Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review (and the essay it inspired): Mabey, R. (2010). "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants"

"Weeds" among my weeds!

Book Review (and the essay it inspired): Mabey, R. (2010). "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants" NY: ECCO Paperback (Harper-Collins)

     I think about weeds altogether too much, and I have nightmares about them too.  As an avid gardener, whose desires are greater than the time and energy I have to give to them (like everyone else), I feel that a weedy bed is an eyesore, a slur and a commentary on my lazy immorality.  But Richard Mabey, author of the book that is the object of this review and essay, just might have me thinking differently about weeds...at least a little.
    Reading this book, and countless other garden books, I have settled on a central thesis:  that weeds share many of the qualities that we judge admirable in our fellow human beings.  And a few that we find....shall we say, less than desirable?
     Weeds are consummate survivors and we all love a survival story, right?  They arise from the school of hard knocks, often developing their toughness in difficult and demanding environments:  rocky, acid, alkaline, poor soil or scree; overly cold or hot temperatures; climate extremes; overly wet or arid conditions; and subject to repeated grazing, predation, fires or trampling. These conditions make for a strong species.
     Weed are vigorous.  They are strong, vibrant, and can grow with abandon.  They out-compete other plants.  Turn your back and, boom, the hill is covered in kudzu, your fence with bindweed. They win.  Everyone loves a winner?
     Weeds are survivors in other ways.  Some have seeds with incredibly long viability (the current record is about 2,000 years).  They can often still sprout after long decades of dormancy.  Others germinate incredibly fast: the record is the tumbleweed, which can germinate in 36 minutes.  Weed seeds outrace and outlast the competition.
     Weed seeds are inventive: they have many strategies for dispersal.  They can be sticky or gummy, thus adhering to you, me and other creatures, only to fall off later in a new spot.  They may have burrs or spikes to do the same trick (Velcro was inspired by a cockle burr).  Some actually shoot their seeds a distance, or have fluffy seed that floats far away.  Some seeds, encased in a tempting morsel, like a poison ivy berry, are impervious to digestive juices, and are pooped out, unharmed, with a little packet of...er...fertilizer.
    Weed roots are similarly inventive.  Some are incredibly vigorous, running under- or above-ground to greener pastures.  Others have deep tap roots, anchored roots, or stolons, that snap off when pulled, only to form a hydra-headed plant when it re-sprouts: think poke weed or the common dandelion.
    Some weeds are just plumb attractive.  We like them, we ignore them... the they rub their fornds together and take over.  Think of violets and purple loosestrife.
    And then there are the traits that would not do well in humans.  Some weeds (and other, more culturally valued plants) are allelopathic, that is, they are the poisoners of the plant world, pumping chemicals into the soil, subsances that kill or stunt other plants, but to which the host plant is immune.  Some smother other plants and kill by blocking light and water.  To the vigorous victor go the spoils.
Next time?  What is a weed anyway?  More than just "the wrong plant in the wrong place?"  We'll see!
Happy gardening! Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas To Me?

I have been looking for a sturdy plant shelf.  I read a bunch of negative reviews of shelves specifically sold for plants:that they were poorly manufactured, had bolts holes that don't line up, and were crooked, shoddy, not sturdy... So I ordered this semi-industrial chrome wire shelving and I am happy with it so far (I am not into home decor at all).  [  http://www.theshelvingstore.com/4_Shelf_Chrome_Wire_Units_s/446.htm   ]  My son assembled it in less than an hour (after we looked up the instructions on line).  I know, it looks like we should stack grocery store items on it, but once it is covered in plants (an excuse to buy more plants if ever I saw one!) and I have philodendron and pothos vines growing up and around it, it should look OK.  And, did I tell you I can now get more house plants?????
Happy Holidays!  Happy Christmas!  Happy Gardening!  See you in 2013!
[By the way, I am never paid for a product recommendation, this is a commercial-free blog!]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Citrus. In Virginia.

I grow Meyer lemons and Key limes.  In Virginia.  In the summer, they are outside on my porch, in the winter they are in my attic, under florescent lights.  Two weeks ago I harvested enough key limes to make our favorite pie.  I know, it is not a huge harvest, and I don't even really expect it to be, but I love growing citrus indoors, if only for the intoxicating fragrance of their flowers!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Overwintering Tropical Plants

You can overwinter many tropical plants by just bringing them inside for the winter.  I have a six-year old hibiscus that resides, and blooms, in my living room until later April.  The only problems I have had is that the plants, unless given supplemental light, may look ragged and tired by the end of winter and we get fungus gnats, tiny and annoying, but not harmful, bugs.  I recently began using a BT (Bacillus thuringiensis,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacillus_thuringiensis) product from Gardens Alive  (KnockOut granules
http://www.gardensalive.com/product.asp?pn=3440  ) that is organic and harmless to all but the gnats and it seems to be effective.
Overwintering an aquatic (pond) tropical plant is a different matter. I have been overwintering an umbrella palm (photo above) for several years.  Umbrella palms are easy to root, just cut off the long stem and place the "umbrella" in water, but these take a few years to get to a decent size, hence I bring it in from the pond. I have also overwintered floating water hyacinth with success.  These plants are overwintered in an out-of-the- way place, my attic, as they are not very attractive and can get a little smelly (change the water if this happens).  They need supplemental light, under hanging florescent tube lights.They need a sturdy container that does not leak and holds a sufficient amount of water to keep the plant alive.  Here I am using a crisper drawer from a long-defunct fridge (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle!).  It is sturdy and clear and I can check the water easily for bugs.  I do not bring in pond water- this guarantees bugs, and perhaps hatching mosquitoes, in your house! I use tap water, with the proper amount of a de-chlorinator sold for ponds, or cholrine-filtered water.
So, plan to bring those tropical plants inside in the future (BTW, I brought this umbrella palm indoors on 11/26- the pond retains heat and it was still unfazed by the cold!)
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Quiz

The Bible mentions "tares" amongst the wheat.  What are tares?  Why do we care?

