Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

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: