Friday, October 21, 2011

The 2011 Plant Trials

The Trial of the century

Alright, maybe this article's title is a bit much. But the nightshade and Okra trials were serious this year if you recall during the early summer I posted images of the hybrid okra I was testing and as of this writing that same okra is headed towards it's natural end due to the suddenly cold weather. For those first-time readers I planted a hybrid okra in a 14" fluted pot and gave it only what it needed in irrigation and limited fertilizer. In early growth the leaves often reached one foot in width and length with an eight to ten inch long petiole. The first months of growth saw a distinctly uniform shape guided by a strong central leader with little branching. The overall color of the plant was medium green with reddish tinges on the stems which gave way to a gray-tan coloration with age. Where the leaves met the petiole, there was a crimson spot which was quite unique. Early leaf shapes were generally maple like with a irregular serrated margin where as later leaves became thinner more filigree and decidedly smaller as the plant flowered and grew to full height. Overall the full size of the hybrid okra was about 4-7 feet and it's prime productivity was about 0.5-1.0 pounds of okra per week during prime season. I might add pod size on average was about 6-8" long without development of fiber. This is hybrid is going to be tested next year also and has earned the name 'C3' or Clark's Carolina Colossal.

In respects the night shade trials revealed a lot in terms of plant selection,  form survivability and problems. The drought this year took a heavy toll on a number of the plant selections and narrowed the field greatly. It is also worthwhile to note there was an ordering error instead of ordering 'Paul Robeson' I accidentally ordered 'Black Krim' which is the dark colored tomato sold at the Urban Farm Day event.
Despite this, the trials did reveal quite a bit about what can and cannot survive with minimal care and maintenance. With that said I present the good, bad and the ugly of the nightshade trial.

The Good
 The good are the successful plants of the trial all of which are worth running new trials for next year. BL2 recommends trying these plants. If you want to know where to get the seed just post a comment on this blog or contact us via the email listed on the blog.

-Red Currant: Produced well, held up to southern sun, drought and insects.
-Solar Fire: Produced well, not fond of late summer heat but did ok.
-Purple Tiger: Produced well, the eggplant were attractive but slow to start.
-Hansel: Not bad, decent eggplant production
-Balada: Many many chiles of varied size quite impressive.
-Gypsy: produced all summer, is still producing peppers in October.
-Tomatillo: Excellent producer, lots of fruit.
-Ground Cherry: I wish I had planted more of these.
-Garden Huckleberry: Produced berries up until early September, several quarts of berries.
-Wonderberry: Produced berries by the quart, slow to develop attracts birds self sown in nearby pots.
-Super Hybrid: Produced peppers in ornamental role all spring, summer and now in fall.
-Sangria: Attractive and reliable ornamental pepper.
-Bed of Nails: slow to start attractive plants blooms within a month of establishment.

The Bad:
 The bad are a list of plants that did not perform well, for whatever reason. It may have been the weather or many other factors, They may be retested later.

-Striped Togo: tall impressive plants, barely any fruit.
-Gretel Eggplant: not vigorous, no fruit.
-Burpee Hot Mix: The peppers grew just fine from seed, but produced nothing.
-Burpee Bell Mix: One or two bell peppers, barely worth the time.

The Ugly:
 The ugly is a list of plants that completely failed despite extra care. Needless to say not a single one of these plants will be re-tested.

-Sweet Sue: Total failure, not one tomato.
-Black Krim:  Plants bombed, not a single tomato.
-Pink Brandywine: Plants bombed, not a single tomato.
-Turkish Italian Orange: One eggplant all season, disappointing.

2012 nightshade trial plants:
The 2012 selection will include the following plants that were from this years trials as well as a few new plants that need a little testing.
Eggplant: Hansel, Striped Togo.
Pepper: Gypsy, Kung Pow.
Physalis: Ground Cherry, Tomatillo.
Solanum: Wonderberry, Bed of Nails
Tomato:  Red Currant, Solar Fire

New additions to the list for testing in 2012 include:
Paul Robeson Tomato
Cossack Pineapple Ground Cherry
Purple Tomatillo

Other trials revealed the following
'Big Red' Sweet Potato - 7.2 pounds of tubers from three plants, no fire ant damage, excellent flavor with little to no irrigation or fertilizer.
Strawberry Spinach - Crop failure.

Herb Trials

 The herb trial was a test of several new herbs to see which one displayed the best characteristics for further low maintenance propagation.

Egyptian Onion - Plants did well ready for harvest next year? Totally drought immune!
Pyrethrum Daisy - Two of three plants did well and are doing well, possible insecticide next year.
Wild Tobacco -  Grew ok, summer heat killed it.
Russian Comfrey - Did ok, Healthiest plant seems to be handling well
Yellow Coneflower - Single plant looks great, will be better next year.
Narrow Leaf Coneflower - Sole plant looks fine,  decent size but slow to start.
Lemon Bergamot - All four plants did fantastic, very large very healthy.
Mexican Oregano - Attractive plant for hanging baskets, hummingbirds love it!

Fruit Trials
The fruit trial was the attempt to see if a sustainable low maintenance fruit garden could be designed and installed for the express purpose of having fresh fruit most of the year.

Blueberries - Produced 8 quarts of berries, very tasty, good vigor.
Pomegranate - Dwarf bloomed no fruit, Red angel doubled in size.
Figs - Black mission, Celeste and Brown turkey all loaded with figs, all produced great growth, kadota frost damaged but recovered.
Persimmon - Great growth, fruit dropped early as expected for first year planting.
Raspberry - A few berries, good vigor.
Muscadine Grape - Just planted.
Arctic Kiwi - not planted yet

Monday, October 10, 2011

Xeriscaping Part IV: Naturalized Xeriscaping

Naturalized xeriscaping is another way to reduce your water usage. Despite the name naturalized xeriscaping is more about matching the right plants with the right location. Additionally you should have a preference for plants that are natives or well adapted. In a prior article I did discuss how the term 'native' has become an unfortunate victim of over-branding. For note the problem with 'native' plants these days is that the natural range of some plants could make them native to a continent but not necessarily native to your precise region. Also these natives could become invasive outside of their natural habitats which is a major problem for the obvious reasons.  There are three steps to creating a natural looking xeriscaped garden.

1. Improve your soil.
Soil improvement is critical, if only for the long-term survival of the plants you will install. In effect soil improvement is exactly like building an quality foundation for your house  since in the case of plants everything about their success or failure hinges on the soil quality. In terms of natural xeriscaped gardens that also include flowering or food-bearing plants soil quality is a must as there are simply certain soil-borne nutrients that no applied fertilizer can ever match. A deep rich soil  will also promote excellent root growth and thus exceptional hardiness which is critical to reducing water needs and improving plant vigor.

2. The Right Plant
Picking the right plant is sometimes a matter of trial and error,  certain plants just cannot handle the climate in which you live. A good example of this problem can be found in the difficulties of growing tomatoes in the south. The tomatoes are an excellent vegetable crop in the north but a average one in the south this is due to the heat humidity and extended periods of drought. A good replacement could be eggplant, peppers or smaller size tomatoes all of which can withstand the heat and still bear with regularity.

3. The Right Location
The location of your bed is critical because exposure to wind, rain and sun can affect your  plants greatly. For instance lavender cannot withstand the full southern sun, humidity and, the depleted sandy soils of the sand hills of North Carolina. So what a good gardener must do is enrich the soil  space the plants and put the plants in a location with good air circulation that is partial shade.

The interplay of shapes forms and colors in a naturalized xeriscaping garden can in fact reduce your irrigation woes significantly.  Some times for the sake of form you have to have a plant that is not fond of full sun out in a full sun location, the only way to make it work is to find a taller plant to offer it shade that is equally deciduous or evergreen. With naturalized xeriscaping form becomes more important as there are less hard features such as boulders or stone work  so the plants themselves have to stand out. For instance, a tall 'San Gabriel' Nandina with the support of some 'Silver Mound' artemesia and 'Angelina' sedum forms a structural, colorful blend of plants all of which are evergreen and shine at certain times of the year. The Nandina is bright red in fall and it's lacy leaves allow you to see through it to the plants below, the sedum is orange-red in summer and blooms in late winter, while the artemesia has silver foliage all year and yellow flowers in early summer. All of these plants are drought, heat and humidity tolerant and need little else then good soil and an occasional mulching to keep weeds down.