I will answer soon, unless you get it first!!!

The Winner is :CJ

The Answer: There is some debate about what plant tares is.  One candidate is a relative of the garden scabiosa, the other Lolium temulentum, a plant that carries a microorganism toxic to cattle.  The latter plant produces a plant and seed head similar to wheat, and the seeds are similar in shape and size, so it is hard to find in a field of wheat (it does stay green a little longer than wheat, a telltale sign ) and, if gathered with wheat, does not thresh out and is stored with the grain.  The plant is also the same height at harvest as wheat, so is gathered with it. A very tricky plant indeed.  One interesting point of the book "Weeds" by Mabey (review coming soon) is that agricultural plant pests evolved to mimic the desirable plants with which they often grow.  Some even have two forms, producing either form depending on what plant it is growing near.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

More Garden Gold?

We have few deciduous trees in our yard and either the trees are such that we can let the leaves lie and decompose, or we have to rake them up and dispose of them, because of disease (mostly leaves from fruit trees).  I have been eyeing these lovely bags of leaves during my regular neighborhood walk.  Once I established that there were no walnut trees in or near this particular yard (walnuts contain juglone, a plant growth inhibitor), I asked the homeowner if I could have the leaves, not that I expected him to say no, but I did not want to trespass.

What am I going to do with them?  I am going to compost some (the Brits call composted leaves "leaf mould" and boy is it great for the garden) and I am going to dump the rest right on my garden beds to inhibit weed growth over winter and to begin the process of no-till gardening (more on this in the spring).  I want to stop tilling (and most of the weeding it causes one to do) and plant directly into mulched leaves, straw and compost.

Those tree leaves will become garden gold!  Happy gardening!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Gardener's Glossary Goes Underground

Bearded Iris: grows from a rhizome.

What is the difference between these terms:  bulb, corm, rhizome and tuber?  We all use these terms, but what do they mean?  How do you tell the difference between them?

Bulb: an upright, underground stem with overlapping, fleshy sales (think onion, tulip).
Corm: Underground stem with no overlapping scales OR very few scales (think crocus, gladiolus)
Rhizome:  a scaly underground stem (think bearded iris or canna)
Tuber: modified underground stem produced at the tip of a rhizome (think white or sweet potato).

Happy gardening!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fairy Houses

If you are crafty and like to walk the woods looking for natural objects (hollowed out tree branches, acorns, nuts, pine cones, shelf fungus, lichens, seed pods, vines and the like), you just might enjoy making some fairy houses for gifts or for your garden.  The photos above are some examples from the experts at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC  http://www.usbg.gov/ .  Using them indoors is probably not a problem, thought they should be made of clean and dry materials that are not bug infested (a hour stay in your warm oven might be in order, or a trip through the freezer, to kill bugs and eggs).  Outdoor fairy houses should probably be in a sheltered location and a coat of two of varnish is probably a good idea.  Even so, they might only last a few years before you have to build a new one.  I am going to try it!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Last Ichi Ki Kei Jiro Harvest

I just (11/14) harvested my last 5 Asian persimmons! Despite frost and two hard freezes, they are still firm and sweet.  Please read my blog entry on this wonderful plant for details (find it through my loooong index that I will be cleaning up soon).  Wonder how they will taste on the Thanksgiving table in my "famous" wild and black rice salad? Sorry this blog is so short today- I teach at a local university, and am in the "grading paper after paper" season! Plus it is post-holiday!
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Heat Sinks

The photo above is of an "urban heat sink" I walk by often at work.  It is also called a microclimate.  Heat sinks can be anywhere, but what are they and what causes them?  First off, this heat sink often has blooming summer flowers in December (I am a teacher and don't work over winter break, so don't know how long into December actually lasts).  The same flowers and plants in my garden, 8 miles north, have been zapped by late October or early November, when this urban garden is still going strong. Now, probably really tender annuals, like basil, might not survive even in this microclimate, but others do (see the petunias spilling out on the low wall?)

A heat sink is caused by the angle of the sun (the heat sink area usually needs as direct sunlight as it can get in winter) and hardscaping that soaks in heat during the day and radiates it at night.  As you can see by this photo, there are plenty of heat soaking materials that surround this garden: asphalt roads, brick sidewalks, brick house, low concrete wall, and even the black metal fencing retains heat.  This seems to me to be a super heat sink!

Are there heat sinks in your yard?  First, look where the sun hits in winter. This area is prime for a heat sink. Brick, stone or concrete block walls (especially the latter painted in a dark color, not white) can create microclimates where you can even grow plants that are usually too cold intolerant for your USDA growing zone.  Brick walks, structures, dark stones, can also do the trick.

Of course, you can also have heat sinks in summer, and this can cause colder-zone plants to fry in the hot summer sun.  Again, look for where full summer sun hits and avoid planting more heat sensitive and shade loving plants there.  Morning sun is weaker than afternoon sun, so this can also create a microclime in your yard.

