if it just a few snips of fresh herbs to add to a soup or some lettuce for the salad. When we bought our first home, I was so excited to get in the garden, that I was outside digging that first day, despite the unpacked boxes and unhung curtains inside. The previous owners had a small patch with one, sad tomato plant in it. I expanded that patch and planted fall vegetables. I remember my husband commenting “If I’d known you liked dirt so much, I would have bought you some a long time ago.” That fall, I had my first home grown broccoli and greens and the garden just got bigger and bigger.
I started gardening when I was a child, with no guidance and little idea of what I was doing. I got stuck on the idea that roses were the thing to grow, so saved my pennies and bought roses on mail order. I had no clue that hybrid tea roses were incredibly fussy and often looked just awful as the season progressed, due to attacks by Japanese beetles and black spot, plus other fungal diseases. I actually bought and used something called “rose dust” until I re-read the precautions on the label. It was scary then and these were the days before major product labeling requirements. My other brush with chemicals was when we were planning to put our first house up for sale and I could not get rid of persistent weeds. I went to the hardware store and looked at the weed killers. Again, the warnings that it will kill fish, to use a respirator, and indications of carcinogenicity (ability to cause cancer) scared me. I did not buy any of these products and, by the way, our house sold just fine, poor lawn and all.
Other experiences convinced me that organic was the way to go. I did a lot of reading about the effect of yard chemicals on human reproduction, child development, endocrine disruption and cancer. I read about the effects of these chemicals on the environment, on pets, on wild animals and on soil dwelling organisms. I learned that many yard chemicals were developed after World War II from stocks of leftover nerve gas. Nerve gas on my yard? I was convinced. Organic, though not a perfect solution, was the way to go.
I learned more and more as I read and talked to other gardeners. I learned how traditional gardening with chemical depletes the soil of nutrients, and of soil-dwelling creatures that help soil fertility. For example, we are just beginning to understand the positive effect of soil fungus and various bacteria on soil fertility, as well as plant growth and nutritional value of the food crops grown on it. I felt good about gardening without man made chemicals- it seemed better for me, for my neighbors, for animals and for the garden.
Why did I say organic gardening is not a perfect solution? Because there are just some fussy plants that organic care cannot help or these plants require too many organic inputs of time, effort and material. Hybrid tea roses come to mind, though there are other, more durable landscaping roses you can try. Grass is a fertilizer and water hog and needs lots of inputs to sustain it (though there are organic lawn care companies in our area, check them out). And sometimes, with organic methods, the bugs win. But as I read somewhere (and wish I knew who to quote), a gardener, upon picking up an cooked ear of corn to eat and finding a newly deceased corn earworm in it said “Oh good. If the bugs won’t eat it, neither will I.” I agree.
Happy gardening!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Garden Mistakes Part I

Garden Mistakes I Have Made: Do Not Try This at Home! Part 1 (Picture caption: beautiful irises I killed)

Every gardener makes mistakes. A friend of mine once told me “You have the greenest thumb.” I replied “I’ve killed many plants, I just don’t tell anyone about them.” It’s true, though I will say fewer plants die under my care now than in the past. Partly that is because I have greater knowledge and experience, but I also try very very hard to not buy a plant if I don’t have the proper conditions to grow it. And that is the first mistake I used to make, buying a plant because it was beautiful, without regard to its hardiness or cultural requirements (though I have always checked for zone, that is, will this plant survive my USDA zone?). If a plant needs boggy conditions, I either have to create a bog or I don’t buy it, because I have no wetland areas on my half acre. If a plant needs full sun and I am tapped out of full sun spaces, I don’t buy it either. I also don’t start plants from seed that have little chance to make it in the central VA garden (after the Himalayan poppy incident- a stunner of plant that needs a cool greenhouse to grow here and just flat out died when I transplanted it). A related rule: don’t put a plant that needs regular water out of reach of the hose, or your gorgeous, bi-color ‘come again azalea’ will never come again.

