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!