Can you create a heat sink?  Yes, if you are building a substantial wall or structure in an area that gets late winter sun, use brick, create a heat sink, and experiment with tender plants!

Happy gardening!  And have a joyful Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Gardener's Glossary- NOT!

I am reading a book of garden essays (Thomas Cooper, The Roots of My Obsession) in which famous gardeners describe why they garden.  It is fun and resonates a lot with me.  And here is a word from one essay:

"Yardening": Being "driven by a desire to keep a tidy landscape or to one-up their neighbors" (Ken Druse "Island Life," p. 77, in the above book).  It is not why Druse nor I garden, but it is so true!

Happy Gardening!  Not Yardening!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Vole War II

Last year I planted some gorgeous, tall, Asiatic lilies.  At least I think they would have been gorgeous,  but they were completely consumed by evil voles.  Don't have voles? Consider yourself lucky. Have an enemy? Curse them with voles.  These voles not only ate my lily bulbs, but they had dessert of the roots of my tea camellia.  I went out one day and saw the camellia looked dry. I touched it and it toppled over, no more roots. I've asked around and the horticulturalists I've spoken to say they have never heard of voles eating camellia roots.

What are voles?  These are small rodents that resemble mice and are even called "meadow mice."  They live underground, eating roots and tubers.  I even once saw a hosta moving in still air, being eaten from below by a vole.  I pulled the hosta leaves up, it had no roots and the telltale vole tunnel was there. (For a photo of a vole versus a mole: http://www.evergreenofjohnsoncity.com/Moles%20&%20Voles%20Info.htm   )

I reordered the lilies this summer and bought another tea camellia. This year, I have a plan.  As you can see by the above photos, I planted both in hardware cloth cages, surrounded by daffodil bulbs (voles hate daffodils) and sprinkled with a good heaping of mole and vole repellent.  I topped the bulb cage with a wider mesh hardware cloth, so the lily stems could easily get through (shown in the middle photo before I fixed it to the bottom of the cage with wire), though the camellia cage is not topped to allow the trunk to widen.  An third repellent I did not use is small, sharp gravel, but if I had some today.....

Happy gardening!  (By the way, this is late because I have been sick, but I am on the mend!)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Post- Halloween Surprise?

Photo used with permission of Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, http://www.lewisginter.org/  Brian Vick, photographer.

This is a photo of the large, and dreaded, tomato hornworm, which sucks the lifeblood out of your tomatoes and eats their leaves.  But wait, it is even more ghoulish yet!  See the white things attached to the caterpillar?  Those are the eggs of a parasitic wasp that will hatch, burrow into the hornworm and...read no more if you are squeamish... devour it from the inside out!  A post-Halloween surprise indeed!  If you see such a hornworm in your garden, leave it alone, so those fiendishly helpful wasps can grow into many many more wasps!
Happy (?) gardening!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Autumn Sage: Salvi greggii

I should probably stop using this blog to confess my deep, dark garden lusts.  I think I have mentioned my college friend, Bunny (yes, that is what she preferred to be called) who, whenever a song played at a party, shouted "that's my favorite song!"  I know I am very much like Bunny (and weirdly, my family nickname is Duckie) in that I have many "favorite" plants.  This salvia, however, is a real charmer among a group of charming plants. It is hardy, blooms reliably in the late summer and fall, and is a good food source for hummingbirds during their autumnal migration.  The flower, though small, is brightly colored, a hot,deep pink, it pumps them out more and more as the weather cools and is a good accent in floral arrangements. It produces color in the flower garden when little is is still blooming.  It is somewhat evergreen, though is not at its best in deep winter. The plant has been really easy for me to grow and I keep its sprawling habit in check by pruning and staking.  It has some natural dieback in cold winters and I just prune the dead branches off.  It can get a little woody and you might want to replace it every 10 years or so if a hard cutting back does not refresh it.
Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Mystery Plant

My husband says that I am a "punk botanical illustrator" in that I like to draw weedy, spiky, weird, twisted, mean and poisonous plants from disturbed, waste areas (roadsides, ditches, RR tracks, and post-industrial sites.  Boy what fun we have on hikes!).  In honor of that lovely accolade, anyone want to guess what plants this is?  May the best gardener or naturalist win! Hint: this is a great plant to represent Halloween!

Happy gardening!

UPDATE: This plant is a datura, also known as Jamestown Weed, Jimsonweed or cow sick. It is a poisonous plant, producing hallucinations before death.  Ranchers have to watch out for it to prevent their animals from feeding on it, hence the name "cow sick."  Georgia O'Keeffee famously painted it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: The Roots of My Obsession

                                                           [Photo from Amazon.com]

Cooper, Thomas C. The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden.  Timber Press

(I was given a tablet computer and it is changing the way I read books.  I got this book as an e-book and, though I am not completely satisfied with the process (and miss holding a real book in my hands) it has been overall an acceptable media.) 

I tend to dislike collections of essays, feeling they were not written spontaneously, but contracted out and assembled for a purpose: to sell a book. Other times, I feel like I am reading something out of context, taken from another, longer essay, and it feels disconnected as I go from essay to essay. I know this criticism is probably unfair, but that is how I feel.  Anyway, I am enjoying some of the essays in this book, especially those of gardeners with whom I am familiar.  I wanted to share with you a few quotes that I liked, found amusing or provocative:

Cooper, p. 9 (e-version) "I was raised on a strain of gardening that combined the minor virtues of engineering, math, Cold War chemistry and internal combustion.  My parents were a part of the victory garden generation....those who had some land (and) naturally grew food and flowers as part of their genetic makeup, not as an exercise in outdoor decorating."

