Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Monday, June 29, 2009



“And what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”

---Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Ralph got it wrong.”

---Judy Marie Thomas

I love to weed (I know, I am an oddball, but I cannot think of a single indoor chore that I like as much as weeding! Though that may say more about my housewifery skills than anything). Does anyone really need instruction on how to weed? It’s just pull and rip right? Well, there are a few conditions and tips that make weeding easier, especially if you have large areas to weed as I recently did to my deep shame. Here goes:

Wet soil versus dry: It is much harder to weed well when the soil is dry versus wet. In dry soil, you tend to rip off only the weed leaves, leaving the roots to sprout and re-grow. If your soil is dry, wait until after a rain or thorough watering to pull weeds.

Start at outer edges: when you do start to weed, start at the outer edges of the weedy area and work your way inwards. This loosens the soil on the edges, making each subsequent section of weeds easier to get up by the root.

Tall then low: pulling tall weeds first breaks up the soil to more easily get the mat forming weeds pulled up.

Too small to weed versus just right: when weed seedlings are tiny, they are very hard to pull up, especially with a gloved hand (I recommend rubber coated, snug fitting gloves for weeding). Don’t wait until the weed gets well established, but if you find the weeds are too tiny to pull, wait a day or two.

Weed before the plants set seed!!! This is really important. Some single weedy plants can set hundreds of seeds, up to a thousand, and some are too tiny to really see. You do not want this to happen! Pull the weeds before they flower and set seed (and keep in mind that some weed flowers are small and you will need to observe them closely).

Tap-rooted plants: some plants with deep tap roots (dandelions and pokeweeds are two or my enemies with tap roots) are harder to pull and must be thoroughly dug, getting up as much of the weed as possible…and this is also best to do in moist soil.

Mulch: after you weed, mulch bare soil- I like to use grass clippings from an untreated lawn or pine needles. Otherwise, you will be doing this again soon!

Some people don’t hold with weeding at all. They just mulch heavily and plant right into the mulch. I may experiment with a little this next year.

Happy gardening!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Seed Viability

If you are like me, you buy too many seeds or get them as a "bonus" with your seed order. How do you know if these seeds are viable after some time has passed? Well, some seeds just cannot last more than a year, most notably lettuce and carrot seed. These are small seeds and smaller seeds have less moisture in them to keep them viable than do larger seeds. Tomato seeds can last for about 5 years, sometimes longer.

To determine seed viability, here's what you do: take two pieces of paper towel and dampen one with water. Place about 10 seeds on the wet towel on a plate. Cover with the top sheet of paper towel. Keep the paper towels moist, but not soaking wet. When the typical germination time has passed (check the seed pack for "days to germination") lift off the top paper towel and see how many have germinated. If none, you can assume the seed is dead. If one has germinated, that is a low, 10%, germination rate. If 5, that is 50% and you can use the seed, though you might plant it more thickly. 8 is a good rate of germination and the seed is considered viable. And, you can plant the germinated seed in most circumstances, giving you an early start! In fact, if the germination rate is low, you can do this with all the remaining seed from that pack to see how many you get, and plant the germinating seeds only.

Happy gardening!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Brief Update

My Amorphophallus bulbifer is in bloom! From what I recently saw in Florida, this does not look like the typical A. bulbifer bloom. How weird (and racy?)!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Container Gardening

(My neighbors lovely containerized yellow hibiscus, flanked by cannas: note that the pot is partly buried to conserve moisture).
(My cukes in a pot, growing up the hardware cloth trellis on my front porch!)
(Potted peppers and herbs)

Container gardening

One easy way to break into gardening is through container gardening. While it has some drawbacks, you can control the conditions in the pot far better than conditions in a garden, plus you have far less area to care for. It is easy to weed a container and to provide water and fertilizer. Some plants might not be hardy in your zone, so you need to take them inside some shelter in the winter. The soil in an area might be poor or overrun with tree roots, but you can container garden on top. Sometimes, pots just look cool. Here are some thoughts:

Container: a common error is to buy a pot that is too small for the plant you have in mind. I am always on the lookout for sales on large pots, ceramic and otherwise, even if I don’t have an immediate need for one. Ceramic pots are by far the prettiest, but they are heavy, harder to move and prone to cracking and breaking. I still prefer them, and take my looses as they come. Plastic is inexpensive, versatile, easier to lift and lasts a long time. There are environmental costs to both kinds of pots. Some novel containers can be used, if they have drainage or are drilled: wash tubs, old wheelbarrows, rope-handled plastic tubs. Large containers are necessary for good root growth and for water retention (the smaller the pot, the more frequent the watering).

