Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Cold Frame Update!

[Photo caption: Pea Seedlings under the row tunnel! Over a month early!)
Row Tunnel, Cold Frame Update.
Feb. 25- I have my earliest pea, lettuce, and spinach seedlings ever, coming right up out of the ground in my new cold frame and row tunnel cover! Despite some significant neglect and nighttime temps down in the teens, the seeds have sprouted. Maybe it’s only taken me 10 years living in VA to figure out how to really do cold season crops here!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Radura: A Diatribe

Warning: Diatribe
The above is an illustration of the radura. Looks pretty, no? To the casual observer it looks like a green growing plant under the sun, sort of a symbol of nature and naturalness. But what is it really a sign of? It is a symbol that will be attached to produce that has been irradiated, yes, exposed to radiation to kill pathogens (as is already being done to meats). Remember the old black and yellow radura? That was less deceptive, and did not visually suggest some sort of natural process.
After the peanut butter scare, the spinach scare, the green onion scare, it might seem to start to make sense to some that we have to irradiate our food to provide a clean and safe food supply, and accept the assurances of this industry that this is completely safe. I am not expert on the safety of this process. But I need to ask the question, what is this process covering up?
It is covering up dirty food production, fecal matter in our meat, salmonella in our salads. Our food supply can already be made a great deal safer without an expensive, unproven technology that creates radioactive waste, poses potential accidental exposure to radiation and may damage the quality of our food. If we would simply follow the procedures already developed to reduce food-borne illness, and properly fund the budget-gutted food-inspection systems of FDA and Department of Agriculture, the safety of our food supply would rise greatly. (Did you know that, currently, government inspectors cannot stop the line in a meat-processing facility even if they spot gross contamination? They do not have the legal authority)(don't get me started on other aspects of our industrial food supply). This would mean that that the peanut factory in the most recent scare would NOT have rats running around, holes in the roof, and dead roasted mice mixed in with the roasted peanuts on the line. Maybe the company would NOT have been allowed to repeatedly test its products until it got a result it liked, even though previous tests showed clear contamination???
What does this have to do with gardening? Well, until the government gets it together and makes out food supply safer, you can grow your own produce. As a gardener, you have control of the inputs that go into your garden, so you control the outputs. You can decide how to garden and what amendments to use. And, because your kitchen is not a huge processing factory, the possible points of contamination are significantly limited. And remember, garden produce is fresher and more nutritious. You can grow what you like, the varieties you enjoy, what tastes good, not just what stores and ships well (the main criteria for commercials growers). [If you eat meat, you might want to try to source it locally, where you can see the animals being raised and their conditions.]
Happy gardening!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tale of a Vulgar Plant: Voodoo Lilies

Tale of a Vulgar Plant: The Voodoo Lily or Corpse Plant (photo caption: me and my voodoo!)

Every year or so I get a bee in my garden bonnet and go off on a tear to find a specific and unusual plant I have heard or read about. There was the passionflower fixation, where I tried to start many varieties of passiflora from seed and got nowhere except with the locally hardy passiflora incarnata. Then there was the year of the figs- I have 3 varieties, 5 trees. I am still in love with them, but haven’t collected new varieties lately. Japanese maples were a passion for awhile. As were day lilies (I have over 50 cultivars) and pink-trumpeted daffodils. The oddest fixation that I still have is for the plants known collectively as the Voodoo Lilies, though their exact genetic/botanical relationship to each other is in some dispute.

Most of these plants are in the Amorphophallus family (do the Latin- yes, it means shaped like a man’s privates). Common names also include the corpse plant (for reasons that will become clear), Arum or Titan Arum. The first type of voodoo lily I purchased was Sauromatum venosum (not currently designated an Amorpho.) from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA. It is pictured, along with other, above. SV has a maroon colored ‘”flower” (let’s call it an inflorescence) that is a long spike with a rounded end, covered by a mottled maroon and green maroon sheathe. This inflorescence last for about a day. This group of plants is fly pollinated, which translates into “they smell bad, like rotting meat (though I detect the lovely overtones of manure). Luckily, the smell isn’t tooo strong (I can only catch whiffs of it from the street) and it does not last too long (about 24 hours).

The first year the S. venosum bloomed (photo above-later leaf first, then inflorescence) I was puzzled. It seemed to go from maroon spike to nothing but a bulbous growth on the ground that faded away. Not long thereafter, the leaf spike emerged and later unfurled. The spike is beautiful, exotic looking and is pictured on the blog.