Tony Avent (p. 21, e-version) "I wasn't very popular in high school., where an interest in plants was not something for a guy to admit in public..."

Rosalind Creasy (p. 40 e) "I've also learned that a two-year-old can single out the the ripe cherry tomatoes even though her mother is stymied."

William Cullina (p. 50 e) "Fall is a blend of melancholy, quiet celebration, and anticipation, mixed with a slight, fluttering anxiety.  I am sad to see the chlorophyll drain from the garden...I can also feel already feel the excitement building for next spring."

and one more, just because I share this weirdness:

Page Dickey (p. 62e) "I love to weed.  I realize this is not a universal sentiment, even among gardeners.  But every spring I am reminded how utterly happy I am on all fours, inching along the garden beds, pulling out the culprits, scratching the earth with my three-pronged weeder, enjoying the results as I look behind at my progress."

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wenesday Lagniappe: Gardener's Glossary


Have you ever heard of a plant described as a tetrapoid? This means it is an organism with twice the number of normal genes.  Tetraploid plants can be more vigorous, with larger blooms. They can be created by using colchicine, a derivative of the autumn crocus, to double the chromosomes, or can occur spontaneously.  Commercial daylilies are often tetraploids (44 instead of 22 chromosomes).
Happy gardening!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ichi Ki Kei Jiro Persimmon

About 4 or 5 years ago, I bought this dwarf Asian persimmon, Ichi Ki Kei Jiro, from Edible Landscaping in Afton VA http://ediblelandscaping.com/ , a truly great nursery with interesting plants.  This persimmon grows to about 8 feet tall, needing about 10 feet around it to in a circle.  Asian persimmons are "non-astringent." If you have ever eaten an unripe American persimmon (that is, just about any time before it falls to the ground), you know the awful "mouth feel" this gives you: you mouth feels puckery and sticky or tacky, very unpleasant.  It takes awhile to get this sensation out of your mouth.  Asian persimmons do not have this quality.  This variety is ready to eat when it is deep orange in color, but is still firm. I harvested the first one last week (there are a dozen on the tree).  I peeled it and found a lovely, cantaloupe-colored, seedless flesh.  It was crisp, like an apple, and a perfect sweetness-not overly sugary or cloying, but very pleasant.  It is my new favorite, and is an easy-to-grow tree.  I have had no trouble with this tree at all, a few minor pests that might chew a leaf hole here or there, but that is about it.  I can imagine eating all them sliced like an apple and think they would be delightful in salads, maybe with some sharp cheese. I really recommend it!
Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Saving Cilantro

My sister-in-law once told me that she just could not keep cilantro around, that by the time she got to use it, the leaves had turned yellow or black and slimy.  Cilantro is pretty fragile and does not last long in the crisper. Ideally, you should use it up about 2-3 days after you harvest it (or buy it). I have a huge, beautiful crop of cilantro this fall and here is what I do:  I wash it and let it air dry, or gently pat it dry. Then I freeze it in usable amounts in a double freezer bag.  When I need some, I take it out of the freezer, use scissors to snip off what I want into the dish, then return the rest to the freezer. No waste and it lasts for months!

Happy gardening!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Well my August-planted arugula (this time the wild type, Rucola selvatica) is ready to eat and, boy, is it beautiful. It tastes great too: spicy, a little nutty, very unique. I usually plant a more modern variety of arugula, thinking the leaves will be wider and there will be more to eat, but I am delighted with how this wild type has performed this year.  Arugula likes full sun (though in summer, a little afternoon shade is OK), and well-draining, rich soil (most plants do).  It germinates in 7 to 14 days and is ready for harvest in about 35 days.  Pretty easy to grow!
There is still time to get yours in the ground, especially if you can provide it with some simple winter cover, like hoops (bent metal coat hangers can do in a pinch) covered in clear plastic sheeting, should we get a hard freeze.
Happy gardening!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wednesday lagniappe: Garderners' Glossary

Cladode:  Green, scale-shaped tissue on a flattened stem or branch that performs photosynthesis in the place of leaves.

Happy gardening!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Coastal Plants

Occasionally I get an email or comment asking me for plants for specific areas.  Central Virginia (piedmont and plains east of the fall line) is my beat. Coastal plants are not my specialty, but I had an interesting question about lower-growing shade plants in a long, narrow bed in the coastal eastern shore. So I did some research

First, let's "chat" about the type of websites I find trustworthy and one sites about which I feel unsure.   My first choice is to go to non-profit or governmental organizations, like the USDA, Ag Extension services, state environmental or natural resources departments; university web pages; associations for specific plants, like wildflowers or native plants and: master gardener and master naturalist programs.  Though you can quibble about this, I do feel these types of sites are the best bet for objective, unbiased advice.  Commercial sites can also provide information about plants and conditions, but caveat emptor. These sites have a vested interest in selling you plants.  Reputable nurseries want you to be happy with the plants you buy to encourage repeat business.  Others might not be so scrupulous.  There are a few plant nurseries (mail order and local) I implicitly trust, due to past excellent service and product.  Ask around, get recommendations, and read reviews. Keep track of the orders you get from these nurseries: the condition of the plants (root bound, healthy looking, smaller than expected) and how that plant does.  Read between the lines of plant descriptions ("vigorous" can mean invasive, "delicate" can mean it will most likely die) and pay attention to the symbols used to indicate growth, habit, soil and setting.

