Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book review: The Virginia Gardener's Companion

Book Review: Williamson, Donna (2008). The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low-Maintenance Gardening in Virginia. Guilford, Conn: Globe Pequot.

Winter is a great time to read garden books (I know, not a new observation). I have lots of good garden books and don’t often indulge myself with a new one (unless it is borrowed from the library). But, in the interest of single-handedly helping the economy through self gifting, I recently purchased this book. It is becoming rare for me to find a garden book in which I actually learn something, but I did with this book. Perhaps this is because of the specific advice Williamson gives to gardeners in Virginia.

I learned a lot about soils, planting, berms and no-till gardening in this book. Her advice on pruning was spot on (I now believe I should not paint the wounds on a tree after pruning), especially her plea to be kind to crape myrtles and NOT prune them extensively (see my entry on this topic). Her faith in low-maintenance gardening was enlightening and fits my beliefs for the most part. I would recommend you read and remember her advice! (and read her mulch myths, for example: mulch does not really keep the soil moist). The only part of the book I did not like were her lists of plants- others have done this more extensively (see entry on the Southern Gardener’s Book of Lists).

I like it when a book stimulates my interest and sends me down a path of research and exploration. One thing I read that interested me was that I might be in an area with “beautiful” Pamukey soils, alluvial deposits from river flooding. Next time, I will tell you about my soil research, the verdict on my soil type and how you can do such a search yourself!

Happy gardening!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice! The winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, and longest night) is today, Dec. 21, 2009 at 12:47 EST. After today, the days will begin to lengthen, nights get shorter! Celebrate with lights! (I built my "snow altars" yesterday to celebrate- a pillar of snow, a "cave" carved out on top, with a lighted candle inside at dusk- will try to post a photo of one.)

Spring will come soon!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winter food, winter color

After gardening for 11 years in Indiana, I am still surprised at what is possible in the Virginia garden, even after 10 years of being here! Of course, we are two USDA zones south from Indiana (map courtesy of the US Arboretum). And, of course, more was possible in Indiana than I realized when I lived there (if Elliot Coleman can grow winter greens in Maine….!) However, to have salad greens, cooking greens and nasturtiums grown outside of a cold frame in December is quite a revelation (see quickie entry on Dec. 9 on my Thanksgiving salad). Another revelation to me is the color that lingers in the garden into December. Here are some photos of some colorful leaves and berries that are still in my garden on December 9 (Asian maple, American beautyberry, strawberry and bucket pond, eucalyptus).

The USDA map showed the section of Indiana in which we lived in pale blue, which is Zone 5A. In Virginia we live in the light pink Zone 7a. What a difference two zones make! Happy gardening!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Winter chill

My husband and I finally got to some outdoor tasks yesterday, 12/16/09. I had been busy with end of semester grading (I teach at a university part time), hosting Thanksgiving, and making preparations for Christmas and had neglected some of my winter chores. Well, I was inspired by a chill that is coming to central VA and the mid-Atlantic states this weekend! I checked that the cold frame and row tunnels were OK, built a new cover for my lettuce pallet bed (bamboo sticks in the ground supporting lengths of garden hose from an old, broken hose, covered in plastic, water bottles inside to warm in the sun) and used two old plastic bins from an old fridge to act as cold frames for some small chard. I also picked some arugula that was unprotected, and pulled some carrots (I love buried treasures like these!). My husband very thoroughly wrapped up a potted Japanese maple that is too heavy to move indoors to our garage and is in a ceramic pot (see photo above). It might not look beautiful, but burlap does melt into the visual landscape better than the colorful, flowered sheets I sometimes use! He also began clearing out the tomato bed, which will rotate to root crops next season (which will be here sooner than we think). Over the winter break from school, we will tackle pruning our fruit trees, so stayed 'tuned" for that...
Happy gardening and Happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wicked Plants: Book Review

Book review: “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities” by Amy Stewart, 2009, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (NC).

