Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

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/