So what advice did I give my friend? First, I told her that she has four conditions to deal with: shade, a narrow bed, bed bordered by concrete and coastal conditions.  I suggested she contact the ag extension master gardener or mater naturalist program for her region.  Then, I suggested she investigate these plants:
hostas, begonias, and huecheras (these come in neat foliage colors, yellow-lime to green to red to maroon, lovely shaped leaves) and all recommended for coastal shade gardens.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Pollinator Magic

Gotta' love them pollinators: at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens.  No pollinators, no food.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"Extra" Lagniappe (or is that redundant?)

I took a cutting of this purple passiflora from a large vine growing near RR tracks near my house. It had a bud on it, which I did not expect to open, but bloom it did, exuding a lovely, sweet fragrance.  I will plant it near a green-tinged one I have. Passifloras are easy to root, just take a cutting, put it in water in a sunny window.  They can be a bit pushy in the garden, but are not too hard to control.
Happy gardening!

Wednesday Lagniappe: Gardeners' Glossary

Here is another useful garden term:  Apical:  Located at the tip of a leaf, root or shoot.  Some plants will not be able to grow if their apex is damaged or cut off, or they will have multiple sprouts if that happens.  The opposite of apical is basal, at the base, and both are different from lateral for the side, as in a side shoot.

Impress your friends! Now you can describe your plants using these terms, as is "the apical bud was snapped off in an ice storm" or "this biennial forms a basal rosette in its first year."
Happy gardening!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Essential Garden Tool

This is not a product endorsement (this is a totally commercial-free blog).  This is a review.  In the summer during mosquito season, which seems to last from April to October (the entire summer, plus some spring and fall) the only way I can get out in the garden is by wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, tall socks, a hat, gloves and a bucket of mosquito repellent.  Being that I am an organic gardener, I do not endorse the use of DEET (one exception: in tick infested areas I might spray it on my hiking boots only).  But do these these natural repellents actually work?  Yes.  Do they last a good while?  Yes.  Here is my review of 4 of them.

Starting from far right:
Repel:  This is my go-to spray.  It is easily available at large chain stores (though read the label, they do have a version with DEET).  It sprays on in a fine mist, I can spray it on my clothes (though these are grimy garden clothes, folks, not nice clothes!) and it works for hours and hours.  I might see mosquitoes approach and swarm, but they do not land.  The drawback is that the smell is a strong, piney, citrus, and eucalyptus smell.  I don't care, I shower after I garden anyway.  One problem is that the spray pumps sometimes break, so I transfer the contents to another spray bottle.  To apply any of these sprays to your face, you need to put them on your hands first, not directly spray them on your face.  About $5 to $6 for 4 ounces. I buy 3-4 per season.

Cutter Natural: this also works, the smell is nicer, floral, the lotion creamier, and less oily, than Repel.  However, this is the main drawback, it is thicker and streams (not sprays) out of the pump bottle, so I cannot apply it easily to clothes (and it does stain) and have to rub it on like sunscreen.  Easily available at large box stores. 

Bert's Bees Herbal Insect Repellent: this is a more pleasantly-scented, though very oily, spray.  Pictured above is an old container and the pumps on these were ineffective.  I have not tried the one in newer packaging, hope the pump is better.  Harder to find at stores.

Skeeter Buster: the most pleasantly scented, like gardenia, as well as the most expensive and hard to find.  Due to the high cost (I paid $7.99 for 4 ounces) I would not search for it, but I would use it if I were going to a place or event where a strong, sharp smell would be a problem.  The pump works OK.  (I bought it at a beach shop in Nag's Head, NC.)

I have not tried the grandmother of non-DEET sprays, Avon's (though I think it was sold to another company) Skin-So-Soft, but I hear people rave about it.

Happy bite-free gardening!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe*: Gardeners' Glossary**

Today, a word that is one my favorite gardening terms:
Allelopathy:  is the reason you cannot grow some plants under walnut trees.  Allelopathic plants are those that secrete a chemical compound that inhibits the growth of another plant.  In walnuts, this substance is juglone.  However, some plants are allelopathy-resistant or unaffected.  It is recognized that these plants can grow under a walnut just fine:  blackberries, grapes, mints, forsythia, ferns, marigolds and most native hardwoods! Eucalyptus, alianthus ("tree of heaven"), garlic mustard, rice, fragrant sumac, and hackberry are other plants with allelopathic properties.

* Lagniappe:  Cajun for "a little something extra."
**My favorite gardening terms

Happy gardening!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Recipe: Tomato Corn Soup

Above: the finished soup

Above: vegetable stock before simmering

It is getting on to the end of fresh sweet corn season, so now is the time time for making soups that include corn.  You can use frozen corn (and there is some decent frozen, sweet corn out there), but fresh is best.  You can make this soup with water or stock. I am a vegetarian, so I make a stock of sweet corn cobs (all corn shaved off), onions, mushroom stems, carrots and whatever else I have to hand (parsley, basil, celery, zucchini ends- no brassicas or beets though, except for borscht).  I simmer for about 45 minutes and keep it around all week or freeze it.  Beef or chicken stock would be frankly richer, but I am happy with my veggie stocks (note: roasted or caramelized veggies make more deeply flavored stock).

