Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It Only Takes a Moment

“So how about that weather?”

While that phrase seems a bit tired these days given the strange highs and lows we’ve seen it is a valid statement. The temperatures have been bouncing between freezing at night and the 80’s during the day and even the crops look confused. This of course makes it very hard to make any solid garden plans because we all know that the frost date unofficially is Easter which April 16th and while that is not far off, it seems like an eternity for those with a gardening disposition. There is some good news as there are certain tasks we can accomplish in the garden regardless of what the temperature is. For instance, despite the weather at the Test Gardens an aggressive regimen of pruning has been underway for several weeks starting at the end of February and finally reaching its completion when the town took away the last pile of debris last Friday. Before anyone gets alarmed, this is a normal process known as Structural Pruning. This form of very heavy pruning is done perhaps once every five years to once per decade with the express purpose of rejuvenating very old landscape plants that have not for some reason received full care and have become so large that they have lost their original form. In this process you are not killing these plants but rather hitting the reset button and in the process removing every volunteer tree or plant that has grown within their crown. It’s a win-win for the landscape plant in question and it brings dramatic change to your property.  The target area was the hedgerow along the driveway, which consisted of Wax Privet (Ligustrum japonicum) and Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), while a number of Carolina Cherry (Prunus caroliniana) and a few Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos). 

I'm pretty sure this is what a Horror movie for plants looks like.

Now to be clear if you are not familiar, Carolina Cherries (Prunus caroliniana) are semi-invasive and their seeds have a very high germination rate. This fact is made worse by the fact some species of wild birds like the fruit they produce. Unfortunately for us the fruit is somewhat poisonous and unlike the cherries we buy at the farmer’s market, they are lacking on sweet flesh as the fruit is mostly comprised of one big seed. Where possible I try to take out Carolina Cherries as they are evergreen and can rapidly out-compete most landscape plants unless they too are evergreen. I don’t have much of a dislike of Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos) as I find them graceful and given their small leaves perhaps one of the tidiest landscape trees I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. The problem I faced was that the one mature Willow Oak in the hedgerow was less than twenty feet from my house. The tree was Thirty feet tall, and while it might not be an issue for the next twenty to fifty years eventually its roots would heave the driveway and its branches would be over the roof which is considered a long-term hazard. This perhaps is the first lesson of this article that you can learn, do not put of tackling a long-term problem because the longer you avoid handling it the harder it becomes to deal with. A thirty-foot tall oak at an average of 1.5-2.5 inches in diameter/caliper can be handled with a careful diagonal cut facing towards what you want the tree not to hit when gravity pulls it down. Barring that careful use of a pole saw (in the case of the cherries) allows you to take out parts of the canopy so that the trunks pose no threat to you or your property.

AWWWW Yeah it was a garden party alright!
With all of that said, the hedgerow was pruned down to an average height of about three feet from an average height of ten feet. Even the Crape Myrtles were cut back heavily because truthfully they will recover and bloom heavier for it. Now I know there are certain Individuals in the Fayetteville Observer who claim that you should never prune Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica), which is rather naïve. The fact is that Crape myrtles look best in a tree form where their patterned back provides year-round interest making them less a one trick pony reliant on the blooms to draw attention. In order to get that tree-form one has to prune regularly to encourage a set of strong main trunks. So when a certain well-known garden advice columnist says you shouldn’t prune them at all I have to wonder if perhaps he would do well to stick to daylilies and leave the real garden operations to those of us who aren’t afraid to get the job done. But enough on procedural sparring since that’s not what this entry is about.  As a general rule you should refrain from pruning a few things and technically you are not really refraining but rather delaying the act. Any flowering shrubs that flower on new growth, any fruiting landscape plants that fruit on new growth are things that should not be pruned until after blooming or fruiting. For instance it is long held that you should not prune Azaleas until after their blooming is over which tends to mean June. Although the strange temperatures have both Azaleas and dogwoods blooming very early I would still err on the side of caution and wait. If you must prune consider the three questions I ask myself while considering if I need to prune a plant.

“Does the plant have a health issue such as double leaders, branches crossing over or some form of damage?”

“If I prune this will it spur new growth that may be damaged by cold weather?”

“Is any part of this plant posing a danger to persons or property?”