The second year I was ready, I watched the flower spike very closely and, the day I saw the sheathe on the spike start to separate, I went out with my camera and sat for over an hour to capture all the stages of unfurling (and made my husband shoot over 100 photos of it on his fancy digital camera). I was pleased to sit there, having my little Zen moment of being aware of the plant, what it was doing and enjoying the experience. I even bored my close friends with a story I wrote about it.

Since then I have collected a few more of these odd, related group of plants. The Dranunculus vulgaris (pictured above in flower) and Amorpho. konjac are from Niche Gardens in NC and Amorpho. bulbifer and riverii are from Brent and Becky’s bulbs. Once I have a sun room, I plan to by an Amorpho. Titanium, or Titan Arum, the largest flower in the world, at about 4 to 7 feet tall….luckily it only smells bad for 24 hours!

Remember, don’t stop and smell EVERY flower! Especially in MY yard!
Happy gardening!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Brief Note: Ugly Orchid

You just gotta' love it- an ugly orchid! I didn't know such things existed! Let me introduce the Warty Hammer Orchid from Australia! Awful name too! From Alcock, J. (2006) "An Enthusiasm for Orchids: Sex and Deception in Plant Evolution." A fascinating book on adaptation, controversies in evolution, orchids and plant behavior! Didn't know they could behave, eh? And this orchid has interesting behavior....
Happy gardening! ...Now, what's the ugliest North American flower? Anyone?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Orchid Show at the Smithsonian: Field Trip Report

Orchids Through Darwin’s Eyes, 15th Annual Orchid Show at the Smithsonian (Natural History)

We visited the 15th annual Orchid Show at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, on, appropriately, Valentine’s Day 2009 and the day after. This is the 5th time we’ve seen the orchid show in its 15 year history. It is a joint program with the US Botanic Garden. Every time I first see orchids I am struck with the same thought, that it is a sublime experience to stand in the face of so much natural beauty. I forget everything else, at least for awhile. I think I am always looking for those “Zen” moments in life when I feel calm and at peace, and being with beautiful plants gives me this experience (as long as I don’t mess it up by focusing too much on taking photographs instead of experiencing the plants). I get this feeling often in the garden, when I am digging or planting or weeding, just being in the garden, doing and observing.
The theme of this year’s orchid show is Charles Darwin and Orchids. As many of my friends know, I am an admirer of Darwin and all the work he did to understand the natural world, not just his work regarding his theory of descent with modification via the mechanism of natural selection (which we call evolution, but he rarely did). Whether you accept evolution or not, it is the seminal theory in the biological sciences, unifying a wide range of ever-increasing scientific observations into a coherent whole (that is the definition of theory, not the commonly accepted notion that “a theory is just a guess.”) Well, off my soapbox. I don’t want to turn off any fellow gardeners who disagree.

According to the Smithsonian web site “Charles Darwin used orchids to help prove his theories of natural selection and evolution. Scientists today follow in Darwin’s footsteps and use orchids to learn more about how plants have evolved and adapted to live in almost every type of environment around the world.” Darwin established how different orchids use their varying and unusual flower structures to attract different, mostly insect, pollinators. Some mimic the female of the insect species, others mimic nectar-bearing flowers of other flowering plants. Orchids are the master tricksters of the flower world- and lucky for us! It has lead to great variation and beauty. By the way, the orchid is the most common type of plant in the word, at 25,000 species. (though many are endangered by habitat destruction) and exists on every continent except Antarctica (in Virginia, the most-commonly known orchid is the pink lady slipper, a terrestrial or ground-dwelling orchid [as opposed to epiphytic, “air dwelling” or tree-dwelling orchids]).

Orchids are identifiable by their structure. They generally have three sepals and 3 petals. The three sepals are usually the same shape and are the least significant of the petal-like parts of the flowers. The three petals are more interesting. Two on the top of the flower are generally similar to each other, but the third petal is what makes the unusual “look” of the flower. It is the part that is uniquely shaped, often with an overhanging lip on top. It is often striped or variegated in the center, acting like “runway lights” guiding the incoming flying insect.

About the photos I took at the orchid exhibit and the United Sates Botanical Garden (USBG). The lighting at the orchid show was dim and the exhibit fabricators used some colored spot lights, which made taking photos with my camera a challenge. The orchids in the USBG were much better lighted, it being partly sunny day at the conservatory, so some of the photos will be from there.
Oh, this is not an entry on orchid care, just my field trip report. I have owned precisely three orchids and killed all three, though I did get one to rebloom before its demise. I sense there will be another orchid in my future, however. It will be a phalaenopsis (“moth”) orchid, supposedly the easiest to care for, the most adaptable to the home environment and the most readily available. It may not survive long term, but it will provide a few months of bloom…and perhaps peace.