So, here is what I do:
Make a quart the stock with odds and ends of veggies as above, or buy it.
2 T butter or olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 package baby 'bella or white button mushrooms.
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 shredded or diced zucchini or other summer squash
3 shredded carrots
1 bay leaf
1 t marjoram
1 handful fresh basil, chopped
1 quart homemade tomato juice, or commercial tomato juice or V-8, thinned with 1 c water
2 c. stock
3 ears corn, freshly cut off the cob.
1 cup cous cous (white, whole grain, cooked according to package directions)

Cook and set aside the cous cous.  Melt the butter in the pan or pans (see next sentence). Saute onions and mushrooms separately, either one after the other in the same pan or in two pans at the same time, with the crushed garlic.  Please, let both cook separately, on medium heat for long enough so they caramelize and not steam (cooking together will crowd the pan and steam them so they will not develop a fill, deep, umami flavor and the mushrooms will be rubbery).  I saute them for at least 15 minutes. Whey they are caramelized, combine them in one heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven, add herbs, and saute for 5 minutes. Add zucchini and carrots. Saute, stirring occasionally,  for 20 minutes, until vegetables are softened. Add tomato juice/V-8 and stock.  Bring to a light, bubbling boil. Test the vegetables.  If they are almost done to your liking, add the corn, simmer and serve in 10 minutes.

Scoop a generous 1/2 cup of cous cous into the side of a bowl (can use rice, pasta, other grains or lentils instead).  Ladle in the hot soup.  Serve with bread !!!
(optional: you can change the seasoning family to more of a Tex-Mex taste with adding cumin, ground chilies and smoked paprika or chipotle powder to the sauteing onions, or a curry mix for Indian flavors).
 Happy fall eating!  Get out and harvest those remaining veggies!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe*: Flutterby

[Photo taken by Scott Vrana: Visit his photos at http://500px.com/ScottVrana  ]

The only reason I will let a few of the spreading Physostegia virginiana, or obedient plants, stay in my yard is because they attract butterflies.  If you have this plant, you know it spread by runners and will pop up several feet away from an existing plant.  Otherwise, it is pretty easy to pull to control, but you will need to do this, unless all you want is a garden full of obedient plant! (The name comes from the habit of the flower to stay in position when you bend or twist it).

Enjoy the butterflies as they flutter by!

*Lagniappe: Cajun for "something extra."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Update: The Tyranny of the Garden...Produce

Each season I wonder "How many years will I be able to keep this up?"  as I process and can yet another batch of something.  But it is still way worth it.  Here are the "fruits" of my labor with some of my muscadines (see last week's blog): top, muscadine sorbet (recipe to follow) and bottom, muscadine syrup. (A big thanks to my husband who did a lot of the initial separation of inners and outers).  The sorbet is not subtle, it hits you in the mouth with a big grape flavor!  YUM!  (By the way, you can use fox, Concord, Niagara or any native grape for this recipe).

Muscadine Sorbet Recipe

1 quart muscadine grapes, purple or bronze
2 c sugar (to taste: the mix must taste pretty sweet before it is frozen)
2 c. water
1/4c lemon juice

Wash the muscadines,  At the stem end, cut a slit.  Squeeze the pulp into one bowl, place the skins into another.
Cook skins and pulp separately.  Skins only need to be simmered on medium for 15 minutes (you need to do this because muscadine skins are very thick, but contribute a lot of flavor). Cool and puree the skins with the water in a blender.  Cook the pulp, simmering on medium for about 20 minutes.  Put the pulp through a fine-grained sieve (or a mesh colander, jelly strainer) and stir with a wooden spoon to force the pulp, minus the seeds, through the sieve.  Discard seeds.  Mix pureed skins and pulp in a stockpot, add sugar and lemon juice.  Simmer for 30 minutes.  Taste and add sugar if it is not sweet enough (desserts served cold usually need more sugar than ones served warm, because your taste buds cannot register the sweet as well when they are cold).  Follow manufacturer's directions to freeze in an ice cream maker (I have a standard Rival brand, water and salt, bucket ice-cream freezer and processed this for 40 minutes).

(Syrup is made the same way, but is cooked longer to reduce the volume of water.  Process 20 minutes).

Have fun!  
Happy garden produce processing!  And eating!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

VA State Parks Go Native Program

Dr. Douglas Tallamy, Professor and Chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and the author of the book Bringing Nature Home is the featured speaker at the Go Native! plant symposium.
The event will be held on Wednesday, September 12th at First Landing State Park in the Trail Center. Tickets are $20 each and includes parking and refreshments. A portion of the proceeds will go to First Landing State Park.
If you are interested in attending or would like additional information, please contact Renee' Wampler at 757-425-0724 or email pagcrw@cox.net

From VA State Park enews 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe

In bloom at my house:  the stunning, deep red, perennial, dinner-plate hibiscus!  The bloom is HUGE!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Tyrrany of the Garden...Produce

Above is a photo of what is lurking in my fridge.  See those two large glass bowls and the smaller metal one?  They are full of the fruit of the Isom muscadine vine.  What you do not see is the gallon zipper bag full of them in the crisper too. I tend to anthropomorphize my garden and I know that my garden does not care that I am very busy at the start of the semester. It does not note that I have sandwiched two trips with 4 days in between and have to process almost 4 bushels of peaches that all came ripe early and at pretty much the same time.  It does not care that I have guests and forget to get to the zucchini before it grows into a baseball bat.  The garden moves on without me, though it cannot go too long without my labor.

