Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

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!