To summarize, naturalized xeriscaping isn't the xeriscaping you read about in the horticulture magazines it is a differing animal that discards the conventional plants of xeriscaping. The trade-off is that you get more plants to work with, yet the downside is that if you love cacti and succulents you might feel the concept is too open. Either way all of the readers out there should give it a shot, and feel free to get creative. If you have any comments thoughts or questions feel free to post them up here or email me though the email listed to this blog.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Xeriscaping Part III: Ornamental Xeriscaping

With noticeable delay comes part three of the xeriscaping series, today we will be discussing ornamental xeriscaping.
Ornamental xeriscaping is exactly what most think of when the word xeriscaping comes to mind. While ornamental landscapes have their inherent aesthetic value they also can play a further functional role towards conservation.  It is already  well understood that the placement of deciduous trees can reduce heating and cooling bills of a household but little beyond the obvious is stated of the bill-reducing effects of a xeriscaped garden. Generally it is noted that xeriscaped gardens reduce your watering bill because they need reduced  amounts of irrigation.  What is not known is that with the right placement and plant selection xeriscaped gardens can also act as a effective windbreak to reduce the effects of either hot or cold wind and may serve as a protective layer for more sensitive plants or as a buffer zone to augment a protective layer of deciduous trees. Additionally certain xeriscape-compatible can act as a living mulch which in turn counters erosion of topsoil and can provide an attractive weed-block saving you time, money and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Some good plants for this use include Agave, Euphorbia, Ice Plant, Portulaca,  Prickly Pear, Ornamental Sage, Sedum and, Yucca.

Most often agave is seen in the southeast as a perennial whereas up north it's treated as if it is a tropical. The most common variety is Agave americana which is slow growing but thankfully is quite rugged and can form an attractive centerpiece when paired with a living mulch.

Best known for the Poinsettia, the euphorbia family has a number of perennial members that make for interesting color and shape contrasts for a xeriscaped garden. While generally not very long-lived as far as landscaping plants go it does make a striking addition to a otherwise monotone garden.

Ice Plant
Ice plants are an attractive flowering plant to consider for the xeriscaping garden. The name Ice plant comes from the sparkling appearance of the leaves which at a distance makes the plant appear to be coated in a light frost. The flowers come in shades of pink, red and yellow and are daisy-like in appearance. Ice plants form a dense mound of foliage that can be used to contrast other darker hued foliage or to soften angular foliage on plants such as agave or yucca.

Commonly called Purselane, Portulaca  is both edible but also drought tough. Purselane is known to form low mats of rich green foliage with red stems. As a primary advantage Purselane  can endure drought and with a little water it produces large numbers of large flowers in hues of red, yellow, pink and orange all on an annual plant who may reseed.

Prickly Pear
To be specific I mean Opuntia humifusa, which is the only solidly hardy type for the south east. Thankfully you can get spineless varieties of prickly pear to make gardening easy. Otherwise if you want a impenetrable wall of spiny herbicide resistant cactus in a few short years prickly pear will be all that. The large yellow or pink flowers are borne in sprin or early summer and are followed by bright red fruits in fall. Established stands can occupy entire hillsides and grow up to three feet tall.

Ornamental Sage
When you say sage most think of the annuals or the cooking spices but there are a large variety of sages that are both perennial and almost drought immune. The best of the group is Black Sage Salvia mellifera which looks like common sage but has a more pungent aroma. For note it is one of the three plants that make up sage brush and has interesting flowers as well.

Sedum is  commonly called stone crop, and is one of the most diverse perennial succulents one can buy at a garden center. Sedum is one of the most versatile landscaping plants because numerous foliage shapes, sizes and colors can be had and it's flower stalks

Yucca is about as tough as xeriscaping plants come. Commonly called Spanish Bayonet or Adam's needle. Overall most yucca will form a mound that resembles a Dracena or corn plant on steroids. The leaves do have fine serrations and the tips are spiked, which makes careful handling a must. Overall with time yucca can form a dense impenetrable barrier that with age will spread by rhizomes. Once mature a yucca will produce tall flower stalks covered in white or cream colored bell-shaped flowers.

Next is part four of the xeriscaping series which covers naturalized xeriscaping which will be posted shortly.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Xeriscaping Part II: Agricultural Xeriscaping

Xeriscaping is generally thought of as an ornamental garden concept, which is fine since the majority of the time it is. With the effects of climate change, it is crucial to find a way to feed ourselves and yet not use as much water to do so. It is safe to say that most cultures that have thrived in arid regions have already unlocked this secret but for some reason it has not taken hold in America as one would expect.  Fortunately without genetic meddling there is a number of plants that can produce ample crops with minimal water A few of these plants are listed below.

Fruiting Plants
Despite popular belief, it is quite possible to grow fruiting plants under arid conditions with good results. The key to fruit production under such conditions is to ensure soil quality and provide supplemental irrigation until the plants are well established. With some careful placement most fruiting plants can be quite productive.
- Figs, Olives, Persimmon, Pomegranate.

Vegetables are somewhat easier to utilize in a xeriscaping climate due to their adaptability  and high nutrient value. Surprisingly certain vegetables even have ornamental value as their foliage can be quite attractive when used in the right  combinations with other plants. Agricultural xeriscaping compatible vegetables can be broken up into several categories based on what parts you eat. Leaf vegetables include Amaranth, Asparagus, Chicory, Dandelions, and Prickly Pear. Vegetables where one eats the 'fruit' of the plant that work well with xeriscaping include Currant-type Tomatoes, Garden Huckleberry, Ground Cherry, Peppers, Prickly pear (fruit), tomatillo and wonder-berries.  Grain vegetables should also be considered and they are a core staple, Sesame, Millet and Corn* are two good examples of drought tolerant grains. Lastly one must consider the vegetables in which we eat or use the roots. The root vegetable grouping includes Carrot, Chicory** and , Dandelion**.

Thankfully growing herbs in arid situations is quite easy as many common herbs hate wet feet and will tolerate drought quite well once established. As a general rule of thumb, if the herb your considering has large soft leaves that bruise easily it is like unsuitable for use as a xeriscaping herb. Also one might also want to consider the herb's native range and if it can become invasive. For instance in the right region rosemary can become borderline invasive yet in others it is a well behaved shrub. Some reliable herbs for agricultural xeriscaping include; Artemesia, Eucalyptus, Germander, Lemon Verbena, Rosemary, Sage, Santolina, Tansy, Tarragon, Yarrow.

In short, with some good planning and careful site preparation one should be able to produce excellent quality food with minimal waste of water and use of resources.  Despite what you might read in the horticulture magazines and see on television, xeriscaping does not have to be just for show. Check back on Friday for the next edition of  LITFM's Xeriscaping series, the topic will be Ornamental Xeriscaping. Also I'd like tot hank everyone who has purchased a copy of the book, Southward Skies: A northern guide to southern gardening; thanks to all of you the first print run is almost sold out. A few remaining copies can be bought at Watching Booksellers in Montclair New Jersey! For those wondering The second print run is coming up will be available through and will have some neat surprises included.

*only the heritage or heirloom types.
** The roots of these plants are used as coffee substitutes.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Introduction to Xeriscaping

These days with climate change and other ecological issues we hear and see a steady stream of 'green' initiatives that can reportedly reduce your costs in time, efficiency and increase one or more positive aspects of certain things. Today I am discussing Xeriscaping, which by name is a portmanteau of the Greek word Xeros and the word Landscaping.  Xeros for note means dry  and the name Xeriscaping means landscaping without water.  The truth to this is that unless your growing a hearty collection of rocks it isn't possible to really garden without water but it is possible to garden with heavily reduced water requirements.

For the purposes of this series, xeriscaping is broken up into three sub-sections; agricultural, ornamental, and natural. The three types will individually be discussed in the following articles in detail. Before we get to that series of concepts it is wise to make a key point about xeriscaping. Making a xeriscaped garden does not necessarily mean cactus, succulents or some sort of design resembling a pueblo seen in a wild west movie. A xeriscaped garden can be quite attractive if designed and planned right and even the placement of hard features such as boulders can aid the appearance.

The key to xeriscaping on the eastern coast is to think unconventionally, we know what xeriscaping is supposed to be but it will take some thought to determine what else it can be. as with any gardening concept the options are only limited by your climate and your own willingness to experiment with the plant material.

Next time we will cover the LITFM concept of Agricultural Xeriscaping, tune in Friday for more!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Perils of G.M.O.