So what am I going to do with all these muskies?  I still have jam from last year, so this year I am experimenting: muscadine juice concentrate, muscadine sorbet and frozen yogurt, muscadine syrup for pancakes and waffles.  And if any of these concoctions come out well, I will post the results on the blog.

Oh, by way, I am not yet half way through muscadine harvest season.  Wish I liked muscadine wine.

[FYI, unlike other grapes, muscadines, native to the southern US, are hardy, sturdy and grow with little to no trouble, but you do have to prune them.  For example, my neighbors driveway is next to the fence they are on.  One week, he left his car, which has a roof rack, parked for 4 or 5 days and...wait for it... the vines twined around his roof rack and he had to cut them off!  The vine that ate the car!].

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe*: Applesauce-Fig Cake: a recipe

 (Couldn't even get a photo of the whole thing before the teen started devouring it!)

An abundance of home-grown apples and home-grown figs?  Applesauce-Fig cake!
The apples on my tree mature in late summer, sort of early to my way of thinking, and I process much of it into applesauce.  Here is a great recipe that was tested on members of my art class, all of whom have discerning palates!


  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted before measuring
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup reconstituted dried figs. To reconstitute, soak in hot water 10 minutes and drain
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 2 cups applesauce (I used unsweetened)
Into a mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add raisins, chopped walnuts, melted butter, and applesauce. Beat until well blended. Pour batter into greased and floured 9-inch square pan or 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 baking pan. Bake at 350° for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool and spread with cream cheese or butter frosting, or leave nekkid.

If desired, decorate applesauce cake with grated orange peel and walnut halves.
Happy eating!
*Lagniappe: a little somethin' extra, in Cajun.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Heirlooms Break My Heart

Poor sick tomato. When I started gardening, I grew heirloom varieties, like Brandywine, Mr. Stripey, Mortgage Lifter and the like, but soon switched over to the most disease resistant varieties I could find because of problems with disease.  Well, I was recently seduced by "free" packets of organic, heirloom seeds and a healthy Mr. Stripey plant at a local plant sale (and I really like the taste and color of Mr. Stripey).  Big mistake.  The plants quickly succumbed to disease (which one?  I'm not sure, other than it did not have the symptoms of early blight), while my disease resistant Goliath and Whopper were still producing fruit and looking good- and they were all shoulder to shoulder in the same garden area.  Very disappointing.

How do you know if you have a disease resistant tomato?  Look for letters (like V, F, and T) after the name.  These stand in for the names of the diseases like verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and tobacco mosaic virus (smokers should wash their hands before touching tomato plants to prevent spread of this last one from cigarettes with infected tobacco to the tomatoes).  Tomato diseases are many and varied and can be hard to diagnose, but two sources can help: your local Ag Extension Agent and the Plant Doctor at; http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/DiagnosticKeys/TomWlt/TomWiltKey.html

I am not exactly sure what disease affected the heirloom cherry tomato in the photo above.  When I shop for seeds, I look for descriptions like "most disease resistant"  and "highly disease resistant" and a long string of letters after the plant name!  No more free tomato seeds for me unless they are tough disease fighters!

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wedesday Lagniappe*: A Heck of a Peck of Peppers

Every garden season is different and different plants do well each season.  Last year was "eggplant palooza" and I harvested tons of eggplant.  This year, my peppers are going crazy, and I usually have only fair to middlin' luck with them.  I planted and potted anchos, bells and pimentos and am being reward with lots of them!  I find the easiest thing to do with peppers to preserve them is to wash, de-seed, slice and freeze them on a cookie sheet.  I put them in a one-gallon, resealable plastic bag.  Over the winter, I simply pull out what I need to pop the rest back into the freezer.  This is good for fleshy, thick-walled sweet peppers. I intend to treat my anchos differently, to roast them whole and freeze them.  When I grow other chilies, I string them together in a ristra (bundle) and hang them to dry in a dark closet.

Happy gardening!

* "Lagniappe:"  Cajun for something extra

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Zucchini Fritters

OK, I have heard that many people complain about having too much zucchini and I have never experienced this.  I, perhaps perversely, like zucchini and other summer squash and never get enough before the vine borers and mildew take down the plants.  (I suspect that those people who complain about too much zucchini either plant too much or wait until the squash grows to the size of a baseball bat, but I digress).  I make a lot of tomato-based soups, and zucchini, shredded or sauteed, is perfect to add for body and texture.  I take whole, washed zucchini and shred them with the shredding (cole slaw) disk on my food processor and freeze it in 2 cup batches to use all winter, in soups, stews, quiches, zucchini bread and muffins.

Here is a favorite recipe, for those times where I want something fried and I want it now:

Zucchini (or other summer squash) fritters recipe BASE

2 cups shredded summer squash
1 onion, shredded
2 eggs beaten
1/4 cup milk
1//2 to 1 cup flour (depends on how wet the squash is- the goal is to make a batter that is not runny, but not dense either, use your judgment).
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 150 to 170 degrees.  Put a paper-towel lined baking sheet into the oven. Mix zucchini and onion, add eggs and slowly add flour until thickened.  Add salt and pepper. Heat a thick film of oil in a frying pan on the stove top (a high-heat canola works well, olive oil not so much).  Test the pan by adding a bit of batter- if it sizzles, the pan is ready.  Add tablespoon-size dollops of batter to the pan.  Cook about 2 minutes on each side or until browned and move to the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm.
Now here is where the fun begins: VARIATIONS.  I have added shredded carrot, golden beet, turnip and parsnip to the zucchini with delicious results.  Want it it spicy?  Add cumin, cilantro and dried chilies.  Yum!  Add fresh corn cut off the cob (use one ear)  YUM YUM.  Thin with buttermilk, add shredded cheddar or smoke Gouda.  So this recipe is a base you can riff off of!
Happy gardening!  And eating!  Let me know if you have any experiments and how they worked out!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe*: A Juvenile Delinquent?