(paphiopedilum or slipper orchid)
I highly recommend a trip to DC for the orchid show and the USBG!
Happy Gardening!
(General floral scene at the USBG, below)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cool Season Crops

Cool Season Crops

[photo: Tah Tsoi in my garden)
I like to grow cool season crops (lettuces, greens, peas, beets). They extend the season into early spring and later into fall/winter, but I have a problem with some of them, that is, they don’t seem to last long, especially when spring planted. Central Virginia is blessed with a long slide into spring and a long fall, but both seasons have lots of variability in weather conditions. Whenever I start spring crops at the times recommended in garden books and seed packs (mid-March) I get one flush of crops, then they succumb to the heat. The peas whither, the lettuces bolt, the beets get stringy. If I start them too early, however, they are likely to succumb to the few full freezes or snow or hail we have in February and March, even into April. So, this year I am starting these plants early, by seed, outdoors, or rather in the modified outdoors. I am experimenting by planting a variety of seeds sowed directly in my cold frame and in the plastic row tunnel I bought this winter. On Saturday, Feb. 7, I sowed lettuces, spinach, beets, turnips, peas and chard under cover. (I also started some indoors, in peat pots, under lights, for later transplanting). The only thing I have to lose is a few dollars in seeds and some effort (though digging in the dirt when it’s 65 degrees out in February is hardly a chore!). I will keep you posted as to when (and if) I see the seeds germinating and report on this new, early start to the season! All in the name of science…and good eating!
Happy Gardening!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Best Laid Plans!!!

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy! OR
(The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!)
Robert Burns, To a Mouse (November, 1785)
So much for putting in that new row tunnel cover and planting lettuces and peas early on that nice warm day we had! SNOW!!! COLD!!! I am DONE with winter (I know, I am a wimp- I moved here from Indiana, where it really got cold!). To think I succumbed the seduction of the thaw....
Happy Gardening! Eventually!

Monday, February 2, 2009


[photo caption: my boring front and back yards when we moved in, my floriferous front yard a few years later. Don't have a good photo to post of the changes to my back yard, will get one this summer!]
Grass: the Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I’ll get my bias right out at the start-I hate grass and work hard to kill it. I am married to a wonderful man who hates it too. Both of us would way rather spend our outdoor time pruning, planting, harvesting and trimming in the flower, vegetable and fruit gardens than pushing a lawnmower, let alone fertilizing and otherwise treating the stuff. When we first moved into this house we had a half-acre lot and the first mowing took us three days. No, we didn’t mow the whole time, just gave up in frustration and exhaustion, had a lemonade (or a beer) and tackled it some more the next day. We both vowed to get rid of as much of this grass as possible.

I started mulching with boards, plastic, old tarps. Anything to kill grass so it would be easier to dig. I added new beds or paths each year, so that now we can mow in a few hours. The majority of the yard is now delightful garden.

OK, why do we hate grass so much? First it takes so many inputs of energy, chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides,…) and water to keep grass grass, and not a collection of green weeds. For example, “one 40-pound bag of synthetic fertilizer contains the fossil-fuel equivalent of approximately 2.5 gallons of gasoline, and mowing for one hour with a gasoline-powered mower generates the same amount of pollution as driving a car for 20 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To keep lawns green, we apply about 10,000 gallons of water, which leads to fungal diseases and weeds that attract pests, so we douse our coveted green patches with approximately 67 million pounds a year of synthetic pesticides” (from http://www.thegreenguide.com/home-garden/garden/easy-organic-lawn-care). We didn’t want to be a part of this chemical assault, and waste of water. So, to protect our earth, and to protect our family, we decided to forgo a conventional lawn (ever read up on the harmful effects of pesticides? Pretty scary stuff).

So, grass looks nice. Well, that’s what many people think. I find grass a dull, uninteresting monoculture. Yard after yard of the same short green blades is pretty boring. And when I look at it, I think of all the chemicals that are on it, that oil that goes into making it, and all that wasted effort. I once read that, if you scraped the surface of a golf course, in order to properly dispose of the sample you would have to take it to an EPA approved site, so toxic is it. Grass might be green, but it is not “Green.”

I vastly prefer flowers, vegetables and fruits. I prefer a varied garden, with interest most any time of the year. I like to produce food from my little patch of ground, as well as beauty and habitat for birds.

So, my advice? Chip away, plant a flower or vegetable bed, reduce even just a few square feet of grass for a "Greener" yard and home.
Happy gardening!