Originally August was to be dedicated to xeriscaping and in fact a few articles will be posted on this topic over the next few weeks to fill this void. But today I have an announcement, you can see me on TV! I was interviewed about my book "Southward Skies: A Northern Guide to Southern Gardening", on the Cumberland County Progressives TV show, the show is posted on the Cumberland County Progressives site at the link below.

The thing about Genetically Modified Organisms is that many do not understand the true scope of these creations and many are buried in the excessive hype surrounding them. For the record I do not support the propagation of GMO food in any shape or form. I would go so far as to say that the best legacy a Politician could have is the successful passing of a strict law or laws that force the clear and concise labeling of what is GMO and what is not on agricultural products and or chemicals.

One thing to clarify is the difference between a natural hybrid and a Genetically Modified Organism. A natural hybrid is normally the result of sexual reproduction between two naturally compatible plants within a similar genetic line. A good example of this can be found with the large varieties of tomatoes  for instance the brandy wine types. In a good heirloom catalog one can find pink, chocolate, green, red and yellow brandy wine all of which result from natural pollination.  A genetically modified organism is one that could not naturally exist  because it requires delicate removal and introduction of genetic material to produce a species that otherwise would not have occurred in nature. A good example is 'Golden Rice',  this variety of rice was altered to produce carotene in it's grains giving them a golden-yellow hue and additional nutritional value. Naturally rice comes in many colors but golden-yellow is not one of them  so the breeders had to insert genes from a vegetable that produced carotene under normal circumstances.  There is no way to tell how long or how many studies were made to ascertain the long-term health effects of this rice or if it was merely a white elephant of cereal grains.

Why are Genetically modified organisms bad? We do not know the long-term health effects of GMO foods for sure, Companies like Monsanto aren't exactly forthcoming with their study information and often will not allow independent third party investigations into their claims. Furthermore we have the problem of genetic aggression in GMO species. In central and South America, indigenous species of corn and maize are being bred out of existence by aggressive strains of genetically modified corn. For those who do not understand the biology of corn, it is wind pollinated, as such it's pollen can travel for many miles on a good breeze. This wind pollination means that if a neighbor a few miles up the road is producing starlink corn, and the breeze blows it's pollen onto your differing corn crop you now have genetically contaminated crops. This contamination leads to the destruction of numerous indigenous species of corn that have been cultivated for centuries.

Corporate irresponsibility and greed play a constant role in the proliferation of GMO species. A number of GMO food crops, particularly cereal grains are bred to be sterile. That is these crops produce seed but the seed will not germinate which forces the farmer to come back to the corporation yearly to pay high prices just to survive while likely going further and further in debt every year. Adding further insult to injury are the lawsuits over genetic contamination, which happens most in parts of the world where poverty is endemic and the local farmer can do little to defend him or herself against predatory multinational corporations. This sort of irresponsibility starts with a GMO crop that has not been fully tested, and then that crop produces pollen that is transferred in the usual ways to non GMO crops. When the farmer saves the seed of his crop for next year's planting he or she has no idea the seed is contaminated, and when and if it sprouts, the farmer gets a lawsuit for growing genetically copyrighted materials. When the farmer looses his land due to a legal battle for which he or she is often ill-equipped to fight, the corporation will often seize the farmer's land.  In short both the crop and the crop's designer are opportunistic, and if it means more control more profit why change it?

As a  last note the old saying 'You are what you eat' could not be more relivant today, because if you understand the digestive process, you realize that with every bit of vegetable or protein you eat, your stomach absorbs a bit of that food's DNA. How our body processes it on the molecular level is beyond my knowledge but I do understand that those materials don't just disappear.  A few dietary studies have linked excessive protein uptake with cancerous growth, and cancer is what happens when genetics break down and do damaging things. So with that line of logic what then happens when you constantly ingest say GMO salmon that has been bred to be bigger, and by effect have more meat and be more aggressive? 

Think about it, and tune in on Wednesday the 31st for the first of the xeriscaping series.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Welcome to August

As the summer heat continues to pummel the country LITFM presents a new summer article regarding a neat plant you may not have heard of; Solanum quitoense; commonly called Bed of Nails. Before I get into this weird and wonderful yet somewhat rare member of the nightshade family I would like to mention that the results of the Nightshade trials are fast approaching, results are due in August and believe me the results were not at all what was expected. Also I've been asked to be a guest on the Cumberland County Progressives TV show to talk about the book and some garden stuff. It airs on Time-Warner cable channel 7 and you can expect it will be posted after taping on the progressives site via Vimeo the Cumberland County Progressive's site is here:

As soon as I know what days the show will air you can find it posted right here, and now here is a garden fact.

With the summer heat so high watering is harder then ever but did you know that if you follow four basic rules your effort is cut in half?

1. Determine if your wilted plant is wilting due to heat or dryness.

2. Always check pots, planters and raised beds thinner then 2 feet first.

3. Try not to waste water wetting leaves, this may damage some plants or promote fungal diseases.

4. Most plats under drought stress badly need about 1" of water a week, you can provide some of this by watering the base of the plant while counting aloud to 60. Note that fruiting plants may need signifigantly more and thus you can easily double the amount or reduce it as needed.

The above  Bed of Nails plants are quite young, but  in shape and form except for the large amounts of fuzz resemble eggplant in appearance

Solanum quitoense - Naranjilla (aka Bed of Nails)

This is one of those plants that is so bizarre that it screams for more attention. Commonly mistaken with it's cousin the Devil's Thorn (aka Firethorn Nightshade) which is Solanum pyracanthium. Bed of Nails has more then ornamental value. The first thing to know about these strange members of the nightshade family is that they are covered in fine prickly hairs. These hairs can get lodged in the skin not unlike the fine needles on most cactus. Needless to say mature specimens have more developed needles and thus you want to wear gloves and plant these plants before the needles are developed. A mature Bed of Nails is a sight to behold. Large seemingly fuzzy leaves have brilliantly purple colored spines jutting out at somewhat regular intervals along the leaf margins and veins. The same spines appear along the stems which makes for a striking green, gray and purple color combination. Additionally some of the foliage may take on a purple hue which addes to the surprise value of the plant. I know what your thinking, 'Well thats nice and all but what do I get for all that prickly madness?'. Simply put Bed of Nails produces edible fruit. The fruit itself is a common staple in certain south American cuisine. The fruits, roughly the size of a golf ball, are often cut in quarters and eaten fresh with a little bit of salt. Otherwise the fruit can be squeezed for juice and be drank or used as a citrusy flavoring. Some recipes go so far as to use the Naranjilla juice as a replacement for lemon or lime juice.
There is one precaution about Naranjilla you should know, it looks exactly like a similar plant called Devil's Thorn that I mentioned earlier. Because of genetic variability with Naranjilla, it may be hard to tell the plants apart at times. I do not know if Devil's Thorn is edible so you should remember that the fruit of Naranjilla when cut in half while ripe will always have a green ring roughly where the seeds are.
As far as care goes Naranjilla is undemanding, it can tolerate drought if the soil is decent and can form impenetrable but annual thickets once established. For our climate it is an annual, but it will return from seed if positioned well. In climates further then hardiness zone 9 it should be treated as a annual. Otherwise you can harvest overripe fruit and collect the seed for next year. Occasional fertilizer treatments will aid it's growth greatly and if you want a heavy yeild feed it weekly. With summer temperatures reaching record levels this year I would advise you pay close attention to maintaining good watering practices.

A good book that details Both Solanum pyracanthum and Solanum quitoense is Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellenchamp and Paula Gross on page 206-207.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Heat Is On!

The heat of summer continues, but thankfully all you out there have everything you wanted planted already right? Well if not today I have three fun herbs to put on your must have list for the year. Todays plants of note are Pineapple Sage, Lemon Verbena and Lemon Balm but before I get into the trio of iced tea empowering herbs heres a gardening fact.

Did you know that 'Sage Brush' is actually three differing plants? There are three plants that depending on region are used as Salvia apiana, Salvia mellifera and Artemesia tridentata; or Sacred Sage, Black Sage and Mountain Sagebrush by common name respectively. Fortunately one of the three can be grown outdoors here in North Carolina, Black sage. For those in more northeastern climates if you can get one Mountain sage brush can be grown in containers to the point it makes an excellent bonsai plant.