Each of the above questions is a simple yes or no answer, and from them you can determine if you are taking the right course of action. For instance as part of the hedgerow project I had to also very selectively prune the Fig orchard which is on the driveway for branches that had started to reach over the driveway at a height that meant they would be hit by vehicles or be at head height. I also had to prune a few overly tall branches that would take the harvest out of reach. While technically in the short term this means less figs, in the long term it means a healthier specimen. Under most circumstances I realistically consider it better to prune things while they are actively growing so that they are actively healing which reduces the amount of time a wound is open to possible infection.
The entire clearing operation took four weeks and undoubtedly was a point of irritation to my neighbor whom actually protested it and found out that no; none of the hedgerow was on her property, ergo she could complain all she wanted but it wasn’t her property or problem.  My front yard was a mess for that entire time as I took the debris out in measured amounts cut to the size requirements for the town to pick it up. For note, Bulky Yard Waste is picked up once per week and the requirements are as follows; no limbs longer than 6 feet and thicker than 3 inches in diameter also if you put out a cubic yard they may not pick it up at all so if you need to break your pile into smaller ones do so. I always recommend that you put your pile in the street because the claw arm on the truck they use will damage your lawn if it’s on your lawn. The town isn’t liable for this damage so putting it in the street in a pile that by shape is longer than it is wide so it’s not a vehicular obstacle is the best way to avoid your property being damaged and getting the job done.

Check back next month for the next project, oh and just one more thing....

The first day of spring was about a day or so ago.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Much Ado About Fresh Foods

Modern refrigeration as we know it is one of the most critical inventions in the last century because they improve your access to safe food supplies. Fayetteville is known as a food desert* and when one is without refrigeration this fact is exacerbated to a potentially intolerable level. About two weeks before Christmas my refrigerator decided to die on me. I knew something was wrong when I opened the freezer to find all of 2016’s frozen harvest defrosted completely. Since I did not know how long it had been that way unfortunately there was no good reason to try and salvage most of it. Once I did notice that there was a problem, the first task was to verify that the refrigerator was actually broken. I raised the cooling settings to maximum and then placed a thermal sensor in the freezer and the refrigerator section and afterwards checked them every hour for six hours. When you change the settings of a refrigerator it takes 24 hours for the settings to take effect so six hours was a good time frame to estimate the refrigerator’s functionality. At the end of six hours the fridge was cool at about 50 degrees and the freezer was at roughly 48-49 degrees; the normal temperature should have been 32-40 for the refrigerator and 30-32 degrees for the freezer. While looking for the unit specifications I found that the refrigerator was made in 2014, and thus it had depreciated enough that repair would cost more than replacing the unit. The next step was to clear the refrigerator of anything that posed a health threat via spoilage or contamination. Nothing in the freezer was salvageable so everything that was not packed in oil went out to the compost pile, you could say that the decomposers in the pile got big Christmas present this year.

The process was repeated for the refrigerator section though a lot of things in the refrigerator were just fine at 40-50 degrees. A good example of things that did not need to be thrown out would be your basic condiments. For example, mustard, soy sauce, siracha, non-sweet salad dressings, and anything that is acidic such as pickles were relatively save in the short term. Eggs, butter and, cheese were also alright because they could withstand a wider temperature range than milk, yogurt, cut fruit and vegetables and fruit juices which had to go in the cooler. Meat products were handled cautiously because at 45 degrees it would not take long for food-borne microbes make them hazardous. Any meant brought in had to be cooked the day purchase and consumed within 48 hours. I found that it takes a 20lb bag of ice to effectively cool an 18 cubic foot capacity refrigerator per two days.  The trick was to use plastic containers to spread the ice around and ½ to ¼ fill the vegetable crispers full of ice. This kept the refrigerator at around 43-46 degrees which reduced any further losses of food. I also used a 48 quart cooler with 10 pounds of ice to super-chill what absolutely needed to be cold**. It was a good thing the refrigerator failed during winter because if it had it done so during summer it might have been impossible to keep anything cold. So life settled in to a pattern, every two days or so I would go out on an ice-run, and while there I would buy the fresh foods needed to make two days’ worth of meals. It briefly became a normal aspect of life that everything had to be cooked fresh every second day. This was made possible by taking normal recipes with the amount of ingredients reduced by half. The half-scale style of fresh cooking meant that I made twice as many trips for food but the cost of food remained the same overall.