The second major type of mistake I have made is related to the first. That is, a failure to pull out an under-performing plant or refusal to say good bye. (I once heard on the radio a method for treating finicky roses that look awful from black spot- take a garden spade, place it blade down near the root, dig around, pull out the plant and toss it in the trash can). We all have had plants that aren’t really working in the spot they are in, in our microclimate, but we let them go and they continue to look terrible. The underperforming plum tree that was infested with aphids despite all my best efforts (though Surround was not available at the time)? Chop it down. The lilacs that got covered by powdery mildew? Say au revoir. I had some under-performing strawberries and, heart in my throat, I dug them up and replaced them with a more vigorous variety and, voila, much better yield. It was so worth the work. An organic gardener has some good tools at her disposal, but you cannot fix every problem. A corollary rule is: transplant hardy plants to better conditions if they are not doing well in the particular area they are in. I have to do this now, with a flowering Hawthorne that is slowly slipping away in a hot, dry spot, but will thrive in a different spot. Another example is the plant that is growing well (in my case a Chinese Maple), but is getting abused by frequent contact going in and out of the garden.

A third mistake is to plant too few. I learned this important lesson from my friend Jeannie. One day, I was bragging to her how I ordered 100 daffodil bulbs. Later, on a tour of her newly remodeled basement, I discovered that she had purchased over 1,000 bulbs that were stored there. She does have more land than I do, but it was a good lesson. That same season I bought over 600 more spring-flowering bulbs and had a great show the next spring: they were easy to plant, too- dig a trench and toss them in (except for tulips that need to be caged from voles, moles, mice and squirrels). I just ordered 200 mixed daffodils (from my fave Brent and Becky’s bulbs in Glouster, VA) for a flower bed I just expanded, to go with the bulbs I will purchase there on a visit there later this month. A large swathe of daffodils is much better than 10 daff’s (or even 50) sticking up in a clump.

The last mistake involves invasives. Gardeners are an acquisitive bunch, and we have been collecting plants from all over the world and importing them for centuries. Know your plants. Reckless and ignorant importing has lead to the establishment of plants that are invasive, that take over gardens and, far worse, natural habitats. Purple loosestrife is taking over wetlands and crowding out native plants. Bamboo is taking over areas in Florida (which has tremendous problems with invasives). Honey suckle is rampant in American forests. Yet you can buy these plants in some garden centers or plant sales (loosestrife is illegal to sell in some states, but I have seen it at flea markets in one of these states). Edible invasives for the home gardener include Jerusalem artichokes (sun chokes- these are great for diabetics, though, but must be kept in control), all the mints and horseradish (delicious, but watch out!). I blithely ignored it when I read that “obedient plant” is badly named, because it was so darn pretty. I took a pot of it from a friend and I have been pulling it out ever since- I generally approve of “pass along plants” but, know what you are getting and don’t plant invasives.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Edible Landscaping Field Trip Report

Edible Landscaping Field Trip [photos above: Che fruit, Pakistan pomegranate, hardy fuzzy kiwi]
On September 20, 2008, I made my second trip to Edible Landscaping (EL) in Afton, VA. My first trip there was over the summer and I was incredibly impressed by the passion shown by the people there and by the place itself. I consider myself to be a knowledgeable gardener, but I was introduced to some great plants I had never seen before, or varieties I had not experienced.

First off, it is a lovely place, at the foot of Afton Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley. Can’t get much lovelier than this! As you wind up the little hill, you pass an adorable pond and private home with little bark-covered outbuildings. When you get to the nursery, you see several large greenhouses, which you quickly learn are stuffed with seedlings.

The first plants I noticed were figs. EL has a nice collection of fig varieties, not just the brown turkey that is grown widely here (thought I love my brown turkeys, don’t get me wrong!) I show several photos in the blog. Two unusual and lovely figs grown here are LSU Purple and a green variety, Conadria. They also have hardier varieties, including Hardy Chicago. Figs are nutritious, taste great and the lovely leaves make it a great landscape plant.