This is a cute book. It is a fun book. It was given to me by a lovely friend. It is not a book for the serious student of botany, but that is not its point: it is a good beach or by-the-fireside winter read for anyone, not just the botanically inclined. Amy Stewart has written on garden topics before and I enjoyed her book on the flower industry, “Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers,” as it was interesting and enlightening (I have not smelled a commercial, hothouse flower since I read it!) This wicked book is a breezy trip through some poisonous, intoxicating and downright irritating plants, from aconite (sometimes mistaken for horseradish root with deadly consequences) to yew (which can be deadly, or can be used as a chemotherapy drug, Taxol, reminding us that the difference between a medicine and poison is sometimes not the substance, but the dose). Stewart has entries on individual groups of plants, but also interesting entries on arrow poisons, deadly houseplants, fatal fungi and psychedelic plants. Her lists are neither detailed nor exhaustive- for example, she only lists a few noxious weeds in that entry. She wrote about the most interesting, or gruesome, plants to entertain and titillate, not to act as a reference point, and she achieves that goal well.

The etchings and pen and ink illustrations are lovely, though do not serve as field identification pictures. I enjoyed the illustrations, being a beginning pen-and-ink botanical illustrator (not for profit, just for fun!) Overall, a good book to get from your local library or bookstore for a few hours of reading pleasure.

Happy garden reading!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thanksgiving Salad

I wondered where this photo got to- this is the salad I made at Thanksgiving from garden ingredients- Yes, my nasturtiums were still producing flowers!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What was on your Thanksgiving table?

A great pleasure in my life is serving food from the garden to friends and family. On this year's Thanksgiving table were my home grown:
sweet potatoes
lettuce and arugula
Swiss chard and kale
Tomatoes-fresh (still ripening up) and dried-in the salad
Pumpkin-in pie, bread
Herbs (bay, basil, sage, chives)
Raspberries (frozen) in pie
Figs - in pumpkin bread
Pickled beets, pickles

We had too much food, so I have not yet made the Paw Paw cream pie (wild-gathered by a kind friend, not home grown). I will save that experiment for the Christmas holiday!

I did not have enough white potatoes, apples, or peaches to make deserts, so will have to plan accordingly next year!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sweet (Qualified) Success

Sweet (qualified) success

I wrote a while back about my vole problem, how the voles were eating my sweet potatoes- I described digging them up, to find beautiful potatoes, completely eaten from underneath! This year I planted my garnet sweet potato slips in a trench that I had first lined with hardware cloth (fencing) to keep the voles out. I dug down a foot or more, lined the trench (sides too) with hardware cloth and back filled it, mounding the amended soil over the top to make a raised bed. The slips grew well and…voila! When I harvested them the weekend before Thanksgiving, I had intact sweet potatoes. It was not an unqualified success, because I didn’t get a lot of sweet potatoes, and they varied in size from pretty small to large, but this was my first experiment and I planted only in a small bed. I will definitely use this method again next year, in a larger area and be better about feeding the plants to increase harvest. We will eat the tubers pictured above at our Thanksgiving feast!

Happy gardening!

Saturday, November 21, 2009



A few weeks ago, I discovered that I had been seduced and tricked by a garden catalog…again! It was not as bad as the year when I made three separate orders to respond to three separate bearded iris specials from the same grower, but I had the same symptoms: I blacked out, forgetting that I had ordered 100 daffodil bulbs (which is not a lot, per se, but I have over 1,000 already in the front yard and am running out of real estate); denial (I don’t really have a problem-see last parenthetical comment) and; obsessive thoughts and actions regarding plants (my family can tell you- take me to a music festival, and I comment on the eucalyptus or flower beds nearby; take me to Disney and all I see are the topiaries; take me to a fancy restaurant, and I talk about the potted herbs in the windows). So, I received 100 of Brent and Becky’s finest fragrant mix daffodil bulbs and have to scramble as to where to put them. Daff’s look best in big drifts, so I suspect we are going to lose another swathe of grass (we are very opinionated and hate grass)….but, instead of thinking myself out of another fix (and getting my husband to “enable” me by digging the trench) I need to go cold turkey. Cancel e-mail notifications of specials, take catalogs straight to recycling…. Is there a support group for this?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

If in doubt, rip it out

If in doubt, rip it out (OK, not the best title…it should be “If it’s not working, do something about it”, but that’s too long)

One of the hardest things for me to do as a gardener is to get rid of an underperforming plant. I tend to let the plant piddle along, putting out a few leaves, flowers or fruit. I hope that something will make it “perk up,” all the while giving it water, fertilizer, compost. But I have learned that if a plant is underperforming it is:

  1. Not a good plant for the condition it is in- soil, sun, moisture, competition in the root zone, neighboring plants that are bad for it.
  2. Perhaps too fussy a plant, either for your conditions or just overall (like hybrid tea roses- I just will not grow them).
  3. Maybe diseased? Some diseases plant vigor and sometimes I cannot figure out what they have!