[The pineapple sages are refusing to photogenic for this article]
Salvia elegans - Pineapple Sage

Pineapple Sage is a commonly seen but rarely regarded herb found in most garden centers. In northern climates it is a absolute annual but in North Carolina, or zone 7 it is a tender perennial further south you can of coruse expect it will return yearly. Pineapple sage unlike most of the sage family does it's best when presented with protection from midday and afternoon sun. Ample moisture and a good soil will go a long way towards maintaining your stand of this sage. But what is it used for? Pineapple Sage has attractive red flowers that can attract hummingbirds and pollinators. The leaves impart a fruity flavor when cooked or soaked in a beverage. You can propagate pineapple sage stems by layering or through cuttings with rooting hormones.

Alloysia citrodora/triphylla - Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena is an unusual herb that has a dedicated following of gardeners who know in great detail it's virtues. Strangely enough Lemon Verbena is not seen in as many garden Centers as it should be. Why this herb has not caught on is beyond me. For those readers who don't know, This herb is the best lemon flavor and scented herb you can get your hands on short of an actual lemon. It is worthwhile to mention lemon verbena is actually in the verbena family and thus has exceptional drought, heat and poor soil tolerance. Furthermore Lemon Verbena makes for a attractive potted plant indoors for winter and cuttings root easily. In the culinary role if you have a recipe that calls for a lemony scent and flavor. The real joy of lemon verbena is in a tall glass of Iced tea at the end of a long work day.

Melissa officinalis - Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is the most common lemon flavored herb of all time short of an actual lemon. It is rare to find a garden center without this herb on the racks in the spring. This is not due to marketing but that Lemon Balm is easy to grow and readily self-propagates from seed. The cultivation of this plant in the north versus the south does vary. In the northeast Lemonbalm can be grown in full sun with little issue and moderate supplemental watering and slight soil improvement needs. In the southeast Lemon balm is best grown in partial to full shade and needs regular water and soil with additional fertility and organic matter. As a herb Lemon balm is more scent then flavor. Few herbs can match the consistancy of the aroma as its sweet lemon fragrance when combined with real lemon can be a real seasoning powerhouse. Lemon balm does make a nice but somewhat thin flavoring for iced tea and in the right amount can make a refreshing tea all on it's own. Cuttings of lemon blam if you are so inclined can be rooted in water, but if happy it will propagate freely by seed.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Okra Trials

 Plant #6 proved to be the prize of the entire trial

As promised the results of the Okra trials are in and here are the  the F1 hybrid trials were nothing less then stunning. Two batches of seed were sown; the first was a random selection from available supplies while the second was a mini-trial where set numbers of dark, gray and light colored seeds were sown in set rows to determine which was more viable. Of the first batch of twelve only 4 germinated where as in the second batch seven out of nine of the dark colored seeds germinated while none of the gray or tan seeds germinated.
The interesting part of this result is that it puts saved seed at odds with store-bought seed. Typically the seed from packs at the store is gray, where as the saved seed was almost black. it might be the variety or just the seed companies treatment of their seed materials.

Sowing Results:
12 seeds sown on 02-25-2011: 4 of 12 seeds germinated
24 seeds sown on 05-01-2011: 7 of 25 seeds germinated

Result:  germination rate is 20% in general or about 78% if only dark colored seed is used.

The actual field trial saw the following placements of plants:
#1-3: Planted in Reinforced mound bed. (#2 petered out in early june for reasons unknown.)
#5-6: Used for 14" pot isolation trial. (#5 developed root rot in trials)
#7-8: Planted in Reinforced mound bed
#9-11: Loaned to two outside sites for true field trials.

This image is of plant #3, note the deep lobes in the mature leaves.

Needless to say the actual feild trials saw some interesting genetic variability, Plants 1-3 all displayed a deeply lobed thin-leaf 'filagree' leaf trait with additional red coloration. Plants 1-3 also displayed a noted lack of vigor. In contrast, plants #7-11 demonstrated moderate vigor, the maple leaf trait and even in feild trials have been found to be highly drought tolerant provided they have good soil. Plant #6 which is detailed below has shown to posses a trait for exceptionally large size.

As seen on a 90 degree day in full afternoon sun little wilt is presented despite the plant's size.

Malvaceae Abelmoschus esculentus 'Clark's Colossal'

Type: F1 Hybrid, specimen #6
Overall growth average: 0.80 inches per day
Germination Rate: 30% overall, 78% among darker colored seed.
Days until Germination: 4-10 days
Days until Mature: 30 days
Height at flower bud set: 11"
Ripe Pod Size: 3-5"

Both of the leaf-traits are clearly visible in this picture, the maple-leaf and 'blood spot' trait

Alternate, simple possibly upwards of 13 inches across. Normally can be found to be three to five lobed, the lobes are roughly ovate with acute leaf tips, a doubly-dentate margin and prominant palmate veins. Where the leaf and petiol meet there is a dark red coloration that fades along the upper surface of the petiole. Petioles can often be up to 0.20" in diameter and as much as 7.5" long.

Older stems are often largely straight however closer to the apical tip the plant takes on an zig-zagging shape. Overall the stem is somewhat glabrous, green, but with age it may attain a gray color.

The estimated potential size based on prime growing weather from now until the end of september using prior growing trends indicates the specimen could be upwards of 4-7 feet. The lower end of the range represents a plant grown in a 14" or larger pot with optimal soil and water. The Upper end of the size range is based on the sample being planted in-ground with optimal soil and water.

possibly 9.0 to 11.0 but typically grown as an annual.

Under optimal conditions this hybrid is upright with leaves born on exceptionally thick and long petioles. Side branching seems opportunistic only appearing on bare sections of the trunk perhaps due to latent cells. Generally the massive leaves can measure up to a 13" across and form a dence canopy that shades the central bud. The stems are thick, can withstand a lot of natural punishment and seem to rapidly reach 1" capipers with under two months. As a whole the plant has deffinate value in the garden

Rate of Growth
Slow to start but rapid once the temperatures stayed in the 80's.

The overall texture is the same in effect as the ornamental Castor bean, the foliage is exotic and each leaf is massive. This okra could be the non-toxic foliage replacement for the ornamental Castor Bean in the landscape.

Leaf Color
The leaves have a rich green coloration, this color is partly due to the heavy veins that add minute shadows and texture this darkening the surface of the leaves.

Flower is typical of a Mallow each is born solitary bears five clasped petals and is somewhat veriable in color, possible hues include white, cream, or pale yellow. Flowers are open for about 12-24 hours then promptly the petals wilt and the seed pod begins to form.

This picture was taken just a few days ago for scale, the okra is growing in a 14" diameter pot. the window pane behind it is 2' 2" wide. The okra is 29 inches tall. At the time this picture was taken the largest leaf was 14" wide by 13" long. #6 is the largest specimen on the trial and the only one to show this 'giant' trait.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A weed only by name: Part IV

Today is the final installment of the 'A weed only in name' series; thus far we have covered two weeds per installment and today's two will bring that total to eight 'weeds'.  If it is requested, there is room for a second edition of this series, just email or comment up here on the blog that you want to know more and it'll go on the schedule. The 'weeds' today are Phytolacca americana and Asclepias tuberosa  which are commonly called Pokeweed and Milkweed respectively.  But as always before we get into blowing away the label of weed here is a garden fact.

What do Squash, Melons, Zucchini, Cucumbers, Gourds and, Pumpkins have in common?
All of these plants belong to the Cucurbitaceae family and are thus related. The major differences beside the physical characteristics of the fruiting bodies and flowers are the presence of tendrils on the vines. Also there is the overall habit of the plants in consideration.

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed
This is an immature pokeweed that surfaced in a top soil pile in the rear of the test gardens, to date there is no record of pokeweeds growing in this garden's location.

Poke weed is a commonly misunderstood perennial,  It's tall and somewhat awkward form seems entirely out of place in any given garden yet it has unique value to the forage gardener's menu.  Poke weed is a taprooted perennial, which means it is uniquely suited to dealing with poor or packed soils. Older specimens of pokeweed can have taproots upwards of 18" in diameter making the resulting plant quite robust to the poiont of being a weird yet useful shrub. The edible part  is the new shoots that arise from the taproot generally they will need to be cooked in three or four changes of water to remove any phytolaccin.  Phytolaccin is a cathartic and slightly narcotic substance that is used for treating rheumatism.
The berries which are a dark magenta-purple in color can be used to make a pink or reddish dye.  One can imagine the effect of a stand of pokeweed with voodoo lily, jack in the pulpit or even some may apples can make for one heck of a woodland display. For note this poke weed emerged absolutely as a volunteer. I plant to let it continue doing so for as long as it does not become a issue. The fact it emerged proves the longevity or fertility of pokeweed seeds and it's ease of growth if seed were to be collected from ripe berries.