Soil: I use a mid-level quality potting soil, though some people prefer to mix their own of equal parts of soil, compost and peat. In general, soil from your yard and garden will not work well in a pot. For example, here in central VA, we have clay soil and containerized plants will not thrive in it. Some gardeners like to work water-absorbing crystals into the soil, but they are pricey and I would only use them for valuable plants.

Filling the pot: Move the pot to its destination before you fill it, esp. with the largest and heaviest pots. Moving a large ceramic pot filled with soil can be back breaking! Before you fill the pot, you can add rocks, broken pot pieces or broken chunks of Styrofoam (the last is lightest) for drainage, though I have gotten away without doing this, as long as the pot has 3 or 4 good drainage holes. Don’t fill it all the way, but fill it to the level of the plant you will put in it, then back fill with soil. Water in well, and add more soil as necessary. Mulch on the top of the soil to conserve water.

Water: pots need more frequent watering than plants in the ground, as they don’t have an extensive root structure to seek out moisture and water reservoir in the soil. When I go away during the growing season for 3 or more days, I hire a teenager to water the pots for me (I have about 50 plants in pots). Don’t let the plant wilt- this is a sign you waited too long to water and the plant can have a set back in growth. You have to let experience be your guide. Some potted veggies I grow (peppers and, this year, a cucumber) need more frequent watering than some herbaceous plants. Putting a saucer under the pot can help with longer-term watering.

Fertilizer: every couple of weeks (less for herbaceous perennials like bay laurel) I make a mixture of fish emulsion and kelp and mix it in the plant water. Some times I use worm water from my vermicomposter (great stuff!) and, though we rarely have it, leftover coffee as fertilizer.

Roots may snake out of the drainage hole in some plants. I had a potted mimosa that died, and the pot cracked right in half, but it became apparent the next year that it had sent down roots. I have a huge mimosa tree now, too close to the house, that will have to come down some day. To prevent this you can suspend the pot on little ceramic pot supports (also good to prevent your deck form being discolored by constant pot drainage) or bricks, so the roots will not survive out of the pot.

Overwintering: one reason to grow plants in pots is because they need overwintering, like my bananas that I keep in my attic from October to April. I overwinter some plants in my unheated garage, some covered in burlap. Over the winter I water them just enough to keep the soil from completely drying out.

Garden Update: Just a few things about the garden…made my first batch of pesto on Saturday- the cookbooks I read were right, it is better when the leaves are young and tender, this year I have several potted basils in various stages of maturity…just a couple of weeks to see if my potato bin, vole deterrence experiment worked…and I harvested 2/3 of my onions and the voles even ate some of those! I have always believed that they would not go for any of the alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) but I was wrong!!! Who’d a thunk it?

Happy gardening!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens Field Trip

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens Field Trip report

I used to live in an apartment in Gainesville, Fl., and had no options for gardening (at the time, I do not think there was even a community garden). So, as often as I could, I went to one of three places to enjoy plants and nature: the Devil’s Millhopper (a sink hole with many plants exotic even to Florida), Payne’s Prairie (a grass and wetlands nature preserve, though I only went to a tiny part of it) and Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. I recently had the opportunity to make a quick visit to Gainesville and again visit the gardens. They have changed and are growing!