I try not to let plants linger (though there is a dicentra, or bleeding heart, I have right now that is puny, while its neighbor just a few feet away- same plant, same cultivar, planted in the same way at the same time- is much more vigorous and send out loads of blooms in season. I know I need to pull it out, and put something else there). Plants that are small for their variety, spindly, yellowing, and look bad make that area of your garden look bad, too.

Sometimes transplanting will do the trick. I had a sorry looking Japanese maple (from the $1 bin at a botanical garden plant sale) that did poorly in one area, but exploded in growth and beauty when I moved it to a more desirable location. I recently read about a gardener who, though they live in the same area I do, cannot get her fig to overwinter- that is probably a simple location problem (the fig needs to be on the south side of the property, near the house for those few extra degrees of winter protection and shelter from the wind-it makes a difference).

Another example is strawberries. Heritage strawberries just do not like my garden, but Honeoye do. I pulled out the whole bed of Heritage, replanted with Honeoye and they produced very well.

So, if the plant has consistently underperformed and you have tried everything you can think of, asked advice and given it time, it is time to say good bye. (Competitive rose growers will often lay a garden spade at the foot for a poorly growing rose bush and leave it there for a few weeks as a warning to the plant to get growing!)

Happy Gardening!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More veggie cookin'

If you do all but the most minimal vegetable gardening, you will have to figure out what to do with all that you produce. One easy vegetable (actually a fruit, like many food we call vegetables) to process is winter squash (pumpkins, hubbards, crook neck, turban, delicata, etc). I used to follow the instructions from an old cookbook to process winter squash and make it into puree- cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, cut off the skin and simmer in water or steam, then puree it. Then I found out about roasting-cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, rub with olive oil, place cut side down on a cookie sheet and roast at 375-400 until soft. These methods are a bit difficult with a large and heavy shelled winter squash, however. Recently I heard about the easiest method of all, and the one that produces the best cooked squash. Wash the squash, take off the stem, poke a few holes in it near the top and roast it whole at 400 degrees in a roasting pan until soft. Remove it from the oven, let it cool, cut in half and easily scoop out the flesh and seeds. You can mash it by hand or puree it in a food mill, food processor or blender. This does take a longer than roasting a cut up squash, but is easier and results in a dense flesh that has cooked in its own juices, producing the most flavorful squash I have ever had. I was able roast whole a pretty large cheese wheel pumpkin (about 3 times the size of the largest one in the photo, maybe 20 lbs- in the photo are two small "fairy tale"-type pumpkins I grew, that are also now cooked and frozen...and some pumpkin pecan pancakes.). Now I have a lot of puree for pie, bread, soup, and eating as a side veggie. And I might even make a bit of pumpkin butter.
Happy gardening! And eating!

Friday, November 6, 2009


Tonight is the first frost/freeze warning for the central VA area! Harvest any remaining above ground veggies (carrots and others underground can take frost) and tender herbs; take in any cuttings of plants you want to overwinter indoors (ornamental sweet potato, pineapple sage, passion flowers, coleus, geraniums [geranium cuttings need to be cured in air overnight, then put in water] and; take in any houseplants you had summering outside. Don't forgot to pick and bring tender flowers into the house to enjoy for a few more days! They may be gone tomorrow!

Happy brrrr gardening!

Sunday, November 1, 2009


If you follow this blog, you know that I am sort of crazy about greens (this week’s photo is what I harvested this weekend, which included some lovely and tasty nasturtium blossoms and a few pimento peppers). This is the time of the year to plant and harvest great greens in central VA. I started planting some greens in August, and planted more every few weeks, up to a few days ago. I will continue to plant them every few weeks into December, maybe later. Of course, my greatest greens triumph this fall is arugula, which volunteered.