Asclepias tuberosa/tuberosum - Milkweed (Plerurisy Root)
These milkweeds were first sown in 2009, and were thought to have failed last summer, yet they returned again despite excavations.

There is little else in the summer then a stand of Milkweed covered in pollinators each small flower in a bright shade of orange. Single handedly this perennial which reseeds readily can make the heat and humidity of the summer worth it.  For those readers not familiar with milkweed, this  is a herb with a few differing names, in some texts it's called Pleurisy Root, and yet in others it's called Butterflyweed. The former name comes form it's use in the treatment of respiratory ailments where as the latter derives from  the simple fact it's an ample source of pollen and nectar for many pollinators such as butterflies and bees. What is not known is that the roots when dried  can be used as an anti-inflammatory. Perhaps paired with Swamp sunflower Helianthus   the two could make for one heck of a full sun color display. I might add that the milkweed in the picture is from my own test gardens. As a cultural care note, I started this milkweed in 2009 from seed collected in 2007. It has yet to fail to emerge yearly though this year it has remained longer. I hesitate to transplant it due to this plant's noted taproot which is sensitive to disturbance.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Attack of the Cone Heads!

[Sorry for the delay blogspot was being weird yesterday about uploading photos and this post  really needs images to look right so I held off and the problem seems to have cleared up. - TC ]

Today we have a quadruple-header of plants, the title of this post just screamed 'do extra!' and so here we have four differing members of the Aster family whom all are referred to as a type of coneflower.  Given the number of plants to cover there wont be a garden fact in the normal fashion as each plant has a little fact included with their information. Without further delay the' Attack of the Coneheads' will begin.

Echinacea angustifolia - Narrow Leaf Coneflower
If you look really hard squint with your left eye you might just be able to see the plant.

Narrow-Leaf Echinacea is an interesting medicinal herb in the aster family. It may not be heavily cultivated, have the orderly looks nor the distribution range of the other cone flowers it is certainly no less important. First off it is a native plant to North America, it's range includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Kansas, missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and a very limited area of Canada. It's seeds are somewhat difficult to germinate as they require stratification and may need extra dormancy periods. Like most members of the aster family the seedling that results is spindly and barely of note for a year. In the second year the seedling finally really emerges and starts putting on real size. One of it's common names as noted by the USDA is Black Samson Echinacea while other sources list it as Western Coneflower or Kansas Snakeroot.  Since it is in the Aster family it's a given that the flowers attract pollinators but it's medicinal value is much greater then Purple Coneflower in all the same uses.

Echinacea paradoxa - Yellow Coneflower
This is typical of a first year plant, don't worry will be great next year!

Yellow coneflower got the specific epithet 'paradoxa' as a direct nod to the fact it looks like purple coneflower but has yellow flowers instead of purple. This coneflower can be bought at nurseries and garden centers and it's seed is readily available through seed catalogs. But be warned it's germination rate is low and may benefit from sanctification or dormancy treatments.  For those that emerge it is worth it, as the resulting plant is a real stunner in the landscape and worth every dime.Should you be growing both E. paradoxa and E. angustfolia side by side, you can tell them apart by the fact that E. angustifolia has little to no petiole on the leaf where as E. paradoxa has a very obvious petiole.

Echinacea purpurea - Purple Coneflower
Who needs fancy cultivars when the original looks this good?

Purple coneflower is the most prolific member of this coneflower quartet, it's seed is available in almost every seed rack in spring, and a lot of the seed catalogs offer it. You would be hard pressed to find a garden center that does not carry Purple coneflower. The reason is that it is a reliable and undemanding perennial, it tolerates poor soil, drought, and supports native pollinators with it's copious amounts of nectar and feeds the birds with it's heavy seed production. It also is easy to make cultivars with and thus a number of red, red-orange, pink, white and purple shades are available also.  This is definitely one of the black-thumb tolerant garden perennials. It is a little realized fact that echinacea once established can provide reliable color to a xeriscaping bed as long as it's given excellent soil. It will to be watered a little when hopelessly wilted but a liter of water will often suffice to bring this perennial back. For note the specimen in the picture above is about three feet tall, this is a common height for an purple coneflower that is sited well with decent care and good soil. It was grown from seed and this is it's third year in that spot undisturbed.

Rudbeckia lacinata - Cutleaf Coneflower
This specimen was collected with permission from a stream bed in North Carolina.

Also known as Tall Coneflower, Green-Headed Coneflower, Goldenglow and Thimbleweed, Cut-leaf Coneflower is quite adaptable as it's native range is noted by the USDA to be almost every state on the eastern side of the USA and  most of Canada.  Unlike the other conefloweres covered today Cut-Leaf Coneflower can tolerate clay soils with poor drainage and can even handle being submerged for brief periods.  Given the right conditions it will form dense colonies  in which mature plants can reach heights of four feet . What really sets this coneflower apart is the leaves, as the name suggests they are very deeply lobed and resemble some of the coarser ferns. In the south they also bear the potential to be evergreen which can compliment a good four-season garden design. Lastly, the foliage of Cutleaf Coneflower is entirely edible in a forage salad, which adds another wild green to the list.

As a final note, The three Echinaceas listed in this post all have herbal-Medicinal properties that are noted to come from the roots if not the foliage.  All three are noted to posses medicinal value as an antiviral, anti inflammatory, immune system boosting memory improving power house that just happens to look really good and still helps support the local pollinators and the birds.  There is also another noted species Echinacea Tenneseensis, which is noted to be another native. Unfortunately it's native habitat is being destroyed by reckless over development. For conservation sakes you may want to add it to your list of coneflowers if only to preserve it for future generations of gardeners to appreciate.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A weed only by name: Part III

T.C. Sorry for the delay with this post I got tied up on Sunday and could not get the photos edited nor the post posted.

Before I start with the third installment of the 'A weed only in name'  series I'd like to thank the Cumberland County Progressives for having me as their guest speaker at the meeting yesterday.  For those attending your questions were excellent, you covered  a great range of topics and even highlighted some concerns that will likely be addressed right here on LITFM in the coming days. Thank you for attending, and making the event a success. For those interested the Cumberland County Progressives website can be found at the address below, please check it out it's a good site and their TV show is really good!

Horticultural Field Trial 001-2011: "The Pod People"
The final results of the study were calculated and the stand of Taichung show peas surveyed produced 9.25 pounds of snow peas. The tallest vine reached 7' 1"  or 85 inches which is important because the stated average height for the variety is between 3 and 4 feet. Overall this variety has been added to the Verticulture Seed Bank. The entire list of Verticulture Compliant Plants will be published at year's end.

Without further delay here is the third installment of the 'A weed only in name' series where we take a good look at plants deemed weeds somewhat unfairly and why they should be cultivated. The two herbs in today's post are Impatiens capensis and Plantago major; their common names are Jewel weed and Broad-leaf Plantain respectively.

Impatiens capensis - Jewelweed

Jewelweed is a native species of Impatiens and can often be found growing in the woods with poison ivy growing nearby. This proximity is  quite helpful because the juice of crushed jewelweed foliage can be used to soothe poison ivy rashes as well as insect stings and bites in general.  To the casual observer it looks like normal impatiens on steroids as the average plant can get up to four feet tall. The name jewelweed probably derives from the pale green translucent stems  and  the large bright orange flowers which are readily visible from a distance. In cultivation Jewel weed needs a soil that is rich with compost or leaf mold or to some degree effectively mimics the soil structure of a deciduous forest.  It is a good attractant to pollinators and will resow itself if it is happy as it is an annual.  If you want impatiens without all the maintenance or fertilization go for jewelweed  in both the north and the south you will be delighted with the stands of flowers and foliage as well as a free source of poison ivy relief.

[Photo Coming soon]
Plantago major - Broad Leaf Plantain
These plantains were harvested from a job-site and seemed to recover very rapidly 
from transplant shock becoming firmly rooted in their pots in less then a week.