An oddity I encountered at E.L. was Che fruit. The fruit grows right on the branches of the tree, in clusters. It looks like a cross between a raspberry and strawberry, but tastes like neither. It is small, but has a crisp bite similar to an apple, with apple and kiwi flavors. I need a few more acres! I would love to grow this fruit!

I usually don’t care for Asian pears, one of the few fruits I’ve met and have not liked. But one variety they have, Shinko, is great- not too perfumey, good crisp bite, nice flavor. The plant is lovely, with the golden bronze pears. I would plant this if I had the room!

Paw paws are an under appreciated fruit. They are native to our country, relatively pest and disease free, and, according to Pierre at EL, if the leader is cut, the tree stays within bounds (or it can get 40 feet tall). The fruit is oblong and green, with cream flesh and large seeds in the center, and earns its nickname “banana custard.” It has a sweet, banana-like flavor, though it not at all cloying.

One of the most exciting plants was the kiwi. EL has several varieties, including a hardy version of the large fuzzy kiwi, Saanichton. This plant produces kiwis similar to the large, fuzzy ones you buy at the grocery. It does need some time past our frost date to soften, so is picked unripe. I have one on my counter that I got at EL and it is still not ripe, about 2 weeks later. They also carry the small, hardy kiwi (Issai among others) that is smaller and smooth and tastes just as good as his bigger cousin, and will ripen in season.

There are so many other plants to write about- the green tea camellia, rose hips, passion flower, fragrant hops, pomegranate, persimmon, all sorts of berries, but you just might have to take a trip yourself to experience these wonders! Visit EL at http://www.ediblelandscaping.com/

Monday, September 22, 2008

Eggplant Eggplant!

Eggplant (and a little organic philosophy thrown in)
The time of year I write this (September) is not the time to plant eggplant, but it is the time to enjoy those wonderful vegetables (a botanical fruit) before we lose the plants to frost. I go through phases with my devotion to particular vegetables, but my current love is eggplant. Some of the advice I am going to give here can apply to other plants in this genus (solanum), such as tomatoes and peppers, and eggplants should also be grown in rotation with them (and potatoes) in an organic garden. (I will write an entry on rotation soon). Eggplants come in a variety of colors and shapes, from little round white ones to narrow green ones, to narrow lavender to the large, deep purple globe eggplants we see in the stores (though it is more of a tear drop shape than a globe). I have posted a photo of some of my end-of-season (read “a little battle scarred from bugs, but still delicious”) eggplants. I tried two new varieties this year, the green and the white, as my local garden center first ran out of the traditional purple ones (and the seeds I had started failed this year). As I wrote, eggplants can be lavender, purple or striped and are lovely in and out of the garden.

Eggplants love hot weather and a typical mistake is to set them out too early in the spring. If I do have an urge to set them out earlier than mid-May, I make sure I use a dark mulch (landscape fabric) and cover them with floating row covers, which increase heat. The row covers are also important to help combat flea beetles. Flew beetles (tiny black beetles) are the worst pest on eggplant I have here in central Virginia (and I had them as a problem when I lived in the mid-west too). One day your eggplant looks fine, the next day the leaves are riddled with tiny holes. Flea beetles seem to multiply fast and can destroy small, young seedlings quickly. The row covers keep the beetles off the plant until it is big enough to survive and produce fruit in spite of the bugs. Remember, part of the philosophy of organic gardening is to figure out the least problematic way to defeat or control a pest. Control is a key word here- I don’t kill all the flea beetles (though you can learn how to mash them between thumb and plant leaf before they jump-like their namesake, fleas, they are good jumpers-but mashing them to get good control them is a twice per day activity) (rotation, mentioned earlier is another way to control pests). I use lengths of an old garden hose, stick unto the ground with sticks inside to hold them up to support the row cover, and I weigh it down with rocks or bricks. It is very effective at control. I also use cutworm collars around the base of newly planted eggplants (cardboard toilet paper tubes, pressed into the soil) to stop cutworms from wrapping around the base of the plant and snipping it off near the ground (I use this for other transplants too).