So, what am I planting? Pinetree Gardens winter lettuce mix and their standard lettuce mix, mustard greens, kale and chard. The plants look healthy, large and leafy and we have been harvesting them for about a month. It is not too late to plant more, especially if you can provide a little winter protection, like a clear, plastic sheeting tunnel, a cold frame or even a cloche for individual plants, made from a plastic soda bottle or milk jug (cut the bottom not all the way off, using the outwardly folded, but still attached, bottom to anchor the bottle in the soil with a landscape pin. Cover individual lettuces with the bottle cloche, making sure the cap is off. This will extend your season significantly).

What do I do with these greens? 1. I braise them in a heavy-bottomed pan: heat olive oil, add greens, garlic, chopped onions and ¼ cup stock, wine or balsamic vinegar. Put on the lid and cook until the greens wilt (you can caramelize the onions first, then add the greens, garlic and liquid for a different flavor). You can vary this by adding shredded carrot, mushrooms, celery. 2. Tonight I made orichette pasta by hand (you can use store bought). I took a glass baking dish, put about 1 T olive oil in it and put it in a warm oven. I sited onions, garlic, herbs and dried tomatoes (from the garden too!) in olive oil in a pan on the stove top. When that was done, I took roughly torn chard and arugula, put in the glass baking dish, added the onion mix, the cooked pasta and topped it with grated Parmesan cheese. I let the cheese melt and warm through-YUM! 3. I will often chop the greens and add them to soups near the end of cooking, finely chop them and put them under the tomato sauce on a home-made pizza, eat them in a salad, and sauté them and fold them into an omelet with cheese.

Happy gardening! And eating!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fall color

(Photos: American beautyberry, daisy-flowered mum, bi-colored French marigold, crape myrtle)
This is a great time to go around your yard and garden and see what places have fall color and what places need more fall color (yes there is lots of fall color in the trees, like my lovely crape myrtles turning golden yellow, but you need to plan for fall color in the flower garden). It is also a good time of year to visit plant nurseries and botanical gardens to see what is dazzling in the fall. Last time I wrote about my beautiful pineapple sage, and how it is now giving a gorgeous burst of red bloom in the garden, when many plants are slowing down for the inevitable first frost. One plant I have fallen in love with, that gives exotic fall color, yet is a Virginia native, is Callicarpa virginica or American Beautyberry. It is an inconspicuous plant most of the year with small, unremarkable flowers and leaves. But in the fall, as its berries ripen to a startling light purple to mauve- it is a show stopper! It is an incredibly easy shrub, not needing much special by the way of soil conditions and I have never fertilized mine. I highly recommend this plant!

Mums are another reliable source of fall color and cuttings for the house. I prefer bi-colored and daisy-flowered mums (I like bi-colored anything...). I trim them back until June, then let them get just a little bit rangy and less controlled than plants trimmed to a later date in the summer- I think they look more natural in the garden this way. Here in central VA, I have had had good luck planting even what are considered "florists" mums, after I have enjoyed them in the house for a bit. Our climate is easy on these plants, but hardy mums would be a better choice further north.

Some annuals really put their heart into blooming as the days get colder and shorter, like the French marigold that volunteer in my veg garden every year. Another easy to care for plant, that I also recommend. Oh, I know it is common and not trendy, but it is sturdy, reliable, pretty all season and self-sows...and is giving a burst of bloom right now!

So, spend some time walking the yard and plant nurseries and plan for fall color next year. When spring comes, you will be ready to start planting!

Happy gardening!

Monday, October 19, 2009


(One of two entries for this date)
It is such a lovely and sad time of the year. That fevered springtime impatience to get into the garden is gone, the flushes of new green growth have given way to tired and sagging plants that want to sleep or die, leaving seeds or roots in the ground for next season. The weeks or months of picking and processing are over- we have a closet full of cases of home-canned foods, salsa, tomatoes, peaches, jams, pickles, and dried foods, mostly fruits. Some fall planting awaits, but it is much more quiet and less hectic than the spring, more contemplative and fits the time of year where the nights are getting longer, the days shorter. Even the nighttime and morning constellations of stars are shifting, Orion the Hunter hangs just above my driveway now in the early morning darkness…the Harvest Moon and the Hunters Moon are approaching…and the ground is dewy in the morning and the air damp and cool. The crickets are still chirping to let you knew it is still barely, just barely summer, but their rhythm has changed, languorous and slow, as if they know winter is coming. And the hummingbirds must leave very soon, on their journey to far-flung places in South America. Then add into the mix the school buses coming down the street, the ever taller and more mature kids in their backpacks and new sneakers walking toward their stops, the acorns are falling, the dry and dusty leaves on the trees are just starting to turn color. That’s fall…and it reminds me so strongly of all the cycles we live in and through and with…

Happy gardening!