Ah, the noble plantain, a much maligned herb that is often given a bad name by the herbicide companies and by a few garden experts with too narrow a view point.  For those not familiar with broad-leaf plantain,  it is a neat foliage plant with heavily ribbed leaves and spathe-type flowers. Broad-leaf plantain is more readily found up north though as the picture shows when you find one you are liable to find others close by. In cultivation Plantains are generally undemanding, in fact since they tolerate leeched soil with ease giving them better soil guarantees you good quality plants. For herbal uses plantains are noted to have astringent, diuretic and expectorant properties and is also noted to be valued for treating respiratory, gastrointestinal, bladder and ulcers. Also the juice from crushed plantain foliage is noted to relieve insect bites and stings. As a food young leaves can be used as a forage salad green or cooked like spinach and the ripe seed if ground is said to yield a flour substitute. Also it is said that the foliage of mature plants can yield a gold to tan colored dye.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What a heatwave we had  on the eastern coast, if your in North Carolina I'm sure your feeling pretty good after those major Thunderstorms broke up the oppressive weather! For all you gardeners out there welcome back to another edition of Lost In the Farmer's Market. Today we have a trio of plants that  can bring serious color to the dull foliage in your beds. Before we get into the plants I must state this disclaimer and then a  horticulture fact.
'LITFM is not responsible for any blindness or partial blindness caused by staring at the following photographs of  the topic plants of the day. All readers are strongly urged to wear sunglasses or a welder's mask not doing so could result in blindness, more different blindness and or the sudden urge to buy more plants for your garden.'

Did you know that a plant noted as a 'Native' on it's plant tag may not be native to your area at all? In fact there is little regulation of the truthfulness of the native plant craze, so plants tagged as natives may originate from a wide swathe of the continent. Furthermore it is common to find that these 'Natives'  have incorrect or incomplete care information. When considering a native plant for your garden it is recommended you do a bit of internet research at the USDA site using the plant's full Latin name to determine it's suitability for your garden.

Agastache foeniculum 'Golden Jubilee' - Golden Jubilee Anise-Hyssop

Brighter then bright, and still medicinal type Anise-Hyssop!  The flowers while not
exactly as flamboyant as the foliage are pale lavender and are borne in spikes atop
the plant in late spring.

I admit, golden jubilee is not a new variety but it certainly does not get the press it deserves.  This herb aside from being a true Anise-Hyssop has dramatic golden yellow foliage and a tall cylindrical form that draws the eye.  This variety of agastache bears ovate leaves with serrated margins that add texture to the almost neon foliage. When paired with herbs that have darker or finer textured foliage such as rosemary, echinacea, tansy or traditional evergreen germander this agastache really stands out.  Thankfully Golden Jubilee has not lost the expected Anise-hyssop toughness and will withstand full southern sun and doughty periods. As a perennial if your soil is good you can expect better displays year after year. Generally this anise hyssop can get by with limited watering, virtually no fertilization as long as the soil has good organic matter and drains well. Plain green agastache is more likely to survive reliably up north,  as golden jubilee was not available when the test garden was running in New Jersey I cannot say of it's survivability above Virginia. In North Carolina it has yet to disappoint.

Teucrium chamaedrys 'Summer Sunshine'  - Summer Sunshine Germander

The picture above was taken on a cloudy day so the flowers would 
be more visible against the bright foliage. Generally Summer Sunshine in 
early summer is covered in lavender flowers.

Check this one out!  This particular variety of germander is not for the knot garden unless you really want to scare some old gardeners. Summer Sunshine germander has all the fine qualities of traditional germander; the neat heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that stand out as almost being too formal. Like traditional germander summer sunshine is evergreen well behaved and looks especially good guessed it plants with darker or contrasting color foliage.  A few of these little guys inter-planted with green santolina with a backdrop of black potato vine is liable to cause a three-car pile-up in front of the house! Thankfully for all it's flashy color  summer sunshine is undemanding, it can tolerate average soils but will do better in soil that is enriched with compost. As a rule the germanders will not tolerate wet or waterlogged soils but are quite successful when nestled amongst the rocks of a rock garden or as part of a raised bed. Given that Summer Sunshine is evergreen you can expect to have a neon herb to cheer you up even in the most bleak days of winter. The T. chamedrys type of germander will survive as far north as New Jersey for sure. The one planted in the test gardens up there remained strong year after year.

Teucrium viscidum 'Lemon & Lime'   - Lemon & Lime Germander

 Lemon & Lime is bright in full sun and will bleach a little if left in full southern sun,
against finer foliage or darker colors it really illuminates a corner of a bed.

Finally we have Lemon & Lime Germander, the germander that delivers a swift kick to what you thought a germander should look like. It neither looks like nor in habit grows like a traditional germander and were one not wary it could be mistaken for a lantana or some odd tree seedling.  Seriously Lemon & Lime is unique among germanders because it is deciduous, that is it drops it's leaves in winter. Unlike other germanders this one will need a warmer spot during winter as it's a bit more cold sensitive and will probably not survive northern winters outside. Even despite this the elliptical leaves have a fine serrated margin and are a bright lime-green color with varied yellow and green variegation in the center. What is unique is that the variegation are somewhat angular, as if the plant was trying to make it's colors artistic. This variegation of course is very eye-catching, so much so that after a while you can recognize this plant from thirty paces with no problem. Paired with bronze Fennel and or Artemesia you can get a really eye-popping metallic effect. If you can imagine a row of this germander with  a mixed row of Powis castle artemesia and the bronze fennel  the foliage and colors blending to make a display distracting enough to possibly cause plane crashes. It is noted that this particular germander can survive with some protection as far north as some southern parts of Maine, while I personally have not tested this it may be possible with good planning. Also other possible common names for T. viscidum are Variegated germander and Caucasian germander.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A weed only by name: Part II

First off I'd like thank all of you who came out for the author's event at the Headquarters Library,  it was very interesting talking with all of you and you made the event a success.

Today we have part two of the 'A weed only by name' series, and the two plants  being covered are Chicory and Dandelions. Both of these perennial herbs get a lot of bad press mostly on the part of the producers of chemical herbicides*. But little attention is given to the uses for and advantages of cultivated varieties of these rather well-adapted herbs. Before we get into the raw details of both plants here is a verticulture fact.
Did you know that the average tomato grown in soil needs about five gallons of soil in order to have adequate root space?  For full size indeterminate tomatoes a 15" pot or a 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom is the bare minimum for optimal yields. Translated to a garden bed situation this is an area of about 1.5 cubic feet of loosened and preferably enriched soil. We tend to think of tomatoes as a upright vegetable like eggplant or peppers but the truth is they are one of the few true vines botanically. Every portion of the stem can root if mature, and in late season you can clone your tomatoes by taking 5 inch stem cuttings and rooting them in water. 

Chicorum intybus - Chicory

Without the tell tale flower stalk chicory is 
often hard to distinguish from wild dandelion.

Chicory is not a new herb in fact anthropological evidence indicates it was cultivated as an agricultural crop at least as far back as ancient Egypt. In more modern times Chicory played a important role in the war effort of the Confederacy as Union naval blockades cut off shipments of real coffee to southern ports.  During World War Two, coffee was needed for American troops at the battle front so chicory again became critical and was the most available coffee on the market. To this day in the south east Luzianne coffee still produces chicory-coffee blend and this may become more important with rising fuel costs.
Another side to this common perennial is that it has long-standing medicinal and chemical value that simply does not get the public attention it deserves. Firstly, Chicory is related to tansy and artemesia both of which are reputed for their ability to expel worms and bears toxicity parasites and chicory too is capable of the same. Chicory root contains a compound called Inulin, which is a source of soluble dietary fiber and it's base compounds can be converted to both glucose and fructose. Both fructose and glucose are easier on the body then sucrose. Further more; some brewers have used roasted chicory root to add flavor to their stouts which in turn may raise the nutritional value of said stout.
Biologically Endive and Radicchio are both related to Chicory with the former being C. endiva and the latter being a cultivated and blanched type of Chicory.  As far as cultivation goes, chicory is absolutely undemanding,  requiring decent soil with good drainage and preferably modest amounts of moisture and organic matter. Chicory is at it's best when you stack the deck however, if you provide excellent soil with good drainage a decent mulch and regular water you can expect rapid growth possible flowering the first year and a shorter time between sowing and harvest.  If you ever wondered what chicory looked like all you need do is drive down a interstate. If the plant growing through the cracks in the cement divider has sky blue flowers on wispy dark green stems it's probably chicory.  The fact is even grown as an ornamental chicory has attractive flowers is well-behaved and if you want to try it out you can order it from Richter's Herbs.

Taraxicum officinale - Dandelion

As the picture attests there is great variety in the 
leaves of dandelion even the cultivated types.