The biggest lesson learned was that it is very possible to have a fresh and organic food diet that was nearly vegetarian without the presumed big price tag. It took some planning to have a menu that would not get boring; my diet varied a bit for two weeks with the following selections; Kale-bean soup, Grilled vegetables with basmati rice, Tuscan Stew, Sautéed yellow squash with sweet onions, traditional hearty stew, Broccoli Rabe with fresh garlic over penne pasta, Steamed broccoli served with Turkey drumsticks and basmati rice and a rich mushroom gravy. I will admit the aforementioned list is just dinner, I kept lunch and breakfast limited to one-off dishes that were made and consumed on the same day. The point is that you can eat fresh, but creativity is critical to a reasonable fresh diet, and that starts with you determining what you do and do not have a taste for.

*The USDA has a food desert locator;
** Things such as cut vegetables & fruit, milk, dairy products, and fruit juices, opened jams and jellies and, meat should be stored in the cooler.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Get lost winter!

Welcome back to another fine episode of Lost In The Farmers Market, this is our first episode of spring 2016, and you can bet there is some good stuff planned for this one. You have to love how spring came so fast though; it was not long ago temperatures were dipping into freezing every night. It appeared as if nothing seemed to be growing except the winter weeds and then suddenly we had a bunch of hot days and everything was dusted in a patina of yellow pollen from the pines. As if teasing all those nice seed catalogs and garden supply books started showing up in the mail and you placed your orders and the waiting game started. We all looked outside and relished the few warm spring-like days and then the weather started to act like summer sort of and we had to hold onto the urge to do anything because we knew it’d cold again. But then the miracle happened, all that stuff you ordered in February showed up in March!

Oh yes it’s very much like this.
So you have the goods, and well the weather turned sideways…again. But there is good news, the unofficial final killing frost date is Sunday April the 31st and that means in short order it will be very safe to start putting out your tomatoes or planting your warm-season plants directly. But of course not everyone knows what to do this time of year so of course as the first order of business I’m teaching this class.

Jump-Start Your Garden
Sunday April 10th, 2016 2:00-4:00pm

At the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex
801 Arsenal Avenue Fayetteville NC 28305.

You can sign up for this class here:
Walk-ins are welcome.

This class is hopefully the start of a monthly series (2nd Sunday of every month) and it comes about three weeks before the Sustainable Neighbors Urban Farm Tour which is slated for the First May 1st, 2016 between 2:00-5:00pm. The garden tour locations will be announced as I verify who is willing to host a location. So yes spring has sprung and there are all sorts of good stuff going on. Also there is the City market Meetup which happens weekly and

The City Market
325 Franklin Street, Fayetteville NC
Saturdays 9:00an-1:00pm

Below you will find a list of what is most likely going to be available at the market; I should note that this is the last week that I sell soup-kits. This is mostly because I require the table space for warm season crops and honestly soup isn’t as great when it’s hot out. I should have tomatoes and or warm season items in a week or two depending on what the current weather pattern decides to do.

8x Soup Kits, $5.00 (Celery, Carrot, Red Potatoes, Onions, Purple top turnip and a parsnip)

Crop Plants
8x Rouge D’hiver Lettuce, $3.00 (Romaine Type Heirloom)
8x Napa Cabbage, $3.00 (Asian Cabbage, Heirloom Type.)
6x Dinosaur Kale, $3.00 (AKA Tuscan Kale, good for kale chips)
6x Swiss Chard $3.00 (Bright Lights Mix)

With all of the aforementioned covered, now I move onto the main topic. For you regular readers you might remember the image below from January. This is a Crosby’s Prolific Aloe, and this image was again taken of the plant in January. As the weather has stabilized I was preparing to bring it out to the deck so that it could get some additional sun and hopefully bloom and I noticed something was wrong.

 Aloe x. nobilis – Crosby’s Prolific Aloe

The fact is that succulents and cacti are very dramatic when sick and you can easily spot a sick succulent in a row of identical ones because they are very apparent. Since succulents can’t exactly wilt like a bedding annual and can be scarred by injury for years when they suddenly collapse it means something is terribly wrong. So you have what I found on the growing tray a few days ago.