Book Review: "Edible"

Book review “Edible”

[photo caption: Edible indeed- a papaya in full fruit at the US Botanic gardens, Washington, DC].

I received the book “Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants” (2008, National Geographic, Washington, DC) for my birthday this year. I have a strong interest in anything botanical (duh) and want to learn more about the world’s food crops, and plants used by certain groups, for specific cultural practices, as well as famine foods, those that sustain people in tough times. I enjoyed this book, though it left me with the feeling I have after I read an issue of National Geographic: excited by visually stunning photographs, but bored by the prose. I find it a rare National Geographic writer who can grab your attention, make you sit up and take notice and challenge your thinking…and that’s too bad, when you have the whole world as your subject matter. The other disappointing aspect of the book is that not all entries have an accompanying photograph! This is odd given the NG’s passion for excellent photography. I want to know what a nance or white sapote or an egg fruit looks like! They do give verbal descriptions, but one lesson of NG is that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ (sorry for the cliche´). Maybe I am being too demanding, but an illustrated guide should have illustrations.

The book starts with a brief history of plants being turned into food, trade and conquest, and the “green future.” Then it is divided into sections on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, herbs, spices, beverage plants and sugars.

So, would I welcome this book again? Yes, I would. I am happy to have it (and I did read it cover to cover). If I were the editor would I make some changes? Yes, indeed.

Happy garden reading!

Monday, October 12, 2009


[Photo: pink amaryllis at the US Botanic Garden in DC]
It is just about that time of year to start forcing your amaryllis (you know, those lush, tropical flowers in pinks, whites and reds we see around Christmas time). I find it a deep pleasure to have something blooming indoors in the winter and have forced amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus for years. They are really easy to grow and you do not need a green thumb to do so.

Pick out an amaryllis that you like. I usually go to a plant nursery, a botanical garden gift shop or order one line, but you can get decent bulbs at chain discount stores (not the fanciest varieties, but pretty all the same- and they come with a pot, planting medium and instructions!). Pot the bulb so that the top third of the bulb is above the soil. This ensures that no water placed on the surface of the soil will go down into the bulb's neck and rot the bulb. You can use a general purpose bulb fertilizer under the bulb, but I never do this. Put a stake in the pot at planting time- some flowers are so large they may flop without support (if they do, you can just cut them off and enjoy them as a cut flower, though they won’t last as long). Water thoroughly this one time, then water sparingly about once per week, until the flower bud shoots up- then water once the top inch of soil is dry, say ever 3-4 days. Keep the plant at room temperature (it does not like the cold). You will be rewarded with a lovely bloom!

After bloom, I cut back the flower stalk and leave the plant inside, watering and fertilizing with an organic fertilizer occasionally. After the first frost, the plants live on my porch, gathering sunshine and building up the bulb. In early September, I cut back the leaves to about an inch, and tuck the pots under boxes in my garage to mimic dormancy-no water at this time! Around mid to late October, I begin bringing some of them inside to start forcing them (usually 6 to 8 weeks before you wan them to bloom) and I stagger the dates I start forcing, to have a lovely blooming plant through much of the winter (I have about 10 currently and recently ordered 3 more).

If your bulb does not produce flowers one season, it may need another season outside to build the bulb back up. Don’t give up! I have had plants like these successfully re-bloom the next season.

Happy gardening!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pineapple sage

Pineapple Sage

I had an acquaintance in college nicknamed "Bunny" Rosen (her real name was Bernice, her last name was not really Rosen). Now Bunny was a perfectly nice person (and we can overlook the anti-feminist implications of her name)…and a party girl. Bunny loved music, but had a real problem with discrimination, that is, evaluating and judging music. Hence, every piece of music was her “favorite.” “That’s my favorite song” she would say to Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” “That’s my favorite song” she would shout to a Michael Jackson tune. “Favorite song” to “Desperado…,” to Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” to the Beatles “Yellow Submarine.” So, occasionally we would play a trick on Bunny, just to hear her shout “That's my favorite song” to any of Alvin and The Chipmunks oeuvre or to Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.” Never failed...