Despite the bad rap given to dandelions by the Herbicide industry these perennial herbs are supremely adapted to surviving where little else can. A dandelion's taproot  can reach down more then a foot to find nutrient and to anchor the plant. It is thought by some that the legend of the hydra in mythology actually is derived from the dandelion's ability to recover from being top cut and that partially split or cut dandelion tap roots will often form multiple growing points and thus more 'heads'. Few realize that dandelions are an important and easily maintained source of nectar and pollen for  Bees of all types. Additionally a well maintained stand of Dandelions can produce ample greens and flowers for varied culinary recipes.  A dandelion's tap root when mature can be cleaned dried and roasted to make a coffee substitute. The numerous flowers can be used to make Dandelion wine or beer. Young dandelion leaves can be used in salads and resemble mesclun mix salad greens in flavor but are a bit more nutritious. According to the USDA, raw dandelion greens  an exceptionally high vitamin K (741%) and a particularly high vitamin C (58%) content as well as quite a bit of beta-carotene (54%) and vitamin A (56%) equivalents. Also it is worthwhile to note that dandelion greens are a reasonable source of Iron (25%), vitamin E (23%) and all this nutrient can be had in a small 3.5 ounce serving which as far as leaf greens go is rather efficient.
As for caring for your dandelions they are largely care free, you can buy dandelion seed from Richter's herbs and start them in jiffy 7 peat pellets just like any other garden plant. Given that dandelions are so well adapted to all but the hottest and driest or wettest sites you can actually get away with planting your dandelions in shade as much as full southern sun.  The trick to cultivating your dandelions for best results is to stack the proverbial deck. Just because dandelions have a taproot that can plow through poor soil doesn't mean they will necessarily  be the best they can be. What you want to do is provide or top-dress the planting site with a few inches of compost or high quality topsoil then put down a layer of mulch. Fertilization isn't necessary but may help.  If your dandelions are really happy you can expect possible flowers late in the first year. Otherwise it may take two or three years to get those cheery yellow disk flowers. Dandelions are largely pest free but may get aphids in a greenhouse situation, additionally Dandelions seem not to be competitive, a few can be clustered with little or no problems provided the soil is really good.

There is just one last thing to mention regarding chicory and dandelions, a mini-garden quiz.

What do Dandelions, Chicory, Lettuce, Endive, Echinacea, Gaillardia, Rudbeckia, Sunflower, Tansy, Feverfew, Zinnia, Santolina, Artemesia, Tarragon, Marigolds, Chrysanthemums, Pyrethrum, Asters and Cosmos all have in common?

Answer: All of these plants belong to the Aster Family commonly called Asteraceae or in older publications Compositae or the 'Disk-Flower' family. Asters are a critical nectar and pollen source for all species of moths, butterflies, bees, wasps, and even some types of ant.

*We mean you Ortho, You... Are... On... Notice!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This is a good way to get a death-threat from the Marlboro Cowboy.

Nicotinana rustica - Wild Tobacco
In contrast to smoking tobacco wild tobacco seems to 
have a more weed-like habit, with much smaller 
leaf area and a less formal appearance.

The origins of the tobacco some choose to smoke are some what unclear biologically speaking but modern tobacco is believed to have been hybridized from three parent species; Nicotiana sylvestris, Nicotiana tomentosiformis and possibly Nicotiana otophoroa. While it is difficult to verify this parentage when you think about it that is still one heck of a botanical three-some. It is clear through anthropological activities undertaken in the Americas that tobacco cultivation seems to date back as far as 5000 BC and there is strong evidence to support the assertion that Native and Meso-American civilizations were smoking tobacco leaves about two-thousand years ago. Though tobacco remained utterly unknown to Europe until 1561 the first plants were delivered to the French court by Jean Nicot. The plant's botanical Latin name is based of his last name and thus Nicotiana as a species was noted in the linnaean system. Tobacco would become so Important that it was valued equally or  better then actual currency and was used as legal tender in some parts of colonial America. The rise of tobacco as a cash crop grew greatly and a number of the fathers of the American revolution both owned plantations and slaves and were set upon producing tobacco. But while some in the late 1500's claimed tobacco cured migraines, coughs, warded off the plague and cured cancer (We call that irony!) others such as King James the first, in 1604 called it lothesome and stated it was dangerous to the lungs and brain.  His comments predicted the spiraling rise in nicotine addiction and lung cancer problems we face today.

Nicotiana alata - Flowering Tobacco

Flowering tobacco is a interesting ornamental that 
can be attractive to hummingbirds if a red or purple 
flowering type is selected. N. sylvestris and N. Langsdorffii 
are noted perennial flowering tobacco species.

The real issue with tobacco is that it is in the nightshade family which includes Belladonna, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Horse nettle, Brugmansia, all of which are very poisonous as is tobacco. The deadly chemical in tobacco is a Nicotine alkaloid, which is a heavily effective insecticide and as such it's an effective way to kill off a person too. Nicotine is in effect a neurotoxin, that is it goes to work on the brain triggering the release of pleasure chemicals with every puff so the brain chemistry becomes altered and cant go back. When you quit your brain chemistry goes a bit haywire and thus the withdrawal symptoms.  The only respite for smokers is that a large portion of the Nicotine is lost through the burning of a cigarette or cigar, but for you chewing tobacco folks you lack that sort of fortune. If you don't believe Tobacco is deadly consider this; were you to harvest a few mature leaves, make a tea out of them and, drink a single eight ounce cup you likely would suffer stomach cramps, profuse sweating, labored breathing, muscular weakness, seizures and death in short order. In fact two species of Tobacco stand out for their heightened toxicity, Nicotiana glauca or tree tobacco gets about twenty feet tall on average and is common in the southwest. Tree Tobacco in addition to nicotine bears a particularly nasty alkaloid called anabasine which when the foliage is eaten causes paralysis and  then death. The other nasty member of the family is Nicotiana rustica or wild tobacco from which Nicotine sulfate is produced. Nicotine sulfate is an especially powerful pesticide because the amount of nicotine is so much higher then smoking tobacco. You might be able to smoke this one but I don't suggest it, if you can make an insecticide out of it do you really want to put that in your body? 

Nicotiana tobacum - (Smoking) Tobacco

Smoking tobacco is a particularly vigorous plant and it's central stems are often recycled post-harvest as stakes for training other plants.

Here is another thought for all of you still reading; between 1980 and 1999 a major court battle occurred over an attempt by Brown & Williamson (a subsidy of British American tobacco* which would later merge with R.J. Reynolds to form Reynolds American inc.) to increase the nicotine content in their tobacco.  The attempt involved cross-breeding Smoking Tobacco (N. tobacum) with Wild Tobacco (N. rustica). The resulting Hybrid was called 'Y1' and was supposed to have had noticeably higher nicotine content and thus more addictive qualities. Imagine if the Tobacco companies had succeeded in producing and marketing 'Y1'. If you thought quitting was hard before, imagine being hooked on some super-tobacco! If you still do not believe that tobacco is deadly, look up a condition called "Green Tobacco Sickness" which is a common hazard of tobacco field workers who have to walk between rows of wet tobacco plants in summer.

As a final word on the subject consider this, tobacco is not an inherently bad group plants in fact biologically they are important as a food source for several species of butterfly and moth and provide nectar to several pollinators and hummingbird species.  What makes them problematic is how we have chosen to utilize the chemicals that occur naturally to this particular species.  Now, for those of you still here, here is how you grow tobacco.  Tobacco prefers a nutrient rich soil with good drainage and if you need to fertilize it is recommended that the fertilizer blend of 8-0-24 or some such similar mixture.  A good layer of mulch will aid in plant development by preventing weed competition and pine straw seems to work the best if only on a basis of economics and efficiency.  Tobacco for the most part is one of those plants that will tend to itself with the exception of needing to be watered regularly.  It is one particularly efficient plant for the purposes of vertical horticulture.

-Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart. (Solanum species)
-Richter's Herbs (info on N. Rustica)
-Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman (Solanum species)
-USDA (Smoking tobacco origins.)
-Carrrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte

*British American tobacco produces the following tobacco products: Barclay, Belair, Carlton (not in the USA), GPC, Kool, Laredo, Lucky Strike, Misty, North State, Pall Mall, Private Stock, Raleigh, Tareyton (not in USA), Viceroy, Wings.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A weed only by name: Part 1

Today's plants of note are the two Portulacas both of which are so closely related most garden books dont even bother to note the specific epithet. Before we delve into that murky gray area between weed and non-weed  there is a event announcement to be made I will be making public appearance at this venue

What: Local Authors' Showcase
Where: Headquarters Library, Pate room 300 Maiden Lane Fayetteville, NC 28301
When:  Saturday June 11, 2011 from 1:00 to 3:00pm

It would be really cool if those of you reading this blog came by, a portion of the proceedes fromt he event benefits the Friends of the Cumberland Public Library and thus by supporting local authors you too are supporting your local libraries. I look forward to seeing all of you, and feel free to have your garden questions ready not only will I be talking about the book but I'll be doing a mini-garden clinic. 