This is incredibly bad.
This aloe is suffering from a sickness that is commonly fatal to aloes because it is so difficult to detect before the plant has gone soggy. The sickness is commonly called Root Rot and it is caused by one of two types of water mold both tend to strike as a result of over watering. The two common culprits are called Pythium and Phytopthera and both are hydrophilic in nature in that they need a wet environment to attack your plants. For note I keep my aloes very much on the dry side so I suspect this aloe got attacked because fungus gnats are known to spread root rot as the root rot organisms can live on the feet of fungus gnats. Why root rot randomly attacks healthy plants is unknown, but it’s always severe, some plants lose half their mass and recover, others seemingly turn into a puddle of slush overnight. Literally for succulents root rot is as severe as Ebola is in humans. Generally treatment isn’t worth doing but if it’s a special specimen like this Crosby is, then the first step is to remove as much infected tissue as you can.

Opportunistic fungi and diseases move in after root rot has done it's worst

Mostly cleaned this aloe still is a mess.

In the case of my aloe, that means removing any and all collapsed stems. Since most of the connective tissues are pulped by the disease this should be easy but try not to touch the healthy portions of your plant after you’ve touched diseased portions. Cut away as much as you can and then wash your hands and any tools you may have used with rubbing alcohol. Next inspect the healthy portions; in the case of my aloe the one healthy stem is also being attacked. Since this is a specimen plant, I will go ahead and cut the healthy stem off, then peel away the dry papery coverings over the stem. The next step is to cut ahead of the encroaching rot and make a cut into healthy tissue with a clean pair of scissors or a very sharp knife.

The rot has attacked this stem also but the crown in this case is well above the damaged area.

With the papery sheaths at the leaf bases removed it's clear that the rot does not go all the way up.
A simple single cut with a clean pair of scissors and now we have a potentially viable  cutting.
It is possible this cutting may make it but there is one more aspect to after-care, this cutting should be allowed to air-dry for a few hours, then get dipped in rooting hormone and allowed to form a callus at the end of the stem. The callus forming procedure can take a few days, but make sure to seat the cutting so it’s bottom faces down like shown. In few days the cutting will either collapse due to rot or begin to form roots, at this point it’s a 50-50 chance depending on how well you maintain sterility during the cutting procedure. If it survives, a few days place the cutting in a small pot with sterilized potting medium and water sparingly. Within a month the cutting will either grow roots and, continue on or the disease will take its toll. As for the remains of the plant and its old potting soil, dispose of that in in the compost and do not use any compost from your compost bin for at least six to eight months.

The cleaned cutting being dipped in rooting hormone after being allowed to dry a few hours.

The cutting is placed upright in a jar for a few days to allow a proper callus to form and to impede the progress of any surviving root rot pathogens.
 From the point in the last picture it become a waiting game to see if or if not the cutting recovers. Either way I hope this helps some of you succulent and cacti growers out there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

More of the Good

Welcome back to another installment of Lost In the Farmer’s Market. This is the February post and for the purposes of getting back on track for March in a twice-per month schedule the two posts containing haworthia and gasteria will be combined into one larger post for your reading enjoyment. In March I will begin discussing all things late winter and spring so hold on to your hats…it’s going to be good!

Few garden enthusiasts realize that most of our garden species come from a limited number of plant families. For instance the Aster family contains the daisies, marigolds, Calendulas, Dandelions, Coreopsis, Echinacea, Lettuce, Radicchio, Rudbeckia, Zinnia and of course the Asters. In the same light the Aloe grouping has three major branches to it’s family tree, in my last post I covered the Aloe group but in this post I will be talking about the Haworthia and Gasteria branches. I have to admit that the Aloes are better known because of course we see their most famous representative (Aloe barbadensis/vera) in a wide variety of skincare products and some health beverages. In interesting contrast, the Haworthias are no less varied in shape and form and actually are more cold tolerant. To an extreme for a succulent, Gasteria are even tougher than the haworthias and can survive long periods of complete neglect as long as they get some sunlight.