In my experience, eggplants like rich soil, full sun and lots of water, but with good drainage. At the time they begin to flower, remove the row covers (and save it for next year- it isn’t cheap and can be patched to last a few more seasons) and let the pollination begin. I fertilize a few times each season with liquid fish emulsion and vermicompost or compost tea.

Eggplants are best young, before they have gotten bitter, seedy or woody. Some old time recipes recommend you soak your peeled and sliced eggplant in salt water to draw out the bitterness, but this is unnecessary with young eggplant. I love eggplant oven roasted with garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt, sautéed with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and fresh herbs over pasta and in baba ganooj.

Any questions? J

Friday, September 12, 2008


Two Raspberries I Know and Love
I did not have my first fresh raspberry until I was an adult. Not that I was fruit deprived as a child, but raspberries were then (and are now) too fragile to be readily shipped and stored for any time in transit or at the market. I bought my first, expensive, fresh raspberries at the grocery store, in their plastic, clamshell container. They were very large, plump, red… and absolutely tasteless. Not being terribly sophisticated with real foods at the time, I though this was how all raspberries must taste. It was not until year later that I picked my first wild blackberry and was amazed at the explosion of taste in my mouth. Not long after, I picked and ate my first fresh raspberry and it was love! I figured it out then (dope slap), to get good raspberries, you had to grow them.

I did some research, mostly thanks to Organic Gardening magazine and learned about raspberries. The fall before I planted them, I covered over the grass in an area of the garden near the edge. When the grass was dead in later fall (our family is very good at killing grass), I dug the area up and amended it with some wonderful compost I had been saving for this special job.

In late winter I ordered 20 canes of Nova raspberry from Indiana Berry farm (see resources on the blog). Nova was listed as being a disease-resistant cultivar and bore fruit for two seasons, a large June crop and a later fall one. In spring, I covered the area with a weed barrier cloth. The canes looked like sticks with a few roots when they arrived. I spaced them evenly, according to the directions, planted them into holes cut in the weed barrier fabric, staked each one with a thin bamboo cane and mulched. I pounded in some green metal fence posts around the bed and strung wire along them to contain the 4 foot wide bed and keep the canes mostly upright. Canes will send underground runners outside the area you define, so you will need to keep them well pruned to prevent them invading other areas. Boy did they take off and produced a small fall crop that year, and lots of raspberries every year since. Their maintenance needs are slight- cut off all canes that bore fruit and top dress with compost or aged manure. I think they may need a boost this year (their 5th or 6th year of bearing fruit) with granular rock phosphate to improve spring flowering, and fruit set, as the spring crop was lighter this year than usual, though we are getting more fall berries than usual (this is September 10 in central VA). Nova is hardy and productive and the berries are delicious and great for eating fresh or made into jam, pie, cobbler or crisps.

The other raspberry I know and love is the Fall Gold raspberry. I wanted to extend the raspberry season and fall gold produces its large flush of fruit in August and September. It was not as quickly productive for me as the Nova- I threatened it last fall with annihilation if I didn’t get a whole lot more fruit and that did the trick!- but it was very productive this fall. The last several autumns have been very dry around here and I think I’ve figured out that, if I water consistently in August in September, the Fall Gold will produce well. There is still some amount of fruit that does not set, more than the Nova, but we got a good yield so far. The berries are more fragrant and “perfumey” than the Nova, but I prefer them (though my husband prefers the flavor of Nova). They make the best fruit cobbler. I planted them and maintain them the same as the Nova, though all the Fall Gold canes get cut down in fall.