Portulaca grandiflora - Moss Rose

This Moss Rose is actually three plants from a 6-cell pack.

Portulaca oleracea - Purselane

To be fair this purselane is a single plant in a 1qt pot thus more foliage.

The portulaca group of plants are rather capable survivors of often tough environments and typically will prosper where many other plants with fail. Ironically because of this some of the uncultivated species are often unfairly labelled weeds when there are many other plants that more aptly deserve the title such as Japanese and Chinese Wisteria.  The first thing you should know about portulaca is the most common name, Purselane. Purselane is  an english corruption of the actual name; Porcelaine which originates in the French language. While I personally cannot say what the actual name means I would imagine it might be a reference to the often porcelain looking flowers that have their own unique sparkle. 
Portulaca Grandiflora or Moss Rose is a common annual in garden centers across the country and is a solid and prolific annual in most northern climates. It's seeds overwinter as far north as New Jersey and it might be a tender perennial further south then North Carolina. In the landscape Moss rose does what sedum does not as it is coated in blooms from early summer through a few frosts of early winter. What makes Moss rose so interesting is that it's blooms are disproportionately large, numerous and bright for such a restrained plant. It is not uncommon to see shades of pink, white, yellow, red, orange and, a variety of color blends all within a few inches. The foliage is often a glaucous green and is on par with Moss phlox and any of the needle-leaf type sedum.

Portulaca oleracea or Purselane in comparison is flat, sprawling and bears  succulent leaves that resemble those seen on most stonecrop-type sedum. The stems of purselane tend to be a rich shade of red which stands at odds with the green of the leaves. The real attraction are the disproportionately large blooms that are seen at the tips of stems.  Few garden center shoppers realize that this annual is actually edible and it's leaves bear the highest iron content of any leaf green you can get*. The foliage is somewhat bitter, but certainly no worse then broccoli rabe and typically can be used in small amounts to liven up salad along with arugula, radicchio and something like nasturtium leaves. Additionally the leaves  can be cooked like spinach with just  a a little garlic to make a unique pot of greens. Last on the list is the bloom; purselane has one heck of a display, recent cultivars can be found  in varying hues of yellow, orange, red, white, pink and bi color blends. The most recent varieties even have sharply contrasting pistil & stamen.

Now for those of you who aren't already making a run on the local garden cdenter where is one more reason why you should consider portulaca.  Moss rose is utterly indifferent to  the effects of drought or heat and is highly likely to return year after year from seed. Puselane is the ultimate hot & dry area potted plant.  Both Plants are negligence tolerant so if you think you have a black thumb, these forgiving annuals are for you! For everyone else, if you just have to keep that variety of Portulaca alive year after year you can! Both plants mentioned today can be maintained by way of cutting as houseplants for the winter. All you need is a 2-3 inch long cutting some decent potting soil and a plant to take cuttings from some time in August, September or October. You dont even need rooting hormone these little guys will root as long as their stem is in contact with soil for long enough. If that doesn't suit your fancy both plants produce copious amounts of seed and all you need to do is collect it from the seed capsules at the stem tips. Look for capsules that are fully formed and hold a small jar, vial or plastic baggie beneith the capsule, if it pops open when you rub the capsule with a finger the seed is ready. I do advise storing the seed with your container open for up to two weeks in a dry area so the seed can dry and there is less of a risk of mold.
 As a final note these other wild species of Purselane have been noted  as safe to eat as forage foods*: Portulaca neglecta and, Portulaca retusa.

*They are listed as such in 'Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants' by Tshomas S. Elias and Peter A. Dykeman.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Brothers In Arms

Welcome to LITFM, before we get into the plant stuff for this post I'd like to let you all know of two upcoming events:

Radio Interview: 107.7 FM  Jamz  Sunday, June 5th 2011,  11:00 AM

Public Appearance: CCP Meeting at the Bordeaux Library Saturday, June 18 2011, 2:00 PM
3711 Village Drive Fayetteville, NC 28304

The plants being discussed today are a pair I often refer to as 'Brothers in Arms' and no that's not Cacao and Marijuana, in fact it's a pair far more common and overlooked. Cotton and Okra have been a part of American agriculture for quite some time but their origins in agriculture go even further back. No two plants have been so deeply entwined in a social revolution, two wars and a slave trade that demolished a portion of the world population.  Both Cotton and Okra are in the Malvaceae family which is more commonly known as the Mallow or Hibiscus family. If there was any doubt of the fact one need only see the flowers of either and all doubts are cast aside.

Malvaceae Abelmoschus esculentus - Okra

It is surprisingly rare how few people know the actual originating country of Okra, as this is not a well circulated bit of information. Okra originates from Africa, the very name 'Okra' is a perversion of one of the original names for this agricultural favorite. Some of the original names for it are Ocro, Guiabo, Guimgombo, ngombo and, Nkru. Ngombo was found to be from the Bantu language southern Africa. The word Nkru in respect was found to come from the Ashanti Language of western Africa. The cultivation of okra was developed enough to have become a major staple of Egypt for centuries before it was spread to the far East and the European nations and finally the Americas.  In a medicinal light Okra is noted to have been used as a means of abortion by African slaves to prevent their children from being forced to live under slavery.

Malvaceae Gossypium hirsutum 'Nankeen' - Nankeen Cotton

Cotton in respects was a wide spread plant grown in several differing continents and climates but one the original varieties brought to the Americas Gossypium herbaceum is thought to have been originally cultivated in Ethiopia or southern Arabia.  Cotton was a major product of the southern American economy and became economically important with the mechanization of the industry and the rise and expansion of slave labor in the Americas.
The interesting thing about Cotton  is that during the American slave trade, slaves were prohibited from growing white cotton for themselves. Since white cotton was the major economic export  the slave owners plainly wanted to sell as much agricultural product as was possible.  The end result was that slaves were allowed to grow assorted colored varieties such as Nankeen, Mississippi brown and brown lint type cotton* this disparity in which cotton to grow became a symbol of the slave trade in America. When it comes to the harvesting of cotton few realize how much effort it takes. Typically the Cotton bolls are easy enough to identify, but the plants tended to bear them low. The actual pods from which the cotton fiber bursts often were hardened off sharp and dangerous to the unwary picker. If one were to add in the heat of the southern sun and the humid weather during harvest time harvesting cotton could be likened to a sampling of hell.  Finally it is important to note that on the medicinal front, some slaves were known to make a tonic of sorts from the root of G. herbaceum in the attempt to cause an abortion no doubt for the exact reason noted above in the information for Okra. The harvesting of Cotton may be one of the experiences that a lot of gardeners could use if only to get a feel for the weight of the history. When I say Okra and Cotton are brothers in arms they may as well be, they are related, and they have become opposite sides of a proverbial coin upon which an entire nation's future rested.

I must admit, the aforementioned is unusually dark by LITFM standards but American history is full of such things, even in the field of agriculture there are unpleasant things that get buried in the progress of the years. Now for those still wishing to grow Okra and Cotton here is how you grow each. Both Cotton and Okra are easy to grow, they require a well drained soil and can tolerate a variety of nutrient issues and soil structure problems. Okra is more tolerant of poor soil whereas Cotton is a heavy feeder and will require fertilizer in most cases.  The one thing neither will tolerate is being constantly wet, both get root or stem rot very rapidly if they are kept too wet. Both plants are transplant-sensitive and may appear to stop growing briefly when transplanted, the truth is both plants generally establish heavy networks of roots  and their top growth often lags behind.   Cotton is an attractive plant once mature as it forms a dense shrubby habit and it's mature leaves are glossy lobed and resemble giant Ivy leaves. The flower of cotton varies in color based on species but it is always quite pretty and large in typical mallow fashion. Okra is a strictly upright plant with a conical shape, depending on variety and climate it's height generally  tops off at about six feet. Okra typically has deeply lobed leaves and some heritage varieties come in hues of yellow, orange and red tones. Okra flowers are no less attractive then cotton flowers with the exception that they seem to only come in a cheery butter-yellow. The general time from flower to okra pod is usually about three days and okra pods ten to be ready for picking in less then a week after the flower fades.

*The Southern Exposure Catalog has a excellent variety of natural colored cotton.