As noted before the first rule of succulents and cactus is that “All cactus are succulents, but not all succulents are cactus.” This saying means that basically Cacti have a very specific biology, and thus when dealing with a succulent plant it’s smarter to call it a succulent until you know absolutely what you are handling. Aloe, Haworthia and Gasteria are all succulents because they lack spines, whereas cactus will have several types of spines as a form of self-defense. I am simplifying a bit but then this is not a hard botany article so my light-weight definition is reasonably accurate. As for haworthias which consequently have no common name, it’s best to think of them as aloes with much smaller leaves and a habit for growing faster and producing offshoots quicker. They are as a whole somewhat more tolerant of moisture but I would not assume that to mean you water them as often as a house plant such as a philodendron. Haworthias can handle temperatures as low as 28 degrees as long as they are not exposed to chilling winds or have wet foliage but frozen soil will kill a haworthia. Make no mistake, if you leave a haworthia outside in winter where the temperature drops below freezing you will probably lose the plant. If kept in a sunroom and covered over with a thin plastic drop cloth it is likely that a haworthia will survive the winter without needing to come indoors barring any exceptionally cold weather.

Haworthia coarctata – Dragon Haworthia
Haworthia cuspidata – Star-Window Plant
Haworthia cuspitata  – Star-Window Plant (red type)
Haworthia margaritifera – Pearl Plant

Haworthia miribilis – Wonderful Haworthia

Haworthia venosa subspecies Tesselata – Tesselated Haworthia
Next up we have the gasterias which are commonly called Ox-Tongues for some reason or another. The name gasteria comes from the stomach shaped flowers (Gastric) and the members of this branch of the family are exceptionally hardy but still vulnerable to freezing and will not tolerate frozen soil. With that said if you want to see rapid growth, gasteria are not the plants for you as they are slow, but respond impressively to limited fertilization and repotting every three to five years. They bloom in later winter to early spring if not into summer just like the aloes and haworthias do. It should be noted that despite being plants that prefer an arid climate, aloes, Haworthia and Gasteria can suffer sunscald and must be introduced to full sun slowly in the spring to avoid disfiguring damage to their foliage.

Gasteria liliputana – Dwarf Ox Tongue

Gasteria minima – Miniature Ox Tongue

Gasteria maculata – Ox Tongue

Gasteria bicolor – Bicolor Ox Tongue

The next few plants answer a question that all you house plant fans out there may have wondered, ‘if those three plants are in the same family, can they produce hybrids?’. The answer is yes as  they can with careful management produce viable hybrid offspring, thus far I have no aloe-haworthia or haworthia-gasteria crosses but the following are gasteria-aloe crosses that have produced an interesting variety of forms and colors.

Gasteraloe hybrid – “Green Gold”
Gasteraloe hybrid – “Green Ice”
Gasteraloe verrucosa – “Radiance”
Gasteraloe verrucosa – “Flow”

Now that the main topic has been handled stay tuned for our next article in two weeks where I’ll be talking in brief about the Rhipsalis family and a bit about spring preparations. Before I go however I do have to talk in brief about the City Market and the Better Health Market.

Better Health Market
1224 Bragg Boulevard, Fayetteville NC
Thursdays 5:00pm-7:00pm
(Indoor Event)

The City Market
325 Franklin Street, Fayetteville NC
Saturdays 9:00an-1:00pm
(Outdoor event)

I bring up both markets because as of this week I’ll begin offering my first spring plants as we are just about to enter the month of March and the time when most gardeners in our region really begin to consider their options for the coming warm season. You can expect the following at both events this week so feel free to stop in at your leisure.

6x Seasoning Packets, $1.00 (Rosemary, Thyme, Tarragon, Sage, Garlic Cilantro.)
6x Soup Kits, $5.00 (Celery, Carrot, Red Potatoes, Onions, Purple top turnip.)

Crop Plants
6x Parris Island Lettuce, $3.00 (Romaine Type Heirloom)
6x Rouge D’hiver Lettuce, $3.00 (Romaine Type Heirloom)
6x Napa Cabbage, $3.00 (Asian Cabbage, Heirloom Type.)
6x Dinosaur Kale, $3.00 (AKA Tuscan Kale, good for kale chips)
3x Red Giant Mustard, $3.00 (Good ornamental or for stewed greens)
3x Savoy Cabbage, $3.00 (Great for steaming)
2x Cabbage Collards $3.00 (Heirloom, Carolina)

Hopefully I’ll see some of you at the market, but otherwise stay tuned for our next episode.