The word Kanapaha comes from the Timucua Indian words for "palmetto leaf" and "house" referring to the thatched homes of the original residents of a small Timucua village on the shore of Lake Kanapaha. The garden is 33 acres and was started in 1978. The garden has several theme gardens, and a large collection of bamboos. (It has generated some controversy in the past by selling spreading forms of bamboo during its annual sale. Bamboo can become invasive in FL. Even in Central VA, it spread and will even run under a roadway to come up on the other side! However, Kanapaha now mostly sells clumping varieties. Florida is home to many invasive, exotic plants and animals that threaten natives. To learn more about invasive species in all parts of the country, go to: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/books.shtml )

The theme gardens at Kanapaha include a vinery, a hummingbird garden, and butterfly, herb, water, palm and rock (desert) gardens. One real pleasure for me was seeing some new varieties of Voodoo lilies (Amorphophallus plants that I have written about). Some beautiful pink ones were in bloom (perhaps bulbifers) in the front entrance to the garden, and a real oddball (A. paeonafolia) in the garden. I had a lot of fun showing these weird wonders of the plant world to friends who were with me. Both are pictured above. I also greatly enjoyed looking at the palms, palmettos and cycads, probably because I only get to see these under glass up north. The herb garden is beautifully arranged and well worth a close look. We were lucky to see a Century plant in full bloom- this “bloom” was a 30 foot tall flower spike!

If your only experience of Florida is Disney or south Florida, I encourage you to explore the back roads of northern Florida, from Ocala north and west. There are few crowds (except during football games), it is far less developed and has some incredibly lovely places! Kanapaha offers many unexpected pleasures.
(Be sure to avail yourself of the bug repellent offered in the visitors center during mosquito season to make our walk through the gardens more enjoyable).

Happy gardening and garden viewing!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June 3, in bloom- brief entry

I mentioned my passion for Voodoo Lilies in the last post (and several others). Well, here is what is in bloom today- Dranunculus vulgaris (from Niche Gardens in NC). This is a weird, fly-pollinated plant, quite beautiful. Oh, and vulgaris implies "common" or "species standard" not "vulgar!"

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Going Bananas!

Going Bananas

I have mentioned a few times in this blog that I get a botanical “bee up my bonnet’ every year (is that the right expression?) and have a strong urge to explore a certain plant species. It can be an ornamental or a food plant. Last year it was greens- multiple varieties of kale, chard, mustard, spinach, and other greens (my son is culinarily scarred for life). One year it was butterfly daffodils- I planted 400. One year it was passifloras (passion flowers), though this was less than successful, with only two varieties surviving. Then it was Voodoo lilies (I wrote an entry on them awhile ago) - the most inexplicable attraction, as they have weird, fly-pollinated flowers that smell like rotting meat. Enchante´.

This year’s ornamental passion is Musa, less formally know as bananas. No, they do not produce edible fruit, and I doubt that they will ever bloom (if you have seen a banana flower, you know they are amazing and can understand why the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe was so entranced by them) (The US Botanic garden on the Mall in DC often has them in bloom and fruiting and I took the photo of the fruitng plant there). I had purchased a Musa “Basjoo” at, of all places, a local produce stand three years ago (I find that places like this often have one or two unexpected plants mixed in with the geraniums) and it is still growing, about 9 feet tall. This year I bought three from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs: Musa “Siam Ruby,” Musa acuminta “Rojo” and Musa Ensete maurelli. They are pictured above.

Why grow them? They provide lovely, large, lush foliage in bright to dark greens to reds. They give a tropical look to my shade garden, they are fun and I just love them.

How to grow? Things to know:
1. Bananas are heavy feeders. I like to give them a solution of fish emulsion once every two weeks.
2. Bananas like water, don’t let them dry out (I place mine near the hose end and have a saucer under them...hum, that reminds me to put saucers under all of them!).
3. They are supposedly biennials: they grow the first year, then the second, and send up a 'daughter' that year. Cut down the mother and nurture the daughter for next two years and repeat. However, my Basjoo is still growing and has not yet produced a daughter.
4. They can be overwintered indoors or treated as annuals. I put mine in an attic that does not freeze, near the southern-exposure window. I have heard of people wrapping them in burlap and dragging them into an unheated crawlspace for the winter, but have not tried this. I might have to, now that I have 4 of them in large pots.

Happy gardening! Go bananas!