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!