Raspberries should not be grown near blackberries. Blackberry brambles carry a disease that will kill raspberry canes. You need a 150 to 200 foot buffer between them. Before you plant raspberry canes, check for wild blackberry plants in your yard and remove them. Raspberries need some sun, though can tolerate a daily dose of shade (some say shade improves the flavor). Japanese beetles and stink bugs can be a problem for bramble fruits, but I either ignore them or hand pick them and dump them into a jar of warm, soapy water.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


I currently use three methods of composting, five in my lifetime: sheet composting, pile composting, pit composting, compost tumbling and vermicomposting. Compost is the lifeblood of the organic garden (or maybe that is water and the compost is the muscle? Confusing my metaphors here). Anyway an important goal of the organic gardener is to have soil that is rich in organic matter. Have you ever dug down into the soil of a northern hardwood forest? You will see layers of absolutely beautiful soil, leaves and other matter in different stages of decomposition. What you want in your organic garden is loose, rich soil full of organic matter.

What is organic matter? Most anything from plant sources can break down in garden soil and enrich it. You can buy various products, from composted manure to peat moss, but each of these has drawbacks (the bagged cow manure may not be organic and peat moss is a non-renewable material-if I use peat, I use is sparingly). Compost can consist of non-meat kitchen scraps (including eggshells, used tea and coffee grounds, vegetable and plant trimmings) layered with things like grass clippings, farm animal manure or leaves. I used to worry about getting the brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) balance right, but I find if I use kitchen scraps and grass clippings, plus perhaps a load of free, used coffee grounds from a coffee shop and maybe some leaves, I get a good compost that breaks down fairly quickly. If your compost pit is warm to the touch after a few days, it is breaking down well. If not, add more green matter or coffee grounds (which are high in nitrogen). Never add meat, bones, diary products or oils (fish heads, shrimp shells, etc can be added in small amounts, though neighborhood cats might be attracted to them).

Types of Composting
Sheet composting: consists of either spreading out grass, leaves and kitchen scraps right on the bed you are going to plant, or digging it in, and giving some time for it to decompose. In this case, you let it break down on its own, no turning. Some people like to cover the area with wet newspaper or other cover to help breakdown and avoid an unsightly area. I prefer to cover with a few shovelfuls of soil.

Pile and pit composting: are basically the same thing, either you place compostables in a pile above ground, surrounded by some sort of fencing, or in a pit. The pits tends to stay warmer in the winter, but can flood in a heavy rain. I have three pits, on the outer edge of my vegetable garden. Many people recommend that you have three pits- one to put new materials in, one that is in the process of aging and one of finished compost…or the third to easily turn the compost, by dumping the contents of one pile or pit into the other, which mixes it up and aerates it.

Compost barrel: Years ago I bought a type of composter that is basically a round drum on a stand that rotates. I had terrible luck with it, could not get it to heat up adequately and it eventually rusted out. It was very expensive (it was a gift) and I would not do that again.

Vermicomposting: this is my current favorite type of composting. It is basically using worms to digest vegetable and fruit scraps. It can be done in a simple plastic bin, drilled to let moisture escape (into buckets-it is a terrific liquid fertilizer!). One side of the bin holds shredded newspaper and vegetable/fruit scraps and the worms. It is kept moist (not wet). When the worms digest all the vegetative matter, you simply put more damp shredded newspaper and new vegetative matter into the other side of the bin, right against the finished worm compost. The worms migrate to the fresh stuff, leaving wonderful worm castings- a great fertilizer. I have a composter built specifically for worms and it is pictured in this entry. It is my current favorite. It makes a great liquid fertilizer- I swear it has brought plants back from the brink! Worm bins or composters need to be kept in a shed, garage or other protected area. I believe that you cannot use regular garden worms for this type of composter; you will need to buy composting worms.