I am writing today to confess: I am Bunny Rosen. I am the Bunny Rosen of plants. I have rarely met a plant I did not like (aside from the obvious weeds and poison ivy, though I only get a mild rash from the latter). OK, Mahonia (Oregon grape) is not a favorite, but it can work in the right place. Boxwood? Sorry about the “very Richmond” sacrilege here, but I am not over fond of boxwood, but, again, it can look good in the right place. Roses? Pretty, but too fussy for me. That’s about it- a mild negativity toward a few plants, but not much.

So, in an act of Bunny Rosenhood, I am writing an entry on a second "ornamental of the year!" I recently wrote about African Blue Basil and this is about another herb- a salvia (I loooove that plant!), Pineapple Sage. It is a perennial to zone 8 (not here) but I am going to root some cuttings to overwinter in my house (along with a lot of other cuttings and 4 large banana plants). You do have to wait a long time for the bright red, gorgeous flowers, but it blooms at the end of September when many plants are done blooming in the VA garden. It has a heady pineapple scent and attracts and feeds those ruby-throated hummingbirds who are on their migratory way down south just as it blooms. It can grow to be a large plant, a few feet tall in one season, and is stunning, in a small-flower way.

This story reminds me of a preference I have for the ephemeral. In this day and age, of the instant gratification of fast food, out-of-season produce available year round and ordering anything off the internet to be delivered overnight, I prefer seasonality and sometimes just having to wait (not that all aspects of instant gratification are bad, it is just a matter, to me, of balance). I like it that peaches are only good in the summer, that watermelon is not on the Thanksgiving menu, and that those first spring greens are a March epiphany. I like that my flowers come and go and sometimes last only one day…and I like catching and appreciating them during that short window. Reminds me to live…..

Happy gardening!

PS This week’s photos are by my son who has a science blog at:


Monday, September 28, 2009



I am reaping the rewards of being lazy! It is a great kind of reward to get. Years ago, I discovered (by accident) if I did not pull out my arugula, it set seed and sowed itself, germinating at the perfect time in the fall- when it was ready, not when I planted it. I got lovely fall arugula...indeed, it was nicer arugula than I usually got when I planted it in the fall (see an example in the photo above).

I like frisee, a type of bitter salad green, akin to endive. So, last year I also let it set seeds (bonus: nice blue, chickory-like flowers) and, voila I had fall frisee and frisee in the spring too. OK, it is not always where I intend it to be, sometimes growing in the path. So I either transplant it, or avoid that part of the path.

I do this now with other plants, usually letting at least one plant set seed. These include cilantro, lemon and lime basil, kale, mustard, petunias, sunflowers, marigolds and parsley (this is a biannual, so it sets seed its second year). Seeds I do not let grow include tomato (I get too many seedlings and the disease-resistant hybrids I tend to use do not come true from their seed) and any plant where setting seed will take away from the fruit or veg I want to eat (alliums, beets, carrots-also supposed to seed in the second year, but sometimes tries to do it in the first year). I have even let pumpkin vines snake out of the compost heap, but you never know what you are going to get- one year it was a lot of tiny, ornamental pumpkins, another year, small pie pumpkins.

One helpful skill to have is the ability to recognize desirable versus undesirable seedlings. This came to me naturally over the years, as I sowed seeds and observed what the seedlings looked like. This way, you can remove competing weeds before they get big, and care for the edible plants you want.

So, this is one case where laziness is a good gardening technique!