 [Photo used with permission of Scott Vrana: see his wonderful photos at: http://500px.com/ScottVrana]

I was out picking figs the other day and was startled to see this creature about 2 feet from my nose!  Was he or she eating my figs?  Probably not.  This is a fledgling, most likely a mourning dove (any birders out there to confirm?), and their major diet is seed that they generally eat off the ground.  Doves are not fruit eaters as far as I can tell, so he was just an incidental visitor.  That mockingbird, on the other hand...

Happy gardening and keep an eye out for the wildlife!

*Lagniappe:  "something extra" in Cajun.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Field Trip: Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo NC

When we travel, we look for two things: brew pubs and botanical gardens.  About a 15 minute drive from Nags Head, NC, we found the Elizabethan Gardens, and enjoyed it greatly, despite drizzling rain.  The garden is themed to match the era in which the "Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island was ever-so-temporarily settled, but it also necessarily  includes elements of the New World in which the doomed colonists found themselves.  Started in the 1950's by the Garden Club of North Carolina, the garden expanded to 10 acres and was designed to mimic a pleasure garden, like those created for Queen Elizabeth the First (see second photo above of a contemporary statue of the Queen, located on the main garden walk).

This is a charming garden.  You are greeted at the entrance with a small scale, crenellated castle wall entrance (top photo), and meander down brick and unpaved paths to encounter both antique and whimsical statuary (find the gnomes!  And see a depiction of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World). (By the way, the name of my current home state, Virginia, is derived from Queen Elizabeth, known as "the Virgin Queen").  My favorite part of the garden was the sunken garden (third photo).  This garden is enclosed in a hedge, so you cannot fully see it until you enter it, a "surprise" effect I enjoyed.  This garden is actually ringed with a double hedge- you can walk the paver path in the middle of the two hedges, and come to cleverly designed opening in the hedge, maintained by an arched trellis-very lovely.  An ancient Italian fountain is at the center, and it is ringed by statuary.

Admission is $8 and well worth it to support this lovely garden.  One more note: it is advised that visitors bring mosquito repellent.  We did not have much trouble with bugs, perhaps due to the weather, but were also sprayed up (soon I will be posting on effective herbal mosquito repellents, so stay tuned!)

Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Lagniappe: Like I Need a New Hobby UPDATE

A few years ago I asked readers what topics they would like me to address and several mentioned crafts from the garden.  You might know that I am a needle felter (see www.needlinaround.blogspot.com) and that I am studying botanical illustration at Lewis Ginter Botanical gardens (http://www.lewisginter.org/adult-education/adult-educationhappeningnow.php) .  Well these hobbies have crashed together with a class I am taking "Painting Plants that Paint" on dye plants.  We will sketch a dye plant, learn about them and make a solar dye from some of them.  I thought it would be fun to dye some needle-felting wool using solar dyeing and here are my first three attempt using plants from my garden, left to right in the photo above: red hibiscus, fig and woad.  Mother Earth News has an article from 1983 (!) on one method to do this:  http://www.motherearthnews.com/Do-It-Yourself/1983-03-01/An-Easy-Solar-Dye-It.aspx which I am trying, and I will also try a more traditional method.  Stay tuned for another Wednesday lagniappe for the results in two weeks!

Update:  Three more solar dyes:  Left to right:  Hopi Red Dye Amaranth, Muscadine grape skins and turmeric!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Planning for Fall

     I know, it's hot out and we are in the worst of the summer (though we are out of that really terrible heat wave for the moment).  However, August 1 to September 15 (maybe a little later on each end of that date range for central Virginia) is time to begin planning and planting the fall garden.  I used to think that, when summer was over, gardening was over for the season.  And that was the case for the most part when I lived in north-central Indiana.  But here in VA, we have an extended fall gardening season.  It is far more pleasant to be out in the garden in the fall than the dog days of summer!
     What can you plant now?  I planted some Swiss chard a few weeks ago and intend to make successive sowings for the next few months (later sowings may need to be grown under cover in the fall and winter).  The plants are coming up and doing well, though there is some damage from bugs (which you cannot see when the greens are cooked!).  I recently planted carrots, which can be tricky in the heat to get to germinate:  one rule, water water water. Fall turnip and mustard green crops (see above) can go in now too. Wait a few more weeks to sow kale and beets- beets especially need to be kept moist until they germinate (some people soak the seeds overnight, then cover the area with damp newspaper or old boards and check underneath daily for sprouting).  Broccoli and other cole crops can go in the ground soon as hardened seedlings (seeds might not work in the heat).  The only veggie that needs to wait until soils temps cool, around Labor day to mid-September, is lettuce.  Lettuce seed is very sensitive to soil temperature, so you need to wait for that cool down.
     Cooler days are coming and with them the "palette" of vegetables change, but what a pleasure to garden in the fall.
     Happy gardening!