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.