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Happy Autumnal Equinox!
Frolic in the leaves!
There is still plenty of gardening to do!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

African Blue Basil

African Blue Basil

My favorite ornamental plant this summer ‘09 is the African Blue Basil (Ocimum ‘African Blue’). I bought it as a tiny plant, on a whim at the Ginter Botanical Garden plant sale in the spring. It is not really a culinary basil, as it tastes a bit too much like camphor - the plant has a sweet camphor scent (some sources say it can be used for cooking, but I disagree). However, it is a lovely, trouble-free ornamental for the sunny garden patch. My plant grew into a large bush over a few months, attracting many bees once the flowers began to open (and remember we are currently in a bee crisis, with colony collapse disorder, so we need to grow plants that keep these and other pollinators happy!). The leaves of the plant are green, veined with bluish purple, and the flowers are purple (and great in floral arrangements). The plant has continuously produced flowers with minimal cutting back and should do so until the first frost (it is the most cold tolerant of the basils). As a hybrid, the plant does not form true seed. So to propagate it, you will need to take cuttings. I highly recommend this ornamental- it is a pleasure!

Happy gardening!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wisteria pruning


September is an excellent time to prune your American wisteria (frutescens or macrostachys) (if you have had reliable bloom each year for several years, it is probably an American wisteria. Or if you notice that it blooms on "new wood" or new growth, it is American, not Asian). This is one of the exceptions to the “don’t prune in the fall” rule. Pruning wisteria now will allow for better bloom next year, plus it will keep this rampant grower in check. My wisteria did not bloom much this spring, then gave off blooms in fits as starts (and small amounts) this summer. So prune it we did. Or rather, I armed my 13 year old with pruning shears, saws and instructions…and he did a great job! (thirteen year old boys are great on “seek and destroy” missions!).

The instructions to prune a wisteria are to cut back each vine from tip to 3 feet or more back into the mass. Cut off any broken, damaged or diseased vines too (though not much seems to bother this plant). If your wisteria is near a building, cut off any vine that contacts the building. Wisteria vines will worm their way under soffits, shingles, around decks, fences and downspouts…and will tear them off over time! The best place to put a wisteria is away from the house. If your wisteria, like mine, was starting to reach into the neighbors tree, cut that off too. Wisteria will form a very thick, treelike and hard-to-cut trunk over time and needs strong support.

As you can see by my “after” photo above, I planted my wisteria to take over the play yard in our back yard. By the time it is engulfed, my son (and my nephews and niece) will have outgrown the swings. Before pruning, we could not see the yellow side nor one of the swings, so trimming back gave us another year of use of the swing set.

One fun thing I did with the trimmings is make several wreathes and the swag surrounding my fireplace (in the photo). I am drying other vines and flowers (and I actually ordered some cool dried flowers on line) to make up the wreathes and swag. I will keep a wreathe, give some as gifts and will have the swag ready for Thanksgiving (when I host more people that ever before!). I hate to waste stuff as much as I love to collect botanical materials.

(One historical note: the wisteria is named after Caspar Wistar and should be called "wistaria", but for a typographical error!)

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Landscape fabric

Landscape fabric versus newspaper

[photo: My front walk bed: no worries, not landscape fabric either!)

I used to LOVE the idea of using landscape fabric under most everything, especially ornamental flower beds, but also under perennial vegetable and fruit plantings. I thought it especially good for raspberries and strawberries. But the love affair is slowly eroding. Organic Gardening magazine wrote a short article suggesting that landscape fabric, while it does allow the transfer of water and some water-soluble nutrients, blocks the transfer of organic matter or humus to the root zone. Plants, especially perennials, need to have a constant and steady supply of organic matter to make up for what is taken up or broken down. So, soil that has been under landscape fabric for years is soil that gets depleted.

Another problem is when you try to divide perennials or weed perennial beds were the roots have snaked in and out of the landscape fabric. A nightmare! It requires quite a bit of muscle to deal with this problem, though the landscape fabric may have helpfully suppressed weeds for a year or two.

A third problem is that voles and moles love landscape fabric, they even shred it to line their nests! Of course, moles and voles love to live under mulched areas too….

There are a few areas where I would still use landscape fabric, for example, in paths that I cover heavily with mulch and where perennial weeds are not a big problem. I might use it for one season in veggie or annual beds, where the soil has recently been enriched- this suppresses weeds and some diseases. I guess what I will use more in the future is thick, wet newspaper under mulch and old fashioned elbow grease to pull out them thar weeds!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pallet garden