Turning the compost: Some people feel that compost piles can be static, that is, never turned and they will break down eventually. This is true, but it could become anaerobic if not enough oxygen is present (and that smells bad!). Also, turned compost breaks down much more quickly and I highly recommend it.

Whatever you do, remember the soil!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Peaches: Can you grow them organically?

Peaches: Can you grow them organically?
Peaches are one of my favorite fruits. When I moved to central Virginia I decided to give them a try. I got a pamphlet from the Ag Extension agent that suggested it was not possible to grow peaches organically in this area. Is this true? Yes and no. Emboldened by an article in Organic Gardening magazine (Rodale Press), I ordered 4 peach trees, 2 Red Haven and 2 Elberta. They seemed to be sturdy trees with the least problems with disease. I planted them in garden soil amended with compost and soaked peat moss (always soak your peat moss in water before you use it, otherwise it can act as a wick and dry out the roots of whatever you are planting). I fertilized with a granulated organic fruit tree fertilizer.

The peaches grew well and flowered in their third year. We got a good crop in terms of volume, but they were far from perfect. Their skins were mottled (no problem if you peel them) and they had some peach borer damage, which caused some secondary fungus. What this meant in practice was that 2/3 to ¾ of each peach (for the most part) was edible (and delicious). They were fine for fresh eating (washed, peeled and sliced, not “out of hand” eating- you might encounter a bad spot or little critter) and even better for making jam, canning in syrup and dehydrating. The other 1/3 to ¼ had to be pitched, but we still had lots.

The next year I discovered Surround, a wet-able, spray-on clay. It prevents fruit moths from laying eggs in the fruit if sprayed on from blossom drop through the season end (it is thought that they don’t like the grit). You have to re-spray after a significant rain. It improved the quality of the peaches immensely! The peaches were bigger, less blemished and had far fewer borers and rot. The trees did look a little ghostly, though, but it was worth it. Edible Landscaping, a plant nursery in Afton, VA, exclusively uses Surround on their fruit trees and recommend it highly.

This season (’08) was tough. It threatened rain as frequently and I decided to spray Surround, so I did not keep the peaches consistently covered with the stuff. The peach trees set out so much fruit that we had to thin thousands of peaches off the trees. The quality was not as good as year two, but we still had lots of peach pies and have lots of canned, frozen and dried peaches, enough to go through the winter.

So, is growing peaches organically here in Central VA impossible? Yes, if you want unblemished and perfectly formed fruit. But unblemished fruit comes at a cost to my family’s health, and the health of the environment, through the use of pesticides, fungicides and I-don’t-know-what-all-a-cides! (Many people do not know that some of these chemicals, derived from stocks of nerve gas left over from WWII, were never thoroughly tested for long-term safety to humans). But if you want organic, tasty peaches that you can eat fresh, cook with, can and make jam from, the answer is NO, it is NOT impossible!!

One of my favorite "critter control" methods for peaches and other fruit- squirrels LOVE fruit, but having a dog who loves to chase critters is the best squirrel control programs I know of! My "critter ridder" photo is also posted!

Next year I plan to use Surround more consistently, along with dormant oil spray and organic fungicides (plus I promise to do a better job thinning the peaches!). Look for a post of the outcome sometime in July ’09!

Monday, August 25, 2008


Welcome to my blog, Central Virginia Organic Gardener! I am Judy Thomas and I have been gardening for 36 years (yes, I was young when I started). I am passionate about gardening, even on my 1/2 acre suburban lot. I have a 2,000 square foot vegetable and fruit garden and a few thousand of flowers. Each week I will write an entry about a particular plant, or group of plants, that is interesting and useful in the Central VA organic garden. This photo is of my front walk in mid-summer-I planted flowers that attract my favorite creatures: hummingbirds (we see them several times a day in season), gold finches and butterflies. The photo on my profile is me with a wonderfully weird plant, a Sauromatum venosum, also called "Voodoo Lily" (I will write about this groups of oddballs soon!)