I have the most tolerant of husbands, who, thank goodness, does not care one whit about how nice the lawn looks (see photo of my pallet garden bed above). I built a cucumber bed out of an old shipping pallet, based on an idea provided by my sis-in-law. My thinking was that pallets are made of cheap, raw wood, I have several of them from having various bricks and mulches delivered and I even see them in “free” piles from time to time. But then I thought that maybe this was not a good use. Several sources said they were indeed raw wood, but others warned they might be treated and not suitable for vegetable beds (as chemicals can leach into the soil). Well, I think I go the definitive answer from Don Schmidt, Illinois State University, from his “Dean of Green” radio segment and pod cast (available for free on I-tunes). Or go to: http://www.wglt.org/podcasts/Dean_of_Green.xml

The Dean of Green reported that very few international (not domestic) shipping pallets are treated, and then they are treated with either heat or methyl bromide (‘we don’t want no more stinking Emerald Ash Borers to come into the country on shipping pallets!’), which he felt was acceptable for garden use. There are a few caveats, though:

1. They will only least a few seasons as they are raw wood (but they are free!)

2. They are small, but can be good starter frames for raised beds (and they are free!)

3. Only use ones to which you have legitimate access (i.e. free ones or ones you got materials shipped on), because reusing them is their best destiny (until they show up in that free pile!)

4. You might want to remove some of the top and bottom slats to free up soil surface (and they are free!)

So, this fall I will create a few more beds for fall greens and use the area for tomatoes in the future.

Happy Gardening!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Happy birthday, blog!

Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday, dear blog!
Happy birthday to you!

I started blogging one year ago! What fun it has been! I have gotten to communicate with some interesting gardeners and I have learned a lot.

I started this blog with figs, and I will address a few more things about figs in this one year birthday entry. Figs are sorely underused in the mid-Atlantic landscape. They are easy, virtually pest free and produce an abundant crop, with little care (see that first entry). Mike McGrath (former editor of Organic Gardening and current host of WHYY's "You Bet Your Garden") is really down on traditional fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, cherries) because of their great care needs. Now, I would not discourage anyone from trying these fruit trees (they give me alot of pleasure and fruit), but he is right that other fruits are much easier to care for- these include raspberries, strawberries and blueberries AND figs! So, this fall, think about planting a fig or two. They are hardy, with some winter protection the first few years in VA, and I have seen them as far north as northern New Jersey.

Oh, the photo above is a mutant fig from this season- it was delicious!

Happy gardening!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cornelian Cherry

Neat, but Messy, Tree: The Cornelian Cherry

I recently encountered an interesting tree, the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas, a type of dogwood), at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. I have not seen the tree in flower (apparently an early, yellow bloom), but in fruit it is stunning, almost startling. The fruit looks a little like a cherry, hence the name of the plant, but is more elongated (see photo). The fruit is edible, but astringent when unripe, and is only fully ripe after it falls from the tree (see that photo- it does make a mess! If you wanted to harvest this tree, you might need to use a tarp on the ground and gather daily). Some sources describe its flavor as between a cranberry and sour cherry and is used for making jam, sauces and is also used in dried form. The Cornelian cherry can be grown as a large shrub, or small tree, getting about 15 ft. tall and 20 ft. wide. It likes full sun to partial shade and moist, well-drained soils, but can adapt to poor, dry soil, soils of various pH, heat, and drought. It is just about pest-and disease-free, though is tempting to squirrels and birds. It is a little bit sensitive to being transplanted in the fall, so care should be taken in fall to prepare the planting hole, water adequately and protect from road salt sprays.
This will be my next tree to plant!
Happy gardening!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Potato Bin Success!

Potato Bin Success!
[Photo: potato bin under construction-I lined it with cardboard and filled it half way up with soil).

The potato bin was a success! The garden cloth/wire fencing kept the voles and moles out of the potatoes and I harvested more than I planted! Next year I will need to remember to "hill up" which I didn't do much at all this year. What this means is to plant the seed potato tubers in a shallow bed, then as the tubers sprout and grow, add more soil, peat and compost and continue to build layers. This will cause more potatoes to grow more tubers along the sprout and increase the yield.

Other updates: my veg garden is winding down, as the tomatoes are spent and are succumbing to late blight (a rough year for later blight in the north east this year, not as bad in VA I think: see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/opinion/09barber.html?emc=eta1 ) and the cucumbers and eggplants are fading...but the figs are coming in gangbusters! I had a fresh fig smoothie for breakfast- yum